Yesterday on a walk through frigid Central Park, I listened to a New Yorker podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert about how things are going on Planet Earth re extinction of species. The short answer: “Not so good.” We seem to be in the middle of the Sixth Extinction, which is also the title of her book.
Until recently, it was thought that Great Extinctions didn’t happen, that evolution was a slow methodical process, but it was proven by a Berkeley scientist, Walter Alvarez, that the Cretaceous era came to an end because of a meteor hitting the planet. We know this because meteors have lots of iridium and our planet does not. And there’s a layer of iridium in the fossil record right around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The podcast had a couple of ideas that shook the foundation of my thinking. I like it when that happens, even if I don’t like the message these revelations carry.
First, there’s nothing special about humanity. We’ve only been here about 200,000 years. Long enough to destroy everything, but in the grand scheme of things, when the destruction is finished, the planet will probably evolve new species, a different cast of characters, that do what we do, more or less. It may take tens or hundreds of millions of years to clean up after us. But this is not a problem for the planet. It has the time.
We may be insignificant, but what we are doing re destruction of the planet’s ecology is unprecedented. It’s never before happened here. We don’t know about other planets elsewhere in our galaxy or the universe. But we’re in the process of recreating climates that haven’t existed on earth for 50 million years. That’s something. Not something to be proud of, of course.
Second, the mundane things we do every day, the example she provided was driving to get groceries, are actually totally extraordinary. When we get in the car to run errands we’re burning the bodies of animals that lived millions of years ago. We’re moving the carbon from their bodies from deep below the earth, into the atmosphere and the oceans, transforming them. Destroying old habitats, and creating new ones. This is not something that “natural” processes do. You need a supposedly intelligent species to do this.
Her book is coming out next month. Asked if she was suggesting things we might do to solve the problem, in the book, she says she is deliberately not doing that. My guess is the reason for that is the next epiphany that hit me after digesting a bit of the podcast.
Third, there is nothing we can do. We might as well enjoy consuming the last resources of the planet, and perhaps should turn our attention to leaving an adequate record of our civilization for the next one to come along, millions of years from now, in the hope of helping them avoid the catastrophe that ended us.
BTW, in case you’re feeling guilty — don’t. This process was not caused by anything we consciously did. Certainly not anything you or I did. Just the existence of a species capable of doing such big things was probably enough to destroy life on the planet. You can listen to the podcast and let me know if you hear anything different. It seems this story is full of revelations about our reality.