Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Sixth Extinction": A Summary Review

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt & Co, 2014. Reviewed February 27, 2016.

Elizabeth Kolbert presents a rare blend of erudition, eloquence and down-to-earth observation and investigation. Her 'breakthrough' book was 2006's Field Notes From A Catastrophe, and The Sixth Extinction has only enhanced her reputation further. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and a professor at Williams College, and has won several awards and fellowships, mostly recent the 2015 Pulitzer for non-fiction.

Elizabeth Kolbert at a reading.  Phote by slow king, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Elizabeth Kolbert at a reading. Phote by slow king, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Elizabeth Kolbert's “Sixth Extinction” surely deserves the Pulitzer it won in 2015. It's a book that merits the term “hybrid vigor”--appropriately enough for a book so concerned with matters biological. Part science history, part personal reflection, part travelogue, its erudition never becomes dry, and its asides enliven and illumine.

That's a good thing. The book tackles a topic—the wave of biological extinctions characterizing our time—that is far from cheerful. Nor is Ms. Kolbert afraid to delve into scientific details that could easily excite tedium. But the author keeps us engaged with an artful interweaving of character sketches of scientists past and present, theoretical exposition, wry commentary, and first-person reporting from places as far-flung as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Peru's Manu National Forest, and suburban New Jersey. As you read, it all seems deceptively simple. You may forget that you are learning, but you won't forget what you are learning.

No summary can really do the book justice, but there is some merit to a synopsis, if only to demonstrate the scope of the work. So summarize we shall.

Chapters 1-4

Each of the thirteen chapters bears the name of a species, living or dead—an emblem for the topic at hand. The first four chapters form a unit, laying out much of the basis for what follows.

For Chapter One, the emblematic species is Panama's Golden Tree Frog, Atelopus zeteki—a species unexpectedly extinguished in the wild in just a few short years. The culprit turned out to be the chytrid fungus named Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or “Bd” for short. It's not clear whether the source was North American bullfrogs, which have been shipped widely as a food item, or African clawed frogs, used around the world, surprisingly, for pregnancy testing. Both species are commonly infested with bd, but do not become ill, making them perfect carriers of the fungus. But whichever the host species was, its dispersion was clearly tied to the emergence of the 'global economy' in the 1980s.

The Panamanian Golden Frog, Atelopus zelecki, at the National Zoo, 2011. Photo by sesamehoneytart, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Panamanian Golden Frog, Atelopus zelecki, at the National Zoo, 2011. Photo by sesamehoneytart, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And it wasn't only the Golden Frog. Numerous species, from Central America to Spain to Australia, fell victim to bd's unstoppable advance. In fact, the extinction rate for all amphibians—frogs and toads, newts and salamanders, and caecilians—has been estimated to have reached 45,000 times the normal 'background' rate. It's a strange development for a group of creatures that have “been around since before there were dinosaurs.”

But the Golden Frog isn't yet gone. It has friends and protectors, foremost among whom is Edgardo Griffith, director of the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, or EVACC. Here's Kolbert's description of him:

Griffith is tall and broad-shouldered, with a round face and a wide smile. He wears a silver ring in each ear and has a large tattoo of a toad's skeleton on his left shin. Griffith has devoted pretty much his entire adult life to the amphibians of El Valle, and he has turned his wife, an American who came to Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer, into a frog person, too.

Heidi & Edgardo Griffith.  Image courtesy EVCC.
Heidi & Edgardo Griffith. Image courtesy EVCC.

At EVACC, the frogs live and breed isolated from the world that once nurtured them: the only mountains are painted murals, and the streams the frogs must have issue from small hoses.

Nothing comes into the building that has not been thoroughly disinfected, including the frogs, which, in order to gain entry, must first be treated with a solution of bleach. Human visitors are required to wear special shoes and to leave behind any bags or knapsacks or equipment that they've used out in the field. All of the water that enters the tanks has been filtered and specially treated. The sealed-off nature of the place give it the feel of a submarine or, perhaps more aptly, and ark mid-deluge.

It proves to be a recurrent theme in The Sixth Extinction: humanly induced extinction risk held away by a fingernail-width, thanks to heroic efforts of small groups of humans.

Chapters Two and Three lay out the history of extinction as a concept. Most readers will probably have absorbed the idea as I did, playing with plastic dinosaur figurines whose fearsomeness was made more pleasurable by the knowledge that the real thing was safely relegated to a past millions of years distant. To us, extinction seemed intuitive enough—even obvious.

Yet the idea came late to humanity. The Biblical accounts envisioned the Creation of familiar and unchanging animals and plants. Ancient naturalists like Aristotle or Pliny recognized no creatures that had disappeared from the Earth—although the latter did recognize a few that were purely imaginary. Thomas Jefferson himself, the scientist-President, wrote flatly that “Such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.”

The most complete Mammut americium skeleton, the Burning Tree Mammoth, found 1989 in Heath, Ohio.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, manipulated by author.
The most complete Mammut americium skeleton, the Burning Tree Mammoth, found 1989 in Heath, Ohio. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, manipulated by author.

Ironically, Jefferson was already looking for an extinct creature. The mastodon—confusingly named Mammut americanum—had become a craze, due to the immense size of its bones, dragged from the swamps of Kentucky's Big Bone Lick and elsewhere. One of Lewis and Clark's tasks, on their epochal journey of exploration, was to keep an eye out for any mastodons that might have been wandering the unexplored West.

But by the time of Jefferson's Presidency newer ideas were arising. Georges Cuvier, a young French anatomist, had arrived in Paris in 1795, and by 1796 had demonstrated that Siberian mammoth bones and teeth were not the same as those of living elephants--and moreover that both elephants and mammoths were different from mastodons. Mammoths and mastodons, Cuvier proclaimed, were “lost species.” Soon he added to the list Megatherium, a giant sloth, and the “Maastricht animal,” a reptile we now know to have lived in Permian seas. If four lost species had once existed, must there not be remains of yet more, still to be unearthed?

Cuvier wrote:

All these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours. But what was this primitive earth? And what revolution was able to wipe it out?

By 1812, the list of known extinct creatures had reached forty-nine, and Cuvier was discerning a pattern: more recent layers of rock had more relatively familiar creatures, like the mastodon; deeper, older layers gave up strange beasts like the “Maastricht animal.” The conclusion was clear; there had been not just one 'lost world,' but successions of them. Earth was subject to occasional catastrophes, “revolutions” which destroyed enormous numbers of living creatures. This idea would become known as 'catastrophism,' and was destined to be highly influential.

As Chapter Three tells us, the term comes from an 1832 coinage by the Englishman William Whewell, who also coined a term for the opposing view: “uniformitarian.” There was really only one uniformitarian of scientific note on Whewell's horizon: a young geologist named Charles Lyell.

