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Do Humans Have a Madness Gene That Will Ensure the End of the Planet as We Know It?

Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert explores the likely extinction of a massive number of species - because of the destructive practices of humans - in the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

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Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert explores the likely extinction of a massive number of species - because of the destructive practices of humans - in the book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History."
Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert explores the likely extinction of a massive number of species – because of the destructive practices of humans – in the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

There have been five great extinctions of species on Earth, all of them the result of natural causes. In a gripping, thoroughly researched book, Elizabeth Kolbert – a New Yorker journalist specializing in the environment – explores in detail the ongoing likely sixth extinction of a massive number of species, this time because of the destructive practices of the human species.

The following is a Truthout interview with Kolbert:

MARK KARLIN: BuzzFlash interviewed you a few years back about your last book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Now you are back with The Sixth Extinction. Both books are impeccably documented. Is it fair to see that what you reveal puts us past the point of catastrophe?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Right now pretty much all the trends are pointing in the wrong direction. But I wouldn’t say we’re past the point where changing our ways would make a very significant difference.

You firmly explain how the sixth mass extinction of many species is different from the first five. That is because it is being caused by us, yes?

This extinction is unique in that it’s being caused by a living thing, and that living thing, as you point out, is humans. But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, each mass extinction is unhappy in its own way.

Are we, as the human species, possibly included in the sixth extinction that we are responsible for?

Certainly it seems possible that we could become victims of our own actions. But it also seems possible that we’ll do fine, even as a lot of other species vanish. A lot of species have already disappeared due to human activity, and, so far at least, the human population has kept right on increasing.

How do you respond to the climate deniers and anti­science stalwarts who belittle the loss of species that they have never heard of?

At this point, most species on the planet probably haven’t even been named. So of course people have never heard of them. To dismiss the extinction of these creatures as unimportant seems to me pretty mindless. Very basic – and vital – processes depend on all sorts of creatures that most people couldn’t identify.

Haven’t we become such a carpe diem world, at least in developed nations, in that we simply don’t accept that species are being lost because most of us don’t notice or encounter too many species. On a daily basis, we’re still mostly concerned about how to dress based on the weather for the day.

Most people who live in the cities of the developed world, or for that matter the developing world, don’t encounter a whole lot of native species. So it’s true that they probably wouldn’t have many experiences that would give them a sense of what’s at risk.

Al Gore reviewed your book for The New York Times. He quotes you as writing simply, “People change the World.” He recognizes in the review the role that the rapidly expanding population of the Earth plays in the ravaging of our planet and resultant loss of species. How can Earth sustain about 7 billion people currently, with an ever increasing number? Global warming aside, aren’t some species in danger because there are too many people eating them, such as fish?

There are about 7 billion people on the planet right now, headed very quickly toward 8 billion. Supporting all those people takes a lot of food, which has got to come from somewhere. So, the short answer is yes. A lot of species are threatened by over­harvesting and over­fishing. A lot are also threatened by the conversion of forests to agricultural land.

Can you explain the significance of invasive species, with humans being the “ultimate” invasive species?

Invasive species are species that do very well in a place that’s far from their native range. Often they thrive at the expense of the species that were already there: A classic example is the brown tree snake, which was brought to Guam from Papua New Guinea, probably in military cargo. It has eaten through most of Guam’s native mammal species, along with many of its native birds and reptiles. Humans originated in Africa and now we live on every continent. (Well, maybe don’t quite live on Antarctica, but certainly we like to visit it.)

Just about everywhere we’ve gone, like the brown tree snake, we’ve eliminated a significant number of native species.

Using one example of the interrelated ecology that comes into play in terms of species disruption and extinction, can you briefly explain the decrease in barrier reefs and how that impacts species?

Reefs are home to many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of species. If reef building as an activity ceases – something that could very possibly happen within the next half century or so – then pretty much all of those species are at risk.

What exactly will happen to them is impossible to know at this point. Some may be able to survive without reefs; many probably will not. It’s very hard to predict the proportions, but, unfortunately, we are likely to find out.

Can you explain what you mean by the madness gene as described in Chapter Eight?

The madness gene is not my idea; it comes from a paleogeneticist named Svante Pääbo.

What he meant is that, for reasons that don’t seem entirely rational, people can’t sit still. They’re always pressing on to new places, even though the journey entails significant dangers. As he pointed out to me, how many people had to perish in the Pacific before people happened on Easter Island?

If I may ask on a personal level, how does this research into the impact of climate change – that developed nations are virtually ignoring – affect your thoughts about the future of your children on planet Earth?

Raising children takes – and always has taken – a lot of hope.

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