Hope and "The Sixth Extinction"

3:39 PM

Throughout this year, I have been following Mark Zuckerberg's reading list, but my reading also has been influenced by Bill Gates (or his 2014 list) and, more recently, President Obama. In addition to Ta-Nahesi Coates' Between the World and Me, I also decided to read Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History from President Obama's summer reading list.

One reads a book with the term "extinction" in its title at one's own peril. Kolbert's work multiples that peril. Arranged in thirteen chapters, each with its own species that has gone extinct, Kolbert weaves a tale of life's precarity in earth's history.
Photo credit: Barry Goldstein
Educated in in literature as an undergraduate at Yale and a Fulbright fellowship that took her to Germany, Kolbert has been a professional journalist and author. Not unlike Matt Ridley's Genome, Kolbert deftly mixes science and history with linguistic grace. Along with contemporary and historic, as well as prehistoric extinctions, she tells the history of science: Georges Cuvier, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Luis Walter Alverez, and Walter Alvarez, Kolbert also explains well the twists and turns of paradigm shift in the various streams of scientific reflection.

I must admit envy as well for the travel budget within this book. Kolbert's research took her from California, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey to Iceland, Scotland, France, Germany, Peru, and Brazil, as well as an island off of Italy and reefs off the coast of Australia.

Climate change, one of the biggest challenges we’ll face this century, is not our only environmental concern on the horizon. Natural scientists argue that there have been five extinction events in the Earth’s history, including the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, and Kolbert makes a compelling case that human activity is leading to the sixth.

I read the book shortly after a visit with Wes Jackson and a tour of the Land Institute. My reading also coincides in the days ahead of Pope Francis' visit to the U.S., who will surely speak of Laudato Si'. The Sixth Extinction, by title alone, provokes dread, but Kolbert concludes with a more hopeful tone. The dread is real:
If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap. (266)  
In other words, we need only look in the mirror to find the cause of our predicament. And yet, Kolbert recounts as well the extraordinary steps that we will go to save a species. I am reminded of our story about a wise old rabbi:

Once there lived a wise old rabbi. A few young boys from the village decided to play a joke on the wise old rabbi. They devised an idea to capture a bird and hide it in one of their hands. The boys would ask the old man if the bird was dead or alive. If the rabbi said the bird was alive, the boy would crush the bird in his hands, so that when he opened his hands the bird would be dead. But, If the rabbi said the bird was dead, the boy would open his hands and let the bird fly free. So no matter what the old man said, the boys would mock the old man. 

The following week, the rabbi came down from the mountain into the village. The boys quickly caught a bird and cupping it out of sight in of their hands, they approached the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, what is it that I have in my hands?” 

The rabbi said, “You have a bird, my son.” And he was right. 

The boys then asked, “Tell me: Is the bird alive or is it dead?” 

The rabbi looked at the boys and said, "It depends." 

The boys mocked him and said, "Depends on what?" 

 The rabbi replied, "It depends on you: whether the bird lives or dies depends on you; the bird is in your hands." 

Indeed, it is in our hands. Our choices have consequences. Whether we know it or not, whether their is a sixth extinction, or more precisely, the form that it will take, is in our hands. God-willing, may we make wise choices about the steps that we shall take.

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