Last Call

Robin Marantz Henig in BookForum:

Article00THE DINOSAURS WERE THE LEAST OF IT. They, together with other “charismatic megafauna,” went extinct during a massive global event at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago—but by then there had already been four other mass extinctions, dating as far back as the Ordovician period, 444 million years ago. And now, according to New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, we’re heading for another: a sixth extinction, which she characterizes as “the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, [when] we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”

…Today, because of the intensity of human activity, environmental changes are happening so quickly that there might not be time for corrective migrations or other adaptation strategies. Over the next century, a temperature swing of roughly the same magnitude as that of the ice ages is projected to occur—but at a speed that’s at least ten times faster than anything the earth has seen before. “To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly,” Kolbert writes. And there’s no evidence that plants and animals will be able to do that. Kolbert does put some faith in the prospect of giant rats being up to the task, but not much else. Short of a world populated by rats the size of elephants—and, in one particularly gruesome image, by human-size hairless rats “living in caves, shaping rocks as primitive tools and wearing the skins of other mammals that they have killed and eaten”—Kolbert doesn’t offer much to look forward to. In her final assessment of where we’re headed—a chapter called “The Thing with Feathers”—she quotes two scientists whose points of view might fairly be called ironic. Anthropologist Richard Leakey, she tells us, said that “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” And ecologist Paul Ehrlich put it even more bluntly. “In pushing other species to extinction,” he wrote, “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

More here.