Charles Lyell.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Lyell. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Lyell's adage was “The present is key to the past,” and the essence of his perspective was that present processes had operated in the same manner throughout time, implying that those processes could account for all observed features of the landscape. He extended this idea to the living world, arguing that extinctions must be gradual, infrequent affairs; the appearance of catastrophe was an artifact of spotty data. Extinctions might not even be final; what arose naturally once, might arise again given the right environment, so that:

...the huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyle might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns... there is no foundation in geological facts for the popular theory of the successive development of the animal and vegetable world.

Lyell's view would become the dominant one, rendering the term 'catastrophist' faintly pejorative. But nowhere would his influence be greater than that he exerted indirectly, through the work of a single disciple—Charles Darwin. The father of the theory of natural selection first read Lyell at twenty-two, reading Principles of Geology “attentively” during his famous voyage aboard HMS Beagle.

HMS Beagle in Australia, from a watercolor by Owen Stanley.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
HMS Beagle in Australia, from a watercolor by Owen Stanley. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Later, as the older Darwin developed his theory, he gave credit to Lyell, and frequently criticized catastrophism. What he failed to notice was that his views held a subtle but deep-seated inconsistency. On the one hand, his Origin of the Species denied humanity any special status; wisdom evolved, just as tusks or flippers, in response to natural factors. Humanity was placed firmly as part of nature. Yet if extinction was a slow and gradual affair, as Darwin asserted, then what of extinctions witnessed during Darwin's lifetime?

The most notable was the eradication of the Great Auk. Incredibly numerous into the early modern era, populations of 'the original penguin' had been reduced inexorably by human predation, until in June of 1844 the last breeding pair was strangled in order that their carcasses could be sold to a wealthy collector of curiousities. This shameful episode did at least help to initiate wildlife conservation efforts, especially in Britain, and expecially on behalf of birds.

So, as Ms. Kolbert sums the matter up:

Either there had to be a separate category for human-caused extinction, in which case people really did deserve their “special status” as a creature outside of nature, or space in the natural order had to be made for cataclysm, in which case, Cuvier—distressingly--was right.

Ammonite fossils, from a 1717 illustration.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Ammonite fossils, from a 1717 illustration. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Catastrophism, however, would strike back, as we learn in Chapter 4, The Luck of the Ammonites. (Ammonites were a group of highly successful marine molluscs, one of which, Discoscaphites jerseyensis, serves as the totemic species for the chapter). Between the early 1970s and 1991, researchers Luis and Walter Alvarez uncovered evidence of a truly drastic catastrophe: the K-T extinction. Named after the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, it was the end of the dinosaurs, and innumerable other creatures, including the ammonites—quiet, obscure creatures of the sea, highly successful, then abruptly gone.

The Alvarezes published their idea that meteoritic impact had been responsible for the extinction in 1980 in a paper called, appropriately enough, Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. The Lyellian paradigm of the day ensured a spectacular reception: the idea was derided as 'an artifact of poor understanding', 'wrong', 'simplistic' and, colorfully, 'codswallop.' The researchers were accused of 'ignorance' and 'arrogance'. But by 1991, the now-famous Chicxlub impact crater had been located, and various lines of evidence for the Alvarez hypothesis had become pretty conclusive. Catastrophes, it seemed, could and did happen.

The fate of the ammonites illustrates an important point: what happens in a catastrophe has nothing to do with classic Darwinian fitness. The ammonites were highly successful—numerous, varied and dispersed. Clearly, they were well-adapted to their environment. As Ms. Kolbert asks, “How could a creature be adapted, either well or ill, for conditions it has never before encountered in its entire evolutionary history?” When conditions radically change, it is a matter of luck how a creature adapted to the old can endure. The luck of the ammonites was bad.

Graptolite fossils from Dobb's Linn.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Graptolite fossils from Dobb's Linn. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Chapters 5-7

Chapters 5-7 are all sea-haunted in some way.

Chapter 5 takes us to the Scottish Highlands, where a picturesque spot called Dob's Linn harbors fossilized graptolites—curious sea-creatures of the Odovician period, the traces of whose tiny bodies resemble some exotic script. It appears that they quite suddenly disppeared, roughly 444 million years ago, for reasons not entirely clear. Apparently carbon dioxide levels crashed, causing widespread glaciation, but several possible pathways to the near-extirpation of the graptolites exist. As graptolite expert Dr. Jan Zelasiewicz expressed it in a colorful metaphor, “You have a body in the library and a dozen butlers wandering around looking sheepish.”

It's not that researchers didn't search. The Ordovician was the first of the Big Five extinctions, and some thought that a unified theory of extinctions might be possible. But over time, it seems clear that extinctions may be triggered by many different events: global warming as in the end-Permian extinction, global cooling as in the end-Ordovician, or asteroid impact as in the end Cretaceous.

But regardless of cause, the consequences of the extinction remain: the survivors always determine the heritage of all subsequent descendants—and in ways that may not have a lot to do with Darwinian fitness. The new paradigm is called “neocatastrophism.” As Ms. Kolbert puts it, “conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don't.”

Paul Crutzen.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Crutzen. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But in today's world the most obvious agent of rapid change is humanity—sometimes abetted by intentional or unintentional commensal species, such as the rats that have always accompanied human sea-voyaging. The latter have been a sort of biological tide, turning much of the biota of numerous island habitats in around the world into “rat protein.” (They may have borne much of the responsibility for the deforestation of Easter Island, for example.)

Direct and indirect human effects inspired Dutch Nobelist Paul Crutzen to suggest that the Holocene epoch is over, supplanted by an epoch he terms the “Anthropocene.” In a paper in the journal Nature he noted that:

  • 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 polants 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 runoff.

And, of course, we have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40%.

The Keeling Curve (annual values).
The Keeling Curve (annual values). | Source

Dr. Zelasziewicz, intrigued by this research, asked his fellow members of the stratigraphy committee of the Geological Society of London what they thought of this term. Twenty-one of twenty-two thought the idea had merit, and consideration of the term proceeded. At present, a full vote by the International Commission on Stratigraphy on the official adoption of the term “Anthropocene” is expected sometime in 2016.

Dr. Justin Hall-Spencer.  Image courtesy Plymouth University.
Dr. Justin Hall-Spencer. Image courtesy Plymouth University. | Source

Chapter 6 looks at another human impact on the planet: ocean acidification. When carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere rise, some carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean. It is dissociated, forming carbonic acid. On current trends, by the end of the 21st century oceanic pH will have dropped from 8.2 to 7.8, which under the logarithmic scale used means that it will be 150% more acidic.

The Sixth Extinction examines this phenomenon mostly through the lens of the long-term observational study of the waters surrounding the Castello Aragonese, where a natural vent continually releases CO2. The study began in 2004, when Dr. Justin Spencer-Hall started surveying the biota and taking water samples, initially without any funding whatsoever. He and his Italian colleague, Dr. Maria Cristina Buia, have now been able to show that acidification has devastating biological consequences, wiping out all but a few of the hardiest species. It is unclear just how long CO2 has been bubbling into the sea there, but it is likely more than long enough that biological adaption would have occurred by now if it were possible.

