Explaining Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, talks with Audubon about the greatest threat to all life on Earth: humanity itself.

John James Audubon set out in 1827 to find a great auk to draw for his famous Birds of America. He searched the coasts of Newfoundland for hours without spotting a single one of the species that were once so abundant in the Atlantic that settlers rounded them up by the dozens to use as food and fuel.

He did not know that by then hunters had completely decimated the great auk population in North America. Seventeen years later the last great auks in existence, roosting on a rock off the coast of Iceland, were killed. Audubon had to settle for a stuffed specimen provided to him by a local museum.

The extinction of the great auk is just one of the 13 stories that Elizabeth Kolbert features as chapters in the book The Sixth Extinction, out today from Henry Holt, the MacMillan imprint carrying it. The title of the book comes from paleontology’s understanding of the history of life: Since the first organisms emerged, there have been five great extinctions recorded in the fossil record. The most recent was the end-Cretaceous extinction, in which a meteor half the size of Manhattan killed off the non-avian dinosaurs.

Kolbert’s book catalogues the mounting scientific evidence that we are in the throes of number six. This time around, it’s no space rock. People are the cause. Ecological devastation, from habitat destruction to the introduction of invasive species, is causing animals to die off at rates not seen in 66 million years.

Kolbert traveled the world studying the nearly lost golden frog in Panama to the final resting place of Mastodon remains in Paris, each story a part of a greater whole illuminating the extent to which humans have killed biodiversity across the planet.

Audubon caught up with Kolbert as she was promoting the book. We talked about her start in environmental reporting, the intellectual history of mass extinction, and the missing pieces in environmental education for kids.


What got you into environmental reporting in the first place?

Even when I covered politics I often wrote about the intersection of environmental literacy and politics. In 1999 I went to the New Yorker, which has a long tradition of great environmental reporting. It was sort of an empty space at the time and I just moved into it.


Your first book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, came out in 2006. How do you think the conversation around conservation has changed between then and now?

The conversation on climate change in a lot of ways has moved forward, and in many areas of society, including major corporations for example, there’s a much greater appreciation of the risks of climate change. But in terms of actual policy, there’s been shockingly little change. We still have hearings in Congress where they trot out people who try to throw doubt as to whether climate change is already happening, which, as the Artic ice cap melts away, is absurd at this point. So while the conversation has moved forward in certain ways, in the most profound ways it has remained stalled.


How did you choose mass extinction as the topic for your newest book?

After I wrote about climate change, I toyed with a bunch of different ideas. In the process I came to realize that climate change is part of an even bigger story: We’re changing the planet on a geological scale, a scale that will be apparent to whoever—or whatever—looks back on us from a vantage point of tens of millions of years. Extinction is a side effect of all the ways we’re changing the planet.


How did you go about selecting the species, those already extinct and those on their way to it, whose stories comprise the book?

In some cases I chose the species, but in most cases I chose the story and the species emerged from that. The great auk was a really interesting one in that regard.

I also chose things that were really well documented.  With the auk, we can pretty much pinpoint, if not the last auks that ever existed, the last people who reported ever seeing them. That story just really popped out at me.


How has the science on extinction evolved in the last several centuries?

Extinction was first theorized in post-Revolutionary France by George Cuvier, the leading naturalist of his day. He thought that everything that had gone extinct had done so in some sort of convulsion, because his theory was that the only thing that could make them go extinct was some dreadful event that they couldn’t cope with. That later became known as catastrophism. Then came a rival theory that became known as uniformitarianism. Darwin took up that theory: The world changes slowly and it only changes slowly.

And that paradigm really was the dominant theory—you were considered a complete crackpot if you tried to challenge it—all the way through the 1980s. In the early 1980s, [Walter and Luis] Alvarez came up with the hypothesis that an asteroid had ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Now we have this sort of hybrid paradigm: The world does change very slowly most of the time, but sometimes it changes very quickly. The major point of the book is that we are one of those very rare moments when the world changes very fast, and we are the agents of that change.


Birds feature strongly as victims of the current mass extinction, but what do we know about how they fared in past extinction events?

If you look back at the end-Cretaceous extinction that did in the non-avian dinosaurs, it also did in a lot of birds. The more people look at it—it may not be as obvious in the fossil record—the more people have realized that the extinction was bad for the birds, too. Something like three-quarters of the birds went extinct as well.


It’s not like mass extinction is confined to any one part of the world. Will the solution have to be as global as the problem, or can certain actors lead the way?

I stopped short of whether there is a solution to the problem, to be frank. But the problem transcends boundaries. It even transcends being any single problem. It’s many different things layered on top of each other.

The way that our world has become so interconnected turns out to be, from the perspective of other species, one of the problems. In fact, one of the issues I talk about in the book is global travel and global trade moving things around. A lot of the extinctions that have been documented so far are related to moving things into new places where, in unpredictable ways, they happened to have devastating effects on other creatures.


How children are introduced to the concept of extinction figures prominently in the book. What nuances are missing in education around conservation?

I think we all tend to get these bits of information—the panda bears are in trouble, or the monarch butterflies are in trouble, or the Panamanian golden frog is in trouble. For kids the message is often an upbeat one: we’re trying to help the poor frogs. I don’t necessarily believe in reading apocalyptic stories to kids, but I also don’t believe in tailoring the message to be upbeat. That does not accurately reflect the situation. Let’s get away from kid’s literature right now and talk about grown ups. I don’t think it does our kids any good to not acknowledge what’s happening.

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