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Episode 331

Earth’s Threats

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Posted by Mary Ann

One thing I noticed about Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing in “The Sixth Extinction” is that she gets the reader with a one-two punch. She enthralls you with her stories of the earth’s natural wonders, and once she has you completely hooked, she lets the bad news rip: in many cases man’s heedless will to explore and exploit has driven these living marvels to the brink of extinction.

“The Sixth Extinction” is a marvelously read and reported book, but it is not an easy read. So why should you read it? Because it’s breathtaking and global in scope. It takes a writer like Kolbert to synthesize the many things that are going on in the world, and then to pull it all together to present the pattern to the reader. A general reader, however dedicated, could never do it on their own, and I will go so far as to say that you couldn’t even get it by watching a documentary or reading one newspaper or magazine story. Reason 4,333 why books are important.

As for further reading: there’s plenty. I’m going to pick through a few books that have helped me understand the interlocking wheels that power life on earth, and the forces that threaten to gum up the works. First I want to mention Kolbert’s 2006 book, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” considered one of the best books on global warming at the time.

Another book, by an author we’ve had on the show, is Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Diamond, a professor at UCLA, looked at several civilizations that at one time or another flourished on the earth, but which were ultimately undone. From Easter Island to a doomed Viking colony on Greeenland, Diamond found a fundamental pattern of ingredients for catastrophe: environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth and unwise political choices.

Another book that documented early on the process that Kolbert describes in her book is 1996’s “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen. Quammen is a terrific writer, reporter and researcher, who for years wrote a column for Outside Magazine. “The Song of the Dodo” tells the story of what happens when habitats are fragmented and isolated.

Pointing out that many biological “reserves” are really more like biological islands, he then proceeds to show how vulnerable animal and plant populations on any island are to extinction. While men certainly had something to do with the extinction of island species like the dodo, a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius, he makes the case that all species living in limited habitat are more vulnerable to extinction because of their limited numbers. The fewer there are, the more vulnerable they are to being wiped out. As man drives wildlife into ever smaller preserves, he’s also making them more vulnerable to being wiped out altogether. It’s a numbers game.

Finally, I have just started reading a brand new book, “Neanderthal Man” by Svante Paabo. As you recall, Kolbert devoted an entire chapter to the Neanderthals in which Paabo was prominently featured.

Paabo is a Swedish scientist who actually succeeded in sequencing the genes of the Neanderthal, an amazing accomplishment given that the older the genetic material, the harder it is to work with. (I need to say that I am skimming the parts that get specific about what goes on in his lab). He discovered many things, including the fact that a lot of us have some Neanderthal in us, and also that homo sapiens may have dispatched the Neanderthals with the same alacrity that we are now diminishing other species, such as our cousins the great apes.

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