The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History/Elizabeth Kolbert (thoughts)

Monday, July 14, 2014

In Alaska you see not just the glaciers, but where the glaciers so recently were—the stones scraped back as the ice retreated, the rocks barren and unsure.

You are told stories about the ravages left behind by ocean-scraping shrimping technology, about the muck of salmon farms, about the flowers that haven't bloomed yet, perhaps won't.

You see brilliant sunflower starfish, and you are told they are dying.

You see a sea lion choking on a fisherman's net, and you groan, and you are told, "Do you eat fish? If you do, you are partly responsible."

You see children loving the world as the boat glides by, and you want this world for those children.

You see your own face reflected up from the 38-degree sea. You, photographing the blues and purples, the otters and the whales, the mist. You, seeing.

You love this earth. You love it fiercely. And your heart is breaking.

Among the many brilliant writers who have been exhorting us to care more deeply for the world is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose work calls out to us from the pages of The New Yorker, and whose books, Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, are brutally honest and devastatingly clear.

Humans have marched themselves up to the precipice. We are standing on the cliff. We are still not doing what needs doing. Despite the fact that the glaciers are dying, the seas are rising, and nations are disappearing. Despite the fact that super storms blow in now with terrible regularity—proof of all the acid we've dropped into the sea, proof of the power of sea inches.

I don't mean to lecture. I'm not a scientist. I read. I urge you to read Elizabeth Kolbert. I give you this, the final paragraph, of The Sixth Extinction.

There are choices, still, to be made:

Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human—some of my best friends are humans!—I will say that it is not, in the end, what's most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.


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