Night view of the Castello Aragonese.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Night view of the Castello Aragonese. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Chapter 7 examines the plight of coral reefs in this context. The world's coral reefs are home to an incredible variety of creatures, and create the paradox of great biological richness in relatively nutrient-poor waters. But acidification, together with a whole list of other human impacts, is putting the world's coral at existential risk.

Biosphere 2 in 1998.  Photo by daderot, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Biosphere 2 in 1998. Photo by daderot, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

That risk first began to show up in the aftermath of the failure of the Biosphere 2 project. Biologist Chris Langdon, brought in to analyze the failure, found that corals were highly sensitive to what is called the 'saturation state,' a property related to acidity:

[There is a] more or less linear relationship between the growth rate of the corals and the saturation state of the water. Corals grew fastest at an aragonite saturation state of five, slower at four, and still slower at three. At a level of two, they basically quit building... Today, there's almost no place left on the planet... above four... By 2100, none will remain above three.

It's well to remember that:

...there are 'reef gaps' of millions of years following at least three of the five great extinctions.

Apparently we shouldn't take our coral for granted.

Bleached coral.
Bleached coral.

Chapters 8-10

Chapters 8-10 bring us back ashore, and teach some ecological basics.

The scene for Chapter 8 is a research plot high in the Peruvian Andes, in Manu National Park. There, Miles Silman and his collaborators and grad students have laid out a series of altitudinally-sorted forest plots. In each one every tree more than four inches in diameter has been painstakingly tagged and recorded. Since temperature is dependent upon altitude, the researchers can trace the upward migration of species as the climate warms.

But Ms. Kolbert doesn't take us straight to the Andes. We get there via the North Pole. Even in imagination, that might seem a gratuitous detour; but it serves vividly to illustrate the concept of the “Latitudinal Diversity Gradient”--a puzzling phenomenon first noted by scientific great Alexander von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt, painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Alexander von Humboldt, painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

At the Pole there are, naturally, no trees, just frozen ocean. Five hundred miles south lies Ellesmere Island, where grows the Arctic Willow, a woody shrub which, full grown, will reach your ankle. Another fifteen hundred miles or so brings you first to Baffin Island, where a few more dwarf willow species appear, and then to northern Quebec. Once there, a mere two hundred and fifty miles more brings you to the tree-line, where the great boreal forest begins. There you will find twenty or so species of trees. Slowly, diversity creeps up: by the time you reach Vermont, there are about fifty species of tree; North Carolina boasts more than two hundred. And Dr. Silman's plots, at about thirteen degrees north latitude, contain at least one thousand and thirty-five.

Ms. Kolbert tells us that there have been more than thirty theories proposed to explain this rule—for it applies not just to trees, but to most kinds of organisms. It turns out to be a consequential relationship, too, even if the exact reasons for its existence remain unsettled.

We also learn of another important relationship that holds across much of the field of biology. That is the “Species-Area Relationship.” It's usually formulated as an equation:


The “S” stands for “species”, of course, or more precisely the number of species found within the area “A”. “c” and “z” are coefficients that vary according to the characteristics of the particular environment being considered. Basically, as the area drops, the number of species drops, too—slowly at first, but becoming faster and faster.

It seems pretty simple, even banal. But in 2004, a group of researchers used the relationship to do a 'first cut' estimate of extinctions to be expected under future warming. It worked like this: they made a sample of one thousand species, of all sorts of creatures, and plotted the temperature characteristics of their ranges. Those ranges were then compared to those generated by simulations of future ranges, and estimates were made of possible adaptive migrations. The result was a new value for “A” in the equation. Taking mid-range values of warming and species dispersal, it turned out that 24% of all species would be at risk of extinction.

It was a blockbuster result, and created a lot of buzz—and hence a lot of criticism. Some subsequent studies concluded that Thomas et al. (2004), as the paper is known had over-estimated the risk, others just the opposite. But as Dr. Thomas says, the order of magnitude appears to be correct. That means that “...around 10 percent, and not 1 percent, or 0.01 percent” of species are at risk.

A biodiversity research 'fragment' plot from the air.
A biodiversity research 'fragment' plot from the air. | Source

Chapter 9 delves deeper into the ramifications of the SAR, as they manifest much farther east in the Amazon basin—Reserve 1202, north of Manaus, Brazil, part of the thirty-year experiment known as Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project. In it, 'islands' of undisturbed rainforest are left untouched among the cattle ranches now dominating the area. One of the long-term researchers there is Dr. Mario Crohn-Haft, a man capable of identifying any of the thirteen hundred-plus bird species of the Amazonian rainforest solely by its call.

The BDFFP is the flagship experiment in a field that has been dubbed “fragmentology.” As wildlife refuges—natural, or as in the case of Reserve 1202 and the other plots, man-made—first become isolated, biodiversity and abundance may rise, as creatures are concentrated in the remaining wildland. But then attrition sets in, in a process misleadingly termed 'relaxation'. Species disappear, year upon year and century upon century, gradually approaching supportable levels, in accordance with the SAR. The process may take thousands of years in some cases. But it's readily observable over the decades during which the BDFFP has been running: 1202 and the other reserves have become increasingly “depauperate”—biologically impoverished.

A soldier ant of the species Echiton burchelli.  Illustration by Nathalie Escure, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A soldier ant of the species Echiton burchelli. Illustration by Nathalie Escure, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Crohn-Haft thinks that the effect is exacerbated by the very biodiversity characterizing the region—a diversity that he sees as self-reinforcing. “A natural corollary to high species diversity is low population density, and that's a recipe for speciation—isolation by distance.” When habitat is fragmented, it's also a recipe for vulnerability.

While it endures, however, it creates biological marvels. As Crohn-Haft puts it, “These are megadiverse systems, where every single species is very, very specialized. And in these systems there is a huge [survival] premium on doing exactly what you do.”

An example is the ant-bird-butterfly procession seen in the Reserve (and elsewhere). The seemingly endless, ever-moving columns of the army ant Echiton burchelli are followed by birds whose sole feeding strategies involve following the ants in order to snap up the insects they flush out of hiding in the leaf litter. Then there's a set of butterflies who follow the birds to feed upon their droppings, and various parasitic flies who attack the insects, not to mention several sets of mites which infest the ants themselves. In all, more than three hundred species live in association with E. burchelli.

It's not unique; Ms. Kolbert calls it a 'figure' for the whole logic of the region's biology: exquisitely balanced, but highly dependent upon existing conditions. When they change, all bets come off.

Rhea americanum.  Photo by Fred Schwoll, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Rhea americanum. Photo by Fred Schwoll, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In Chapter 10 Ms. Kolbert goes home to New England, but finds it to be on its way to becoming part of what she calls the “New Pangaea.” The idea of Pangaea, new or old, is itself fairly new. Charles Darwin had considered the question of geographical distribution, noting that “the plains near the Straits of Magellan are inhabited by one species of rhea, and northwards the plains of La Plata by anotherr species of the same genus, and not by a true ostrich or emu, like those found in Africa and Australia.”

