Extinction: The Final Frontier


Extinction. The final frontier of humankind. That is the verdict  of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert’s credentials read more as a list of literary accomplishments, rather than a scientific career. She started as a stringer journalist for The New York Times in Germany, where she earned a Fulbright scholarship to Universitat Hamburg. Kolbert is now a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she currently commentates. She has authored several books on science.

Kolbert has also been awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York, University at Albany. She published Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.

According to Kolbert, we, as citizens of the world, are the force behind the sixth extinction, and because of our choices on an ecological level, may cause our own human age to pass away. Kolbert compares other species’ demise under both slow and immediate processes, such as asteroids, viruses, climate catastrophes and the consequences of pollution of the ecosphere.

Kolbert takes the reader on a futuristic tour of extinctions around the globe. For instance, she writes about ocean acidification, which threatens the calcifying creatures that form part of the marine ecosystem, and tracking species with researchers in the process of scientific investigation in the Andes, in response to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns brought on by the atmospheric effects of fossil fuel emissions.  Species that have already been harmed include insects and birds that pollinate and disperse seeds. Kolbert sees them as becoming disconnected from the origins of their evolution.

It would seem that human extinction is not very far off in the future in this final frontier. Kolbert lays this theory out in compelling fashion. Even past scientists and philosophers did not rule out our elimination at the end of the epoch. Darwin and Aristotle were concerned with survival of the fittest, not the entire race of men being eliminated by their own environmental policies. Darwin named evolution as a fundamental factor in shaping life. Natural selection pointed to a branching system of unique characteristics of animals made possible in part by the exiting of some older ones.

Kolbert writes: “…Standard geology holds that conditions of life change only very slowly, except when they don’t.” Some examples of when they do not is when meteors strike the earth, changing both topography and flora and fauna. The climate changes of the ice ages (or glacial ages) decimated dinosaurs and other large mammals. Then there are tectonic plate changes in the earth shifting, causing earthquakes and tremors.

Kolbert is concerned with the amount of carbon dioxide that we are putting into the atmosphere. When she was interviewed on CBS This Morning, Rush Limbaugh responded to her assertion with, “To no effect. To absolutely no effect!”  Of course, when reviewing Limbaugh’s educational background, he had two semesters at Southeast Missouri State University before leaving school. Limbaugh’s own mother was reported as saying, “He flunked everything.”

The vast amount of information available on climate change tells a story of degradation of the earth. Kolbert speculates that coral reefs might be the first entire ecosystem to go extinct in the modern era. Approximately one-third of all corals, one-third of all freshwater mollusks, one-third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed for extinction. 

Extinction: the final frontier. Until mankind can evaluate and reverse the ecological policies which have depressed life on earth, this may be where we are heading.

By Lisa M Pickering

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