The Sixth Extinction

Elizabeth Kolbert was recently on The Daily Show promoting her new book The Sixth Extinction. And by recently, I mean months ago. I was intrigued by her interview (as Stewart has a way of making viewers feel about authors he invites on) and was pleasantly surprised that my friend Amanda had a copy for me to borrow. 

I've been reading it bit by bit all semester (let's not judge… thesisizing people, thesisizing) and have finally come to the end. I then stumbled on an article on The Nation about the book and found that a recent episode of Cosmos was on the same topic.

I'm not much of a history person unless it has to do with disasters (or social movements, but that's another story for another day). Well, luckily this book is about the biggest disasters of all -- catastrophes. Catastrophes, not in the emergency management sense but in the EXTINCTION sense (hence the title of the book...duh).

Following the logic that emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes are on a spectrum that, given a variety of factors (impacts, needs, situational context, who's involved, and how it's handled) I'd argue that you'd find extinction at the very end of the spectrum.

Here, I made a dramatic looking graphic:

There were a few mentions of regular 'ole disasters throughout the book. I found this one noting Darwin's reaction to an earthquake quite fascinating:

"Darwin spent several months exploring Chile. He was resting after a hike one afternoon near the town of Valdivia when the ground beneath him began to wobble, as if made of jelly. 'One second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection could never create', he wrote. Several days after the earthquake, arriving in Concepcion, Darwin found the entire city had been reduced to rubble. 'It is absolutely true, there is not one house left habitable,' he reported. The scene was the 'most awful yet interesting spectacle' he'd ever witnessed."  (pg. 52) 

But Kolbert also discussed the impact of humans on the planet as a whole. Although she was discussing these impacts in an extinction context I think there is some value in looking at these in a disaster context: 

"Among the many geologic-scale changes people have effected, Crutzen cited the following: 
- Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet. 
- Most of the world's major rivers have been dammed or diverted. 
- Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems. 
- Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans' coastal waters. 
- Humans use more than half of the world's readily accessible fresh water run off. 
Most significantly, Crutzen said, people have altered the composition of the atmosphere. Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by forty percent over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, has more than doubled." (pg. 108) 

You may notice that these things are all contributors or sources of hazards/ disasters/ catastrophes. Hmmm... interesting. The more and more I study disasterology the more and more I see that something taken by itself that seems insignificant, e.g., the extinction of a specific species of frogs, is part of a much larger, connected process. The implications of damming one section of a river can have major rippling effects when combined with other human activity.

I also found that this book inspired me to think about Emergency-Disaster-ology-agement [Y'all, this needs to get figured out for real] as an evolving discipline. As other disciplines are outlined in the book and the process that they went through when they were first developing calmed me down a bit about where we are at as a field right now.

I recently re-read my undergraduate college essay. It was chock full of fabulous SAT words and phrases like "silk nooses" to illustrate things like student loan debt, but mostly it was about global warming [I know, 'global warming', not 'climate change' - vintage].

Steve Jobs said something along the lines of, "one day you'll look around and you'll realize that everything around you was built by someone no smarter than you". This quote is true for anyone that identifies as someone who creates, innovates, or seeks answers, including those who are involved in creating a new discipline.

Though it is often viewed as being "dramatic" Kolbert's book reminded me of the reality of the world we're in. It does not matter that US politics, or world politics, or your average person hasn't caught up to or bought into climate change. It's happening anyway. As Kolbert worked her way through the history of the science that brought us to understand the different mass extinctions on earth she reminds the reader that there were those that didn't "believe" or understand what the science was telling them.

At one points she writes, "'Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world'" is how Kuhn put it." (pg. 96)

I suppose we're undergoing a paradigm shift -- climate change. The realities of the world around us are changing. The way we have been doing emergency management isn't sustainable moving forward given the realities of climate change, policy, and our vulnerabilities. 

If you're into totally realistic "end of the world" type books I'd recommend The Sixth Extinction. If you want to carry on and assume that humanity will last forever you best leave this one closed (and also, what are you doing reading my blog??).

Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt and Company.