Later, paleontologists began to notice correspondences between certain regions, now widely separated, where similar fossils were to be found. The adventurous Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents must have drifted over time: “South America must have lain alongside Africa and formed a unified block... The two parts must then have become increasingly separated over a period of millions of years like pieces of a cracked ice floe in water.” Unsurprisingly, his theory was widely derided; but the discovery of plate tectonics would largely vindicate his ideas—including the idea of a unified supercontinent he termed Pangaea.

In our time, the biological effects of hundreds of thousands of years of geographic separation are being undone to an amazing degree. As Ms. Kolbert puts it:

One of the striking characteristics of the Anthropocene is the hash it's made of the principles of geographic distribution [of species]... global trade and global travel... deny even the remotest islands their remoteness. The process of remixing the world's flora and fauna... has, in recent decades, accelerated to the point where in some parts of the world, non-native species now outnumber native ones.

Pseudogymnoascus destructans culture in a Petri dish.  Photo by DB Rudabaugh, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Pseudogymnoascus destructans culture in a Petri dish. Photo by DB Rudabaugh, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This was illustrated, painfully, beginning with a disturbing event near Albany, New York, in the winter of 2007. Biologists doing a routine bat census of a cave there were horrified to find “dead bats everywhere.” Survivors “looked as if they had been dunked, nose first, in talcum powder.” At first, it could be hoped that this was a strange anomaly, something that would come and go. But the next winter saw the same horrible events happen at thirty-three different caves in four states. 2009 brought five more states into the mortality zone. As of this writing, twenty-four states and five Canadian provinces are affected—basically everything east of the Mississippi between central Ontario and Quebec south to the mountains in the northern portions of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

The culprit was a European fungus, accidentally imported sometime in 2006. Initially it had no name; because of its devastating effects on North American bats, it was dubbed Geomyces destructans. (Later examination would result in its genus being reassigned, which made it Pseudogymnoascus destructans--harder to pronounce, perhaps, but unfortunately no less deadly than before.)

By 2012, bat fatalities had risen to an estimated 5.7 to 6.7 million. Some populations were reduced by 90% within the first five years, and total extinction was predicted for at least one species. Census efforts continue today, and the indirect effects are also a subject of continuing research; in 2008 the National Forest Service projected that 1.1 million kilograms of insects would survive uneaten as a result of bat mortality, with possible economic impacts to agriculture.

Disease processes in 'white-nose syndrome.'
Disease processes in 'white-nose syndrome.' | Source

When an invasive species is introduced to a new environment, Ms. Kolbert proposes, the situation can be compared with a multistage version of Russian Roulette. In most cases, the foreign organism die out quite unheeded, since it is not well-adapted to the new environment. That outcome is analogous to an empty chamber in the revolver. But in a few cases, the organism survives to reproduce; after a couple of generations, the species is said to be 'established.'

Much of the time, nothing much happens; the new species is just a new 'face in the crowd.' But in some cases the new environment is not just benign; it's a bonanza. This may happen because a species' specific predators have not made the trip—a phenomenon called “enemy release.” But whatever the reason, of every one hundred invasive species, five to fifteen will become established, and one—the 'bullet in the chamber'—will reach the stage called simply “spread.”

It's usually a geometric process: the Japanese beetle, for instance, showed up in small numbers in New Jersey in 1916. The next year, three square miles were infested, then seven, then forty-eight. Today it can be found from Montana to Alabama.

The invasive purple loosestrife dominates Cooper Marsh Conservation Area, near Cornwall, Ontario, having displaced native species.  Photo by Silver Blaze, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The invasive purple loosestrife dominates Cooper Marsh Conservation Area, near Cornwall, Ontario, having displaced native species. Photo by Silver Blaze, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

North America has certainly had its share of invasives, from chestnut blight and purple loosestrife to the emerald ash borer and the zebra mussel. But the problem is world wide, as the proliferation of invasive species databases attests. There's the European DAISIE, tracking more than 12,000 species; the Asian-Pacific APASD, FISNA for Africa, not to mention IBIS and NEMESIS.

The seminal work on the topic came out in 1958, when British biologist Charles Elton published his The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. He realized—counterintuitively, perhaps, given the species area relationship, but the math does work—that “the eventual state of the biological world will become not more complex, but simpler—and poorer.”

Chapters 11-13

Chapters 11-13 turn to humanity and its responses to the crisis underway—to conservation biology, anthropology, and sociology.

Conservation biology comes first, in The Rhino Gets An Ultrasound. The chapter begins by considering the case of the Sumatran rhinoceros, a species considered an agricultural pest in the nineteenth century, but now on the brink of vanishing forever. We meet one of the survivors, a rhino named Suci who lives at the Cincinnati zoo, where she was born in 2004. She's one of less than 100, and she's part of a captive breeding program that is trying to save the species. It's a complex and challenging task, and the program lost more rhinos in the early days than it has since been able to breed up. But there's no alternative.

Harapan, Suci's brother, and Emi, her mother, in 2007.  Photo by alanb, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Harapan, Suci's brother, and Emi, her mother, in 2007. Photo by alanb, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Sumatran Rhino is not unique in this, however: all rhino species are in trouble, and all but one are endangered. But rhinos are not unique in this, either; most large 'charismatic' mammals such as big cats, bears and elephants are in serious decline.

Moreover, those species are just the surviving remnants of a global collection still more remarkable—from the mastodons and mammoths, to Australia's 'diprotodons' and New Zealand's various species of giant moas, and the eight-foot eagles that preyed upon them.

It's more than possible that all are victims of human predation. The timing of specific losses coincides suspiciously with that of human arrivals (as best as they can be determined for each locale). Other possible causes have in some cases been eliminated, too.

Further, numerical modeling experiments for both North America and Australia show that “even a very small initial population of humans... could, over the course of a millennium or two... account for pretty much all of the extinction in the record... even when the people were assumed to be only fair-to-middling hunters.” The key to this result is that, as biologist John Alroy said, “A very large mammal is living on the edge with respect to its reproductive rate.” Thus, even small additional loss rates can be decisive.

Interestingly, “For the people involved in it, the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible”--even though lightning-fast in geological terms.

Creekside, in Germany's Neandertal Valley.  Photo by Cordula, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Creekside, in Germany's Neandertal Valley. Photo by Cordula, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. | Source

Chapter 12 turns to anthropology, with a visit to Germany's Neandertal valley, and a review of the story of humanity's most famous cousins. Here, too, the record suggests that humans crowded out the competition, though how aggressively or intentionally remains unclear:

Perhaps the Neanderthals were actively pursued, or perhaps they were just outcompeted. Either way, their decline fits the familiar pattern, with one important (and unsettling) difference. Before humans finally did in the Neanderthals, they had sex with them. As a result of this interaction, most people alive today are slightly—up to four percent—Neanderthal.

Perhaps it's fitting in a way—from the beginning, views of the Neanderthals have been bound up with our views of ourselves. Initially, there was denial that the strange bones that had turned up were anything but human; and fanciful theories were invented to explain away the strange features of the unknown bones. Bowed legs? Due, perhaps, to a Cossack, legs bowed from a lifetime on horseback, escaping from a German battle of the Napoleonic wars.

