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The origins of today’s mass extinction

That’s us in the title of Daniel Smith’s essay in Harper's on the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Kolbert begins coyly, with a kind of a fairy tale. “Maybe two hundred thousand years ago," a new species emerges on Earth. Compared with other species around at the time—mammoths, mastodons, armadillos the size of Smart cars, […]—the members of this new species aren’t very fast or very strong. But they’re shrewd, or reckless, or oth. “None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them,: she writes. They start out in a small section of eastern African. There’s water there, and plenty to eat. But are they satisfied?
China's last wild IndoChinese tiger shot, killed and eaten, 2009.

From the book:

They [the new species] cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; farther inland, they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much lie themselves, but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living on the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creature and then, by one means or another, kill them off.

From Daniel Smith:
And there you have it, on page two: consume, screw, kill. The Homo sapiens way. […]humans have blanketed the globe; slaughtered and/or eaten all the flashy megafauna; humped their numbers into the billions; chopped down the forests; spread disease; discovered coal and oil; and caused global warming.

What follows , often in great detail are the grisly specifics.

We see the headlines everyday now, blue whales beaching themselves on Canada’s east coast, frogs and other amphibians disappearing, bat caves filled with bat corpses, 100 Sumatran rhinos (living fossils) left, Monarch butterflies in danger of disappearing… And in each case, human behaviour has something to do with it.

What’s so different and alarming about the Sixth Extinction is the rate of change. Whereas other extinctions took place over hundreds or thousands of years, we are seeing great change in a matter of decades.

The oceans are a third more acidic than they were in 1800; by the end of this century they will likely be 150 percent more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution.


The extinction symbol with a circle representing the earth and the two triangles an hourglass is beginning to appear at rallies, in fields, as graffiti or tattoos. The twitter feed is not so much a call to action as a cri de coeur.

Daniel Smith thinks that we should recognize what we have done “and to feel, if not remorse, then at least a sense of sadness about the carnage at his feet.”

Elizabeth Kolbert Discusses New Book, 'The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History'
Q: Your book has a scary theme. What frightens you most about the issue?

A: I think what is most scary, as a parent of other human beings, is what will happen from the societal disruption that could potentially result from ecological disruption and climate change. But on a 'future of the world' kind of level, what I found most sobering and frightening is what is happening to the oceans. I think ocean acidification is a kind of under-appreciated problem. And we seem to be changing ocean chemistry very dramatically and very quickly.

How will climate change affect your internet connection, as high winds topple wifi towers and floods disturb underground cables. Climate change will not discriminate it will be net neutral.

Originally posted to Climate Change SOS on Wed May 07, 2014 at 06:17 AM PDT.

Also republished by Wildlife Endangered and Threatened.

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