Humans to Blame for the Sixth Mass Species Extinction

Millions of species are dying out in the current wave of species extinction. Elizabeth Kolbert’s compelling book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” explains why humans are at fault.

  • Sixth Extinction
    In "The Sixth Extinction," Elizabeth Kolbert explains why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before.
    Photo courtesy Henry Holt and Company
  • Sumatran Tiger
    The Sumatran tiger is one of many species endangered because of human activities.
    Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Joe Milmoe

  • Sixth Extinction
  • Sumatran Tiger

Like many a good mystery, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History depicts this crime through the unblinking eyes of an impartial observer. Characters and readers may have emotional reactions to the plot, but not our objective narrator. She is matter-of-fact.

Kolbert establishes the facts of her case at the outset: We are losing species at a rate thousands of times greater than at any previous point in human history. Those species are dying off for a variety of reasons, but nearly all the causes — spreading diseases, shifting ocean chemistry, habitat destruction — stem from human expansion and our rapid industrialization of the planet throughout the past 300 years.

The deaths are accelerating, along with humanity’s impact on habitats worldwide. So, we have a crime. We know the perpetrator. But we don’t yet have a confession.

Kolbert traces a thread of stubborn human denial. In the 18th century, most people couldn’t fathom that any creature that had once lived on Earth could have conclusively disappeared. Extinction was a difficult concept to grasp, partly because the idea implied that God’s creation may not have been as perfect as humans had originally believed. Worse yet, some species seemed to have been annihilated because of human hunting, meaning human beings may have permanently altered God’s creation. As researchers unearthed fossils and other evidence of long-extinct species, however, public opinion gradually came to accept the idea that species don’t necessarily last forever, and that humans can play a major role in their extinction.

In the 19th century, we had a hard time swallowing the revolutionary concept of evolution. Darwin asked us to believe that not only were the original creatures that populated the planet largely gone, but also that change is ever-present, and that creatures alive today — including human beings — continue to evolve under the influence of natural selection.

The recent theory that humans are to blame for the Sixth Extinction may be the most difficult of all for us to accept. The five previous major extinctions stemmed from a variety of origins, from volcanic explosions to the impact of huge asteroids. Today, however, the scientists who accompanied Kolbert to islands, mountaintops and rain forests around the world are recording a relatively slow global catastrophe, and the causes and effects can be hard to track. We know we’re altering our climate, and that acids from fossil fuels are changing ocean chemistry and wiping out thousands of species, but identifying and tracking chemical changes in mediums as big as the oceans takes painstaking research.

7/13/2016 3:21:27 AM

What do you think the ideal number of humans on Earth should be? What would you base your answer on? Thank you, Mr. Jan Hearthstone - ModelEarth.Org

8/12/2015 2:49:45 PM

I say its the scientists that are destroying the world not man. Chemical scientist invented all the poisons, Physicist scientists invented all the bombs, Engineering scientists invented all the machinery that aloud us to expand, Weather scientists invented all the sprays to control weather and destroy the entire eco system of the planet, Scientists in fact invented the very way we pull and use fossil fuel world wide..........I say lets get rid of the scientist and go back to natural living and we will all be fine!!!

4/22/2015 5:58:00 PM

Bryan, sometimes it seems like you are basing your articles on emotion instead of fact. If you keep doing this no one will believe anything you say, with good reason. Maybe you should leave science to the scientists.



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