The Extinction We’ve Enabled

Brad Plumer interviews Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book on the coming mass extinction:

BP: One thing your book explores is that there’s no one factor causing modern-day extinctions. There’s hunting. There’s deforestation. There are changes in land use. There’s climate change and the acidification of the oceans. Which of these stands out as most significant?

EK: To me, what really stood out… And I always say, look, I’m not a scientist, I’m relying on what scientists tell me. And I think many scientists would say that what we’re doing to the chemistry of the oceans is the most significant. One-third of the carbon-dioxide that we pump into the air ends up in the oceans almost right away, and when CO2 dissolves in water, it forms an acid, that’s just an unfortunate fact.

The chemistry of the oceans tends to be very stable, and to overwhelm those forces is really hard. And we are managing to do it. When people try to reconstruct the history of the ocean, the best estimate is that what we’re doing to the oceans or have the potential to do is a magnitude of change that hasn’t been seen in 300 million years. And changes of ocean chemistry are associated with some of the worst crises in history.

Bill McKibben also has a fascinating conversation with Kolbert:

McKibben: The hallmark of evolutionary biology is adaptability. Is the main thing that’s different in this era the speed with which we are forcing things to adapt? Is that the single biggest new variable in this new system?

Kolbert: I once got this question from a person who said, “Well, if things start going extinct, won’t new things just evolve?” It was like extinction and evolution were a one-for-one trade. But the answer is that you can drive things extinct quickly, but it is very difficult to speed up evolution. If we were driving these changes at a pace that’s hundreds, even a million times slower, then yes, maybe most things would adapt to that, and we would get a very different world but not necessarily a humongous wave of extinctions. But otherwise you can do the math yourself.

In yet another interview, Kolbert discusses our denial of culpability:

Mother Jones: I was fascinated by your discussion of the “perception of incongruity,” and how humans create more and more elaborate explanations to account for contradictory evidence. Where does this turn up in the modern debate on extinction?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Even very smart people can try to shoehorn new information that just doesn’t fit into an existing paradigm. For a long time the story that we’ve been telling ourselves is that humans are just another animal. We evolved from other animals and our place in the universe isn’t particularly special. What I’m trying to convey in the book is that we are unusual. We turn out to be the one species altering the planet like this, and that puts people back in the position of being responsible for what happens. There’s a big resistance to the idea that we could be such a big deal. The Earth is big. There are huge natural forces that have worked over geological time. But it turns out, when you look carefully at the geological time, you can’t find anything like us.