Later, Neanderthals were caricatured as ape-men, the better to display human refinement; pictured as 'normal guys' the better to display human tolerance (or perhaps auctorial sang-froid); and idealized as proto-flower children, the better to support the countercultural narrative of the 1960s.

So what can we say with reasonable certainty about the Neanderthals, given the state of today's knowledge?

Neanderthal exhibit, Germany.
Neanderthal exhibit, Germany.

Neanderthals were extremely tough—this is attested by the thickness of their bones—and were probably capable of beating modern humans to a pulp. They were adept at making stone tools, though they seem to have spent tens of thousands of years making the same tools over and over again. At least on some occasions, they buried their dead. Also on some occasions, they appear to have killed and eaten each other... many Neanderthal skeletons show signs of disease or disfigurement... [but several specimens] recovered from their injuries, which means that Neanderthals must have watched out for one another, which, in turn, implies a capacity for empathy.

They may also have lacked art. To be sure, some of their tools may strike modern humans as beautiful; but that does not show that they thought of them as anything more than useful. No unambiguously Neanderthal artifacts are also purely esthetic in purpose.

Ms. Kolbert draws a telling parallel, visiting a Neanderthal site in France, La Ferrasie. There are stone tools and the bones of prey animals, and the remains of Neanderthals and the humans who displaced them. Half and hour's drive away lies the Grotte des Combarelles, a human site.

Deep inside the narrow, cramped cave lie breathtaking paintings of mammoths, aurochs, woolly rhinos, as well as surviving species such as wild horses and reindeer. What would it have been like to crawl a couple of hundred meters back into the darkness, carrying a torch for light, and a full palette of pigments and binding substances, to make those magical images?

Nowadays we know that it was not only the Neanderthals with whom we once shared the Earth. In 2004 the so-called “hobbits” came to light—a diminutive humanoid species named Homo floriensis, after the Indonesian island where their remains were found. Then, in 2010, DNA analysis of a single finger bone from Siberia turned up a new and unsuspected species, dubbed the Denisovans. Like the Neanderthals, some of their DNA survives in human populations today—up to six percent, in contemporary New Guineans, rather surprisingly, though not in Siberians, or Asians generally for that matter.

Young bonobos at a sanctuary, 2002.  Photo by Vanessa Wood, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Young bonobos at a sanctuary, 2002. Photo by Vanessa Wood, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Though our 'sibling species' are gone, our first cousins survive: chimps, gorillas and orangutans. Their abilities throw an interesting light on ours, Ms. Kolbert proposes. They have been compared with human children, not always to the advantage of the latter:

When researchers from Leipzig performed a battery of tests on chimps, orangutans and two-and-a-half-year-old children... [they] performed comparably on wide range of tasks that involved understanding of the physical world. For example, if a researcher placed a reward in one of three cups, then moved the cups around, the apes found the goody just as often as the kids—indeed, in the case of chimps, more often. The apes seemed to grasp quantity as well as the kids did—they consistently chose the dish containing more treats, even when the choice involved using what might loosely be called math—and also seemed to have just as good a grasp of causality.... And they were equally skillful at manipulating simple tools.

Where the kids routinely outscored the apes was in tasks that involved reading social cues. When the children were given a hint about where to find a reward... they took it. The apes either didn't understand that they were being offered help, or couldn't follow the cue. Similarly, when the children were shown how to obtain a reward... they had no trouble grasping the point and imitating the behavior. The apes, once again, were flummoxed... in general, apes seem to lack the impulse toward collective problem-solving that's so central to human society.

On one hand, collective problem-solving, on the other, art, restlessness—even, perhaps, a kind of madness. Ms. Kolbert quotes Svante Pääbo, head of the team that analyzed the Denisovan finger bone:

[Homo erectus] spread like many other mammals in the Old World. They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did the Neanderthals. It's only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don't see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it's ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.

Whatever the Faustian combination of human traits may be, it has not played out well for our kindred species:

Having cut down our sister species—the Neanderthals and the Denisovans—many generations ago, we're now working on our cousins. By the time we are done, it's quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us.

Apparently it is as in the old television show, The Highlander: “There can only be one.”

Reconstruction of the wanderings of Denisovian humans.  Map by John D. Croft, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Reconstruction of the wanderings of Denisovian humans. Map by John D. Croft, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The End

Chapter 13 is the conclusion, and inevitably, perhaps, its dedicatee species is Homo sapiens--us. It's less than satisfying, but perhaps that is more an artistic choice than a failure of artistry. Ms. Kolbert resists facile conclusions: humanity's nature and impact on the world are multifaceted. As yet, there are chapters still to be written by our collective decision-making: will we rein in our growth, our carbon emissions, our toxic pollution? Will we maintain and enhance our efforts to preserve the environment around us, or will our efforts fail over time in the face of climate change, ocean acidification and other environmental impacts which affect our own interests? No one knows—yet.

Ms. Kolbert does not discount human efforts to preserve our biological patrimony, taking us first to the Institute for Conservation Research, where she shows us the cryogenically preserved cells that are all now remaining of the po'ouli, or black-faced honeycreeper, which became extinct in 2004. The “Frozen Zoo” there contains cell cultures of more than a thousand species. Most still exist in the wild, but the proportion is likely to decrease in the future. Similar facilities exist elsewhere, for example Cincinnati's “CryoBioBank,” or Nottingham's “Frozen Ark.”

The po'ouli, or black-faced honeycreeper--Melamprosops phaeosoma.  Photo by Paul E. Baker, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The po'ouli, or black-faced honeycreeper--Melamprosops phaeosoma. Photo by Paul E. Baker, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nor are efforts to protect and preserve other species limited to recent times and high technology:

Time and time again people have demonstrated that... they're willing to make sacrifices on [other] creatures' behalf. Alfred Newton described the slaughter that was occurring along the British coast; the result was the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds. John Muir wrote about the damage being done in the mountains of California, and this led to the creation of Yosemite National Park. Silent Spring exposed the dangers posed by synthetic pesticides, and within a decade, most uses of DDT had been prohibited.

The Endangered Species Act followed just a couple of years later, in 1974. Listed species rescued include the California Condor, of which once only 22 individuals existed; now there are around 400. To achieve this, humans have raised condor chicks using puppets, trained condors to avoid power lines and trash using behavior conditioning, vaccinated the entire population against West Nile virus (notably, no human vaccine yet exists!), and monitor and treat (repeatedly if necessary) condors for lead poisoning resulting from the ingestion of lead shot. Even more heroic have been the efforts on behalf of the whooping crane:

Each year, a team of pilots flying ultralight aircraft teaches a new cohort of captive-raised crane chicks how to migrate south for the winter, from Wisconsin to Florida. The journey of nearly thirteen hundred miles can take up to three months with dozens of stops on private land that owners give over to the birds.

