Five Frightening Facts from The Sixth Extinction

The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.

Five Frightening FactsA few nights ago, we were sitting on the deck watching the bats zoom around hunting for bugs. It was quite a little spectacle, only marred by my fear that we might not see them again next year. White nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has killed 98% of my state’s bat population. The fungus was accidentally “imported” to the United States only a few short years ago, but it has dramatically decimated the bat population all over the northeastern U.S. It is just one of the examples used in Elizabeth Kolbert’s sobering account of people’s impact on the environment. In geologic time, words like “recent” or “quick” often mean thousands of years. But when these words are applied to our future, “soon” really means “soon,” and that’s frightening. Need proof? Here are some examples:

  1. Ocean acidification, “global warming’s evil twin,” is caused by water’s increased intake of CO2 and has played a role in 2 of the last 5 mass extinctions. The ocean’s ideal pH level is 8.2. At pH 7.8, the ocean as an ecosystem will collapse. With people’s current CO2 emission levels, this level is expected to be reached by 2100.
  2. It is likely that reefs will be the first major ecosystem to become ecologically extinct. Reefs are extremely sensitive to both ocean temperature and saturation rate, which measures the amount of dissolved CO2 in the water. If current trends continue, by 2050, a visitor to the Great Barrier Reef might only find almost lifeless rubble banks.
  3. In Peru’s Manú National Park, one of the biodiversity “hot spots,” there are 1,035 tree species that we currently know of. Each one is highly specialized and grows only under very particular conditions. But migration rates of trees are already measurable—meaning some trees are dispersing their seeds to grow in areas that were inhospitable for them until not too long ago.
  4. During any given 24-hour period, it is estimated that 10,000 different species are being moved around the world by ships alone. By transporting species to parts of the world they are not native to, we are reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent—the opposite of what happened to the world’s flora and fauna because of continental drift. Today, nearly a third of all plant species in Massachusetts are “naturalized newcomers.” California is acquiring a new invasive species every 60 days. As an overall result, local diversity might have increased, but global diversity has dropped as less adaptive species die out.
  5. “We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared.” Lots of jumbo-sized animals, like the diprotodon, mastodon, moa, giant ground sloth, and mammoth, have become extinct shortly after coming in contact with homo sapiens. While there is no proof beyond doubt (yet) that mankind is responsible for their extinction, it is notable that it has happened in lots of places all over the world. And it is in the process of happening now; just look at the dwindling numbers of great apes, great cats, elephants, rhinos, etc.

If you’d like to read an excellent book about the havoc we, as a species, are wreaking on this planet, this is the book for you! Unlike at any other time in the history of Earth, a species might be responsible for its own demise. Frankly, at the risk of sounding anti-social, looking at the damage we’ve already done, it would serve us right.

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14 comments

  1. The frightening facts seem so bleak and depressing do they not? I’m not sure I could read all about it in the book without collapsing. I find humans can do a lot toward being better stewards of the earth and gaining some population control, but there’s other things that are out of our control in geologic time on the planet. There’s no going back perhaps.

  2. I’m not sure I agree with our species “deserving” the extinction we may be bringing upon ourselves. We are, I imagine, the only invasive species capable of feeling guilt for the damage we inflict upon the ecosystem, but does that make us more guilty than other species? We knew not what we were doing. And now that we have some small inkling of our damage, it’s too late for effective damage control. All we can do is struggle not to cause as much damage as we’ve been causing in the past.

    • That is a very interesting point, calling human beings an invasive species capable of guilt. I wonder if I felt differently about us deserving our doom if I didn’t feel guilty about the damage we’ve caused on Earth. I’m not sure. Objectively, I don’t feel guilty about the extinction of the Auk, for example. Those birds just sitting on a rock were so vulnerable that anything really could have caused their extinction. Likewise, I can rationalize the extinction of the mastodon or mammoth or any other giant animal like that. But there is plenty of damage we are causing because of our greed. We are the only species that takes more than it needs to survive. That is where I lay the blame. Against our onslaught, nature doesn’t really have a chance to right itself, does it? And sadly, I don’t see any great effort to fix the imbalance we are causing.

  3. Personally, I believe humans have already perpetrated enough irreparable damage to this planet that it is basically doomed. Not only children, but I have grandchildren. I just hope I am so very very wrong and their lives will be vivacious on a still living and functional planet that supports human life.

  4. Oh, I think the proof of number five is all around us if we only choose to see it. Maybe not with the ‘ancient’ mammals but undoubtedly in more recent centuries. It’s just that we’d rather not see it. Of course we’re responsible!

  5. Haha, it may serve us right. Thanks for pulling together some facts that really bring home the impact of this book! Interesting (if depressing) facts like these are one of my favorite parts of nonfiction and I don’t do a good enough job remembering them afterwards.

  6. I’ve been reading a couple of environmental books over the last few weeks. One – Resurrection Science – is looking at pretty much the same subject as this one, but with a slant on the ethics and dilemmas of different methods of conservation. Fascinating – one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. The other – Atmosphere of Hope – is about climate change looking at the most recent science, and I must say is giving a rosier picture than I’ve heard in decades. We’re by no means out of the woods, but we seem to maybe have found the path…

  7. It’s funny that the bat fungus stood out for you as a concrete example, because it really did for me too. Every summer, in August, we go camping for 2 weeks at the same campground, which is located in the centre of Nova Scotia. Two years ago, at one of the planned programs, the park guides pointed out the huge decrease in the park’s brown bat population. In just one year they went from everywhere to almost nowhere. I wondered at the time how it could happen so fast. Now I know. It’s sad, isn’t it?
    But, this book also had me wondering about how sad I should really be about all the extinctions. We are taught that it’s a bad thing, but the book suggests that it’s natural and has been happening for millions of years. Of course, in this case, the problem is that we are causing it, which does not seem as natural. But, maybe the planet is better off without us. That’s a depressing thought, though. I keep feeling thankful that I won’t be around when it gets really bad, but I worry about our kids…
    I could probably talk forever about all the stuff I read about in this book (which is why I’m having a hard time writing a post about it – maybe I should just refer everyone to this comment). I like the way you’ve zeroed in on the crux of the book – Us being the cause of the sixth extinction. It really is frightening. I was thinking you could use this as one of your RIP X books. 🙂

    • What I found the most frightening is that no one is really talking about the mess, even though the sh** will hit the fan soon. Our kids will have to deal with it! I’m ok with extinction in general, but it makes me so sad that people are messing up the world without even really thinking about all the beauty they are destroying. I think reading about the Frozen Ark was the worst for me. At that point, I had the same thought about the book counting for RIP X!

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