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The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction is the first book that I wrote in the margins of. I never dog-ear pages, or bend the spine. But I could not resist writing ‘humans suck’ various times throughout these pages. 



I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction in my early teens, so perhaps that wasn’t the most eloquent summary, but having re-read this book many times since then, it still stands as accurate. Kolbert walks you through the vast history of our planet, pointing out key moments when life on Earth changed. I don’t mean when a dinosaur realised she would be happier with someone else, I mean when dinosaurs ceased to exist. End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, End-Permian, Late Triassic, and End-Cretaceous are the names of the 5 instances in which things fundamentally changed. So if this is the 6th go around, why are we panicking? It’s happened before! Evolution. Circle of life. We’ll make it even if other species don’t. 


The true terror of the situation is that this 6th extinction is happening way too fast. The last time an Ice Age ended, the planet took it’s time and warmed up 10 times slower than it is now (p162). That gave species a chance to migrate, adapt, strut down the catwalk and be selected by Darwin himself.



This time, we’re driving the change. And we’re going over the speed limit. It started with jumping to the top of the food chain with our tools and hunting megafauna (mammoths, Sabertooth tigers, giant marsupials) and is coming to a conclusion with pretty much everything else we could possibly do to the planet: warming from greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture, pollution, livestock, intercontinental travel with invasive species in our carryons. 



We’re not just using a loaded die, we’re gambling on others’ behalf. We don’t know if plants and animals will have time to adapt to the changes we're creating, or if their DNA still has the blueprint on how to cope with high temperatures like their ancestors did the last time the climate changed (it happened much slower, but it has been this hot before, p171). 



Even if we broke evolution, and 24% of all species went extinct (p167), and life got a bit more difficult for us - so what? The human race will survive, right? * Sure, maybe, probably. But that’s a bit selfish, no? 


Don’t we pride ourselves in not being ’savage animals’ and thinking of each other instead of our own hungry stomachs? Using tools and learning complex languages? It’s almost too late, but we should start behaving like a savage animals, namely treating the ecosystem like a bartering market of needs and gifts, not an auction. 

If you’re reading this though, your mind is probably not the one that needs changing. But if conversations trigger conversations trigger conversations, then maybe almost all of us will be almost okay.



*I consciously decided not to go into the ways climate change has already impacted so many people - that’s a whole other can of worms which I need a separate post to open and sort through. If you’re curious in the meantime, check out Jamie Margolin’s work with This is Zero Hour.

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