Sometimes rescue efforts can yield tragicomedy. Take the case of the Hawaiian crow, extinct in the wild since 2002. About a hundred individuals exist in captivity, and strenuous efforts are being made to increases the population—though the question raised by the refuge built for the Golden Frog, that is, “Where can the saved species possibly live in the future?”--must surely vex many minds.

So valuable to the limited gene pool is the DNA of each individual that Kinohi, an aberrant male who will not breed with his own species, receives, each breeding season, the attentions of a biologist who attempts to harvest his sperm in hopes of using it to artificially inseminate a female Hawaiian crow. As Ms. Kolbert observes:

Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we're willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows.

Hawaiian crow.  Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wlidlife Service, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Hawaiian crow. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wlidlife Service, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Yet this remarkable commitment, more widely shared perhaps than most of us are aware, does not tell the whole story.

When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the cause drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn't much matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world.

...As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world... If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an axe, or better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.

Of course, this danger is not only limited to 'other species.' Richard Leakey warned that “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” After all, we may have “freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution” in some ways, but we are nevertheless still “dependent upon the Earth's biological and geochemical systems”--or as Paul Ehrlich put it, pithily, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

Yet Ms. Kolbert suggests that even the understandably concerning possibility of self-induced extinction is not “what's most worth attending to.” For the paleontological records suggests that humans will not exist forever, regardless of our choices in the current historical moment. But even after we ourselves cease to exist, our influence will continue, in the form of the biology that survives the winnowing we impose:

Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the Earth.

I would be inclined to quibble with the idea that 'no other creature has ever managed this'--for there is some reason to believe that the blue-green algae did just that. Around 2.5 billion years ago their unfettered oxygen emissions caused an atmospheric change dubbed the 'Great Oxygenation Event.'

This seems to have led to a mass extinction. If so, it would be the first of which we have evidence. It would also be long before the first of the canonical Big Five extinctions, the Ordovician extinction of about 450 million years ago. Call it the zeroth extinction, and read the story as I told it in the Hub Puny Humans. (See sidebar link.)

Yet there is an important difference between the two cases. For the cyanobacteria, there was no alternative: their metabolic processes produced free oxygen, just as a cow's produces methane today. For the cyanobacteria, as for us or our commensals, it's breathe or die—obviously.

Anabaena azollae, under the microscope.  Photo by atriplex82, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Anabaena azollae, under the microscope. Photo by atriplex82, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Not so human behaviors. Their management may be maddeningly refractory, and our choices may be too often perverse and self-defeating, but choose we do. We chose to save British sea birds, the American bison and, later, snail darters, bald eagles, California condors and whooping cranes. We continue to try to save Hawaiian crows and Sumatran rhinos. We even try to save ourselves.

Our choices continue. We can choose to implement the Paris Climate Agreement, which would limit warming from greenhouse gases, and slow the acidification of the ocean. Or we can choose to let it slide, distracted, perhaps, by the politics of insecurity and division. We can also choose, if we deem fit, to ratchet up our efforts, as the agreement provides for, in order to close the 'ambition gap' between what we have committed to do, and what we need to do in order to achieve our real aims.

Our choices continue, and will continue. Ms. Kolbert reveals to us that those choices will not only shape our future, but they will shape the entire future of terrestrial life. “Puny humans,” indeed.

The wreck of the Cabo de Santa Maria. Photo by Simo Räsänen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The wreck of the Cabo de Santa Maria. Photo by Simo Räsänen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Comments 34 comments

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 8 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks for checking out "The Sixth Extinction." Hope you got some value from the exercise… but let me know what you think!

P. Orin Zack 7 months ago

Hi Doc. I apologize for not having check back sooner. (Life sidetracked me for a while.) Thanks for the review. Mention of several instances during my own lifetime when accepted scientific understanding was overthrown reminded me of just how many times this has happened in so short a time. (And that's not including the revelation that there were warm-blooded dinosaurs, some of which were the predecessors of today's birds.)

The discussion also pointed out to me the mischief caused when people refer to the 'balance of nature': that formulation suggests that what we know of nature and her ecosystems are, or recently were, in a static state of balance. It's always been in flux, after all. The game, Sim Earth, offered a more dynamic understanding of the interactions, making it clear how a change to some aspect of the climate or to a population affects the other plants and animals that share the planet.

But the thing that probably eludes most people is that, just as some people in the social network are more influential than others, some players in an ecosystem have an outsize effect on the dynamic balance. A healthy network of any kind has a multitude of nodes, because each of them also provides a part of the environment that the others need to survive. The simplistic solution offered by politicians to complex system problems are just as unlikely to result in satisfactory results as are band-aid solutions to what we have done to the world.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Orin, great to hear from you--anytime. (And I know what you mean about life sidetracking one; that's why this very Hub didn't come out months earlier.)

Your comments are insightful, as usual. The false concept of balance that you describe is certainly pretty visible in climate change denial. How many times have I been assured, with all possible seriousness. that 'climate has always changed,' as if it's new information? Lurking behind that supposed 'gotcha', I think, is the notion that 'climate alarmism' is dependent on the illusion of an ideal Romanticized nature--environmentalist Eden, perhaps.

But urging attention to the metaphorical placement of our feet and the positioning of our center of gravity does not imply belief in a pre-existing stasis in which one couldn't fall. (Heh!) Rather the reverse, in fact.

I think climate denialism tends to suffer from a parallel challenge to one in my psychological makeup--an ongoing struggle to deal realistically and effectively with time. I've a tendency to carry around all sorts of future visions of what I'll do, which are however largely disconnected from present actions. In fact, they can function to distract from those actions--not entirely coincidentally, either, since in this situation those future 'golden dreams' are in a sense protected. Nothing will kill a glorious dream like trying to make it come true and failing…

Similarly, denialist thought (if that is quite the right word) swoops from grand, complacent, Darwinist visions of the adaptation of Polar bears to 'inevitable change' in the Arctic, and even of humans globally to 'whatever challenge' we face, to focus on a few short years of the temperature record which are said to 'prove' that warming isn't really happening.

Ignored is the fact that extinction is an essentially part of the Darwinian paradigm; that the 'medium run' in this context is on a comparable time scale to the existence of humanity; and that we might not like the result in said 'medium run.'

Ignored, too, of course, is our own 'outsize influence on the dynamic balance.' We're just innocent bystanders!

P. Orin Zack 7 months ago

Have you read Dr. James Hansen's blog entry at HuffPo? I'm happy to see some exposure for this sort of information, but he wrote about the overturning currents slowing down without mentioning the Gulf Stream by name. People recognize that, while the overturning currents are a reference to something that appears to be vague, and so they would not connect that to what they have heard about the Gulf Stream. You have to connect with the readers on their terms in order to have your point understood and maybe even acted upon.

What are the effects of this current slowing down? He ties it to superstorm Sandy, but there are other effects that are a normal part of life. It's easier to ignore warnings about how storms will be more dangerous than about how coastal flooding is becoming a normal state of things. The effect on beachfront property, vacation homes, seaside resorts, major shipping ports, population centers on the coast --- things like these have meaning to people.

