Elizabeth Kolbert can be a very funny writer. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining tour through a half-billion years of the ups and precipitous downs of life on Earth (especially the downs) is Kolbert's uncanny ability to induce smiles, snorts, and outright laughter as one reads about mass extinction, including humanity's possible demise. It occurred to me at one point that if we do go the way of the ammonites and the mastodon, one of the human traits to disappear forever would be the capacity to crack wise in the face of oblivion.
It's a bitter brand of humor, though. "If extinction is a morbid topic," Kolbert writes at the outset, "mass extinction is, well, massively so." But as Kolbert shows, it's also fascinating, and she hopes readers will appreciate "the truly extraordinary moment in which we live."
Extraordinary because, as it turns out, a sudden mass die-off on a planet-wide scale — one in which a very large percentage, even the vast majority, of living species are wiped out in a geological instant — is an exceedingly rare thing. There appears to have been only five such big ones since life on this planet began, and what scientists believe is happening right now would be the sixth.
Kolbert, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, structures the book in two parts, first tracing how scientists beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries came to understand (and fiercely debate) the revolutionary idea of mass extinction events in Earth's deep past, then guiding us through today's efforts to understand the current one.
The first mass extinction, at the end of the Ordovician period (roughly 450 million years ago), is believed to have been caused by glaciation. The third and biggest, known as "the great dying," at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago, seems to have been caused by global warming and changing ocean chemistry, and as Kolbert writes, "came perilously close to emptying the earth out altogether." The fifth and most famous, which ended the Cretaceous period some 65 million years ago and doomed the dinosaurs as well as perhaps three-quarters of all living species, was brought on by an asteroid slamming into the Yucatan Peninsula.
Which brings us, well, to us. What's truly extraordinary about our extraordinary moment is that this time, unlike those other mass extinctions, the underlying cause is a single highly successful species — yours and mine. "Welcome to the Anthropocene," Kolbert titles one of her chapters, referring to the by-now-familiar concept that humanity has become a planet-altering force whose impact will leave an indelible mark on the geological record.
The signs are all over, if you know where to look, and Kolbert takes us along as she joins scientists in the field who are closely following the trail of our destruction — in tropical forests on the slopes of the Andes, in the Amazon, and among the threatened corals of the Great Barrier Reef, the disappearing amphibians of Central America, and the decimated bats of the Adirondacks and Vermont.
The drivers of extinction today are not only climate change, as huge a factor as it is: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the highest it's been in at least 800,000 years, and the rate of warming is 10 times faster than in previous interglacial periods, meaning far too fast for a great many species to migrate or adapt. But there's also explosive human population growth and our transformation of more than half the planet's habitable landscape, destroying and fragmenting habitats, and the unprecedented transport of invasive species and diseases between continents.
Most ominous is the rapid acidification of the oceans, global warming's "equally evil twin," as they absorb vast amounts of added carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The oceans are 30 percent more acidic than in 1800, and on our current trajectory will be 150 percent more so by the end of this century, enough to crash ecosystems and the base of the marine food chain. "Oh, ocean acidification," one scientist told Kolbert, "[t]hat's the big nasty one that's coming down."
None of which is very funny, and Kolbert knows it. She ends the book on a disturbing and tragically ironic note. Our capacity to change the world, she writes, "is also the capacity to destroy it" — and ourselves. And that capacity, she observes, "is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with."
Kolbert is a masterful, thought-provoking reporter. Her 2006 "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" is among the most important books on climate change, and she brings the same precision and intelligence to bear here. And yet there's something missing that nags at me, a reticence about what happens to human beings in the Anthropocene — and the kind of radical change required if we're to save ourselves.
"Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately," she writes. "But at the risk of sounding antihuman — some of my best friends are humans! — I will say that it is not, in the end, what's most worth attending to." Instead, she takes the ultra-long view. What really matters, she argues, is that the sixth extinction will determine the course of life on Earth for all time.
That perspective shift, reminiscent of a certain deep-green environmentalism, may not be antihuman, exactly, but its effect might well be inhumane. Because ecological destruction will cause — and is causing right now — incalculable human suffering. And I'm not ready to give up on another human capacity — for compassion, love of neighbor, solidarity. The urge to save each other may offer the only hope of limiting the damage we're inflicting on everything else. "Save all beings from suffering," an enlightened human taught a mere 2500 years ago. That includes us.
Wen Stephenson is a contributing writer for The Nation and a founding member of the grass-roots network 350 Massachusetts. Twitter: @wenstephenson.