We Are the First Species to Manage Its Own Extinction

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When the nuclear age dawned, people spoke of being “present at the creation.” Man suddenly had the ability to completely remake the world — or to destroy it.

Today, the environmental crises we face, driven by the pillars of climate change, altering our geography, population growth, technology, and short term thinking, are destroying the planet. 

Some of the destruction is underway already and it may be too late to reverse it. We may be entering what Elizabeth Kolbert calls The Sixth Extinction, which is also the title of her book.

Kolbert, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast and a Pulitzer Prize winner, explains that, for all the talk about climate change, it’s just the beginning of the problems we face. We are, she says, permanently altering the surface of the planet on a large geographical scale. 

We are combining and moving species around the world that have long been separated. We are creating barriers and roadblocks to the natural movement of species. We are making changes far too fast for most species to keep up with.

Kolbert further points out that we are putting carbon, not just into the air, but into the water, which acidifies our oceans and reefs. The changes that we leave behind are permanent, even as we watch it happen in real time.

Kolbert explains that the overriding common theme to all of this is the inevitable extinction of species. Even as we tell ourselves that technology will save us, or that, with 7.2 billion people on the planet, someone will have an answer.

She calmly reminds us that we are losing major parts of our ecosystem, that part of it may cease to function by the middle of the century. It seems, she says, that we are operating as if we have stone age brains coupled with god-like technology.

What it all means is that we may be the first species in the history of the planet to manage our own extinction, or, as the saying goes, we are either at the table, or we are on the menu. 

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Author: Jeff Schechtman

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