But you have to put your hook in a bit deeper than that, and start talking about what has to be done as a result. People have expected the government will sweep in to 'fix' the tidal erosion and replace the beaches, and even to compensate them for damage to their homes. Many places will have to be simply abandoned as livable areas. We can show what that would look like, even now, at places like Miami Beach.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

I didn't see that particular article, but Dr. Hansen has also done a video summary of it, which I saw on "Open Mind," which is a great site for climate change-related statistical analysis.

The discussion is good, too.

It's sobering, to say the least, isn't it?

Yes, the 'what's to be done' part is crucial. That's where the rubber meets the road. I've often seen comments to the effect that 'whether you believe in climate change or not, it's bad to pollute', which is true enough as far as it goes. But if the mainstream science around climate change were somehow wrong, then CO2 would be a much less dangerous pollutant. (It would still be a pollutant, though, as the problem of ocean acidification would remain.)

But we wouldn't be worrying about sea level rise, increasing drought, extreme precipitation, killer heat waves, and superstorms.

Remedies depend on diagnoses. If the climate change component isn't recognized, then beach nourishment might seem like a sufficient response.

P. Orin Zack 7 months ago

I just watched the video. He's speaking to knowledgeable people; others will glaze over. What's missing is a description of what this will look like, and how it will affect the world we live in. If we can put people into that future for a few minutes, they can connect on emotional level with the danger. He speaks about coastal cities being lost -- name some of them. He speaks of the currents stopping -- how are living conditions in specific places dependent on those currents? What will happen when those conditions change? The source material you spoke about in the series of posts about the effects of temperature rise of different amounts at least spoke to these things.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

You are right--and writerly. "Cli-fi" fiction would address that beautifully.

Wish I had a gift for plot & character...

P. Orin Zack 7 months ago

Was that a suggestion that I take a whack at it from the fictional side of things?

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Not explicitly, but I'd sure like to read it if you did!

P. Orin Zack 7 months ago

I suppose we'd have to start with the 7-part series I wrote in 2013-2014 which starts with the destruction of the sea wall outside the San Francisco Bay, flooding Oakland and quite a ways inland. It takes place at the end of the century, when sea level has risen a few meters, and includes action inland from the bay, in Louisiana, and under what's left of the ice in Greenland. The first story is called 'Bait', and the url is

If I start another series, I'll have to doodle around for a while decide where it takes place.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Hey, that was fun! The story is bigger than the narrative, and the villainy is rather 'dyed in the wool,' but it kept me reading.

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

I've been mulling over what sort of a story I could write. If there is no antagonist, then it could be a tale of survival in a changed world, but that feels like it would just end up being a variation on post-apocalyptic horror show, like the movie remake, 'I am Legend'. If in that world, there's a struggle against someone who has taken advantage of the situation to accrete power, then it's a kind of Mad Max variation. So I'm unsure which way to take the idea. Any suggestions?

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Well, one model is the ambiguous protagonist--someone whose actions are sometimes less than righteous--ruthless, perhaps, or of some sort of mixed motivation--but who nevertheless achieves some sort of community good. Are they a hero or a villain? Or both?

(That describes nearly every character on the show "Scandal", which we've been watching lately in this household. There are no innocents in that world! But the actions that are wrong are always highly motivated from the perspective of the character taking them, so we tolerate them more than we otherwise would--even if we don't exactly excuse them.)

Well, random thoughts. But do they strike a spark?

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

The ambiguous protagonist has possibilities, but I'd have to get inside the person's head first to know more. So, we'll see what percolates...

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Keep us posted!

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

I'm not sure if this really counts as an ambiguous protagonist.

One way to handle this is for the story arc to focus on an effort to accomplish something that appears beneficial in the context of our changing or changed climate, but which has detractors whose claims don't seem to make any sense. This is because there's a fundamental idea or framing missing from the perspective of those working on this project.

The turning point happens when a character makes that connection, and the reader experiences a reframing that cast the project, it's leader, and the character's own actions in a different light, showing the harm lurking behind the tantalizing benefit.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

That sounds like an intriguing idea. Maybe not really an ambiguous protagonist, in that the twist sounds as if it resolves the character ambiguity relatively completely, but still a related concept.

And it might work well for practical literary purposes! "Cat's Cradle" was my favorite Vonnegut novel 'back in the day', precisely because of the neatness of its ending, which involved a perceptual reframing of the protagonist in the setting of the story.

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

Okay, so let's explore some of the possible effects of all these changes on what people, businesses and governments might do.

Assume for the moment that sea levels have risen by meters, and storms have worsened. I figure the combination has made many coastal population zones uninhabitable, but because they aren’t all demolished, some of these cities, or parts of them, become ghost towns, where a subset of humanity still lives, for one reason or another. The roads flood. Street-level stores and homes are useless, but if you can get inside, the upper floors in abandoned buildings offer a place to sleep or live, and that means others might convert upper floors into certain kinds of businesses, legal or otherwise. Infrastructure is sketchy or unusable due to the water; yet some places are okay because their pipes and wires were protected. Technology has enabled others to operate with renewable energy sources, like with solar panels, powering minimal power needs.

The suburbs that depended on some of these coastal cities, being further inland, would still be viable living zones, but something would have to replace the central city to anchor them. Some businesses that had been in the flooded city area might decide to build further inland. That could mean going past the suburbs to an open area, or having developed areas rezoned for a kind of urban renewal, knocking down what was there and building a replacement for what was lost near the coast. The former is probably more doable. And if they go far enough out of town, they might displace local farming areas, depending if there are any nearby.

But with populations and business moving, the infrastructure will no longer map to demand. And that puts pressure on government. But what will they be overwhelmed with?

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

I suppose it varies, both by economic value and by topography. South Florida is just screwed; folks will just have to leave, and all the place-anchored economic value will be lost. In cases like that, just resettling the displaced will be 'interesting.'

I'd anticipate that there will be an erosion of coastal real estate prices in some areas, based on future SLR. Awareness of the problem isn't widespread enough yet for Dade County to be suffering from this, but I predict that it isn't far away--maybe 5 years.

Places with steeper topography will survive better. (I'm thinking Boston may be an example.) Which harbors survive as harbors bears thinking about, as prime exemplar of the infrastructure value a place holds. (I'm thinking about Norfolk, VA, here, as that is said to be the largest naval base in the world, and I know that already there are flooding problems which the Republican-dominated Congress essentially doesn't want to hear about.) Not sure about Norfolk topography, though--tried to check it quickly in Google Earth, but couldn't remember how to navigate it well enough!

Politically, I think one could expect conflict to develop in several dimensions: between resources for the displaced (which might even include some sort of compensation program, at least early on) and resources for programs to conserve value (eg., rebuilding harbors which serve economic powers and which provide tax revenue for local and state governments)--and this conflict probably maps partially onto class conflict; between locals and migrants, of course; and between coastal and inland states.

Financing and administering rebuilding, resettlement and adaptation will be pretty overwhelming, I think. Probably just about nobody will be happy with whatever compromises get made.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Fortuitously, here's something that just hit my inbox. Some useful 'first cut' info and a few good thoughts:

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

Well, there's finally some word out there about the actual effects of what's happening. That's good. Better would be for this to become a major part of the decision about which person and which party decides what do about it. Those are some pretty hard questions raised in the Bloomberg article, and elected officials will have to deal with them sooner or later.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Absolutely right.

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

Continuing our exploration.. Because onset is slow, people in the affected areas will probably be willing to engage in denial for a time. Like Miami, for example, where they've got friendly terms like sunshine flooding to describe what's become a regular occurrence. As long as people can deny the problem like that, it stays a local issue. Except that there will be local issues like that in lots of places, and not just at the coastlines. Worsening storms come in many forms, not all of which occur at sea. If mankind were an organism, onset could be likened to a systemic infection that you ignore for a while, then treat only the symptoms. At some point, and not all at once, local authorities cry uncle, and ask for outside help, but the agencies they'd be asking might already be aware of the situation, and realize that it's too much to handle. This would be happening across the world.

What happens next might be determined by the form of government, and the relative power of different ones. Meanwhile, what are businesses doing?

The feeling I get when I think about all of this is the transition from order to chaos in phase space. There's an edge where ambiguity rises and breaks a sort of surface tension, beyond which it's impossible to predict outcomes because the math doesn't converge to a single value at the limit. The social equivalent of that is the breakdown of systems, which doesn't seem like a friendly place to live. Dystopias lie in that direction.

How do you keep the world from sliding over that cliff? Some might argue that it takes dictatorial control, which could explain why there so much of that in the wind right now. An alternative could be some incident that shocks the world to its senses, and drives it to band together to tackle a project which would make Project Apollo seem trivial. I don't even want to think about what that might be, but you'd have to use the word cataclysm for it.

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

That sounds about right to me, too. The dynamic could tie back to that notion of the ambiguous protagonist (or maybe antagonist?) in that someone who really believes that they have the right answer may be willing to take some unpalatable steps for reasons that are in some sense 'right.'

End and means...

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

I seem to be drifting towards the idea of an autocratic leader driving his/her followers to complete a project that is sold to them as being a world-saving idea, but turns out to have a rotten dark side. That bifurcation could be implemented along a number of axes, but the turning point for the characters and reader alike is a reframing event. Now, if I could only figure out all of the details...

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

"Now, if I could only figure out all of the details..."

Anything good seems to involve wrestling the devil...

P. Orin Zack 6 months ago

I've been musing... since the polarizing influence is that big world-saving project with a destructive underside, the only escape from a deadlocked emotional trap is for our lead character to choose instead to pursue a smaller, organically driven effort that was laughed at earlier. I'm going to have to think about what that might be.

P. Orin Zack 5 months ago

Got a question for you, Doc.

A lot of the talk about the effects of a changed climate has focused on how coastal areas are affected by a rising sea. I think for this series, I should focus instead on ways in which inland cities are affected by the increased amount of moisture and energy in the atmosphere, and by changes to the ways that geographical areas should best be used.

In my first novel, I wrote about the North Platte River creating a new inland sea from the excessive rainfall, and about the Central Valley in California ending up a lake. The sea level rise maps shows how far inland some rivers, such as the Columbia up through Portland, would swell as the place where they hit sea level moves inland.

So here's my question... what sorts of changes do you figure places away from the coast will undergo, and which cities are most susceptible to such things? The obvious ones are those whose existence depends on controlling floodwaters from their rivers, since the scenic business districts are likely to be along the river. Take for example, St. Louis, where the Gateway Arch is along the river. What other places come to mind?

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

What a great question! The first thought I had was, what about the driest cities in the US? Phoenix came to mind, as I helped someone move there last year, and for good reason--it gets just over 8 inches of rain per year, on average. But that's only good for the #2 spot among large American cities: Las Vegas gets just about half that.

Water in Las Vegas is definitely on everyone's radar. I addressed the issue of Lake Mead water levels in this Hub (point #5) in this Hub:

Notable is the fact that authorities there just spent $1.4 billion on a 'third straw' and associated pumping station to ensure that there would be a city intake well below the surface even if water levels continue to decline. (Even with the effects of the current El Nino, by the way, levels continue well below historical norms, up only about 5 feet from the lowest monthly reading in 2015.)

And Vegas already conserves, a lot. Here's an optimistic but considered view:

Gotta go. More later.

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Doc Snow 5 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Another mainstream (no pun intended) take on the situation, this one for Arizona:

The alarmist take looks like this:

Some errors of fact in there, and a whole lot of rhetoric. I don't think he does 'responsible alarmism' any favors, though the sad reality is that he could still turn out to be largely correct.

Anyway, looking at some less obvious possibilities, how about the head of tidewater on the Mississippi? According to Wikipedia, that's close to Pilottown, LA, which still has its own zip code, but no post office or permanent inhabitants. I find the history intriguing:,_Louisiana

For the future, perhaps Venice, LA, would be an interesting setting. It's a tiny place, nicknamed "the End of the World". (It is the last place in the area that is still accessible by road.) And it survives on fishing and oil, both of which could be highly relevant to your plotline/scenario.,_Louisiana

It would also make an interesting contrast, in terms of geography and culture with some of the other potential settings that you might also use.

A little OT, but fascinating and could be useful background:

P. Orin Zack 5 months ago

I used southern Louisiana as the setting for most of the recent series, so I want to do this new one somewhere else. The stuff on Vegas can be generalized to a city whose climate is now different from the influences that formed it. That is an interesting possibility... like in an ancient dry flood plain that's a flood plain again. Or in what was once part of huge that that is now taking over again, like near the Great Salt Lake.

But my attention was diverted today by that report of vast stretches of the oceans in hazard of being deoxygenated dead zones. I haven't finished following that trail, yet.

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Doc Snow 5 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

I see your point about LA.

If you like the concept you could transpose it to the St. Lawrence; head of tidewater there is somewhere in the vicinity of Sorel, east of Montreal, which has a max tidal range of about 1/8 meters. That would be a distinctly different milieu (though still with a French connection.)

Extreme sea level rise would transform Montreal itself, unsurprisingly:

The St. Lawrence under warming would get kind of a double whammy: probable decreased outflow from Lake Ontario, leading to lower levels upstream, and higher levels in the tidewater zone.

P. Orin Zack 5 months ago

Well, I've settled on a location: NYC. The clincher was one look at the sea level rise map -- it only takes 2 meters more sea to drown both La Guardia and JFK airports. That's gotta hurt.

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Doc Snow 5 months ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Definitely hurts, and sounds good from a literary plotting point of view, if not so much from a real-world POV.

Along the lines of my previous comment, I think the tidal influence on the Hudson extends to something like Albany--if that helps at all in considering where some of your fleeing New Yorkers might go, and what they might find when they get there.

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