Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Elizabeth Kolbert Laughs at Extinction on the Leonard Lopate Show

I loved this entire interview!  The topic of this blog - ozone killing trees - didn't come up, but Elizabeth Kolbert is one of the most lucid and interesting people I have ever heard on the topic of climate change and the Age of the Anthropocene (if you listen you will find out how to pronounce it).  She had been explaining to Leonard Lopate that in fact, among scientists the idea that an asteroid impact led to the extinction of the dinosaurs is a well-established theory based on all sorts of compelling evidence, which led to this wonderful exchange starting at 18 minutes in (I will have to learn to cultivate her sanguine temperament when it comes to the survival of civilization):

LL:  Well, right now we're going through a period of large-scale die-offs of plants and animals and we don't have an asteroid to explain it, uh...Will people a million years from now look at it and say, they [humans] killed them off themselves?

EK:  Well I mean, you know, some people will say look, we will look - our impact will potentially be analogous to an asteroid because once again over long periods of time things that seem to us to be happening slowly over the course of decades or centuries will look when you look back at this tiny record that's left as if they happened instantaneously.  So depending on, you know, how widespread the extinctions that we as you say, are in the process of causing - and once again, that's pretty much irrefutable - the only question that sort of remains is how many organisms our various activities are going to drive to extinction - you know, will that rise to the level of a major extinction event.  And increasingly, once again something I deal with in the article, increasingly, scientists are saying it - it - it -may well, it may well, rise to that level.

LL: And we're assuming that humans will be around in a million years.  We have no guarantee of that.

EK:  I don't know that anyone [and here she starts cracking up] is assuming that humans will be around in a million years.  I mean, many, most...a million years is pretty much the sort of, you know, the rough average lifetime of the species.  If we lasted a million years that would be, would be quite...quite a feat I think at this point.

The Age of Man and Climate Change

Monday, February 21, 2011 Elizabeth Kolbert explains how climate change caused by humans—building cities, changing the land through agriculture and deforestation, and carbon emissions from cars and industry—has risen to the level of geologic significance. Her article “Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man” looks at the “Anthropocene,” the new epoch defined by humans’ massive impact on the planet. It appears in National Geographic magazine’s March issue.


  1. Interesting interview. What struck me was the sense of human exceptionalism on display, unwittingly of course, especially by the host. He says "will people one million years from now ask, or wonder...", and this came after talking about how Dinosaurs went extinct. Why does he assume "people' will be around one million years from now, let alone 500 years from now? There is this unconscious belief, this blind faith, that humans are invincible. That humans, unlike other living organisms, will always prevail, because humans always have, or so the illogic seems to go. I'd say we are in for a rude awakening, but that wouldn't be quite right. We are in for a permanent sleep, instead, after squandering a wonderful opportunity finally to be awake.

    Please, future life forms, intelligent or not, if you find the humna fossil record, do not revive the DNA like humans are planning on doing with the Wooly Mammoth. Humans had their chance. Don't unleash this virus again. Keep the genie in the bottle for what has heretofore been referred to as Eternity.

  2. That's so funny, Morroco Bama, I am finishing up a post hopefully for today - called Rude Awakening...honest!!

    I also wonder how "intelligent" we are and whether other animals are rather "intelligent" too, but we just don't speak their language.

    I was curious about EK's statement that a species lasts one million years and found this:

    "The typical rate of extinction differs for different groups of organisms. Mammals, for instance, have an average species "lifespan" from origination to extinction of about 1 million years, although some species persist for as long as 10 million years. There are about 5,000 known mammalian species alive at present. Given the average species lifespan for mammals, the background extinction rate for this group would be approximately one species lost every 200 years. Of course, this is an average rate -- the actual pattern of mammalian extinctions is likely to be somewhat uneven. Some centuries might see more than one mammalian extinction, and conversely, sometimes several centuries might pass without the loss of any mammal species. Yet the past 400 years have seen 89 mammalian extinctions, almost 45 times the predicted rate, and another 169 mammal species are listed as critically endangered.

    Therein lies the concern biologists have for many of today's species. While the number of actual documented extinctions may not seem that high, they know that many more species are "living dead" -- populations so critically small that they have little hope of survival. Other species are among the living dead because of their interrelationships -- for example, the loss of a pollinator can doom the plant it pollinates, and a prey species can take its predator with it into extinction. By some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the world's animals and plants could be on a path to extinction within 100 years. These losses are likely to be unevenly distributed, as some geographic areas and some groups of organisms are more vulnerable to extinction than others. Tropical rainforest species are at especially high risk, as are top carnivores, species with small geographic ranges, and marine reef species.
    And what is the fate of our own species likely to be, if we really are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction? One possibility is that as diversity and abundance wither, the species causing it all -- Homo sapiens, the most dominant species in history -- could also be on the road to oblivion. But another possibility is that Homo sapiens, which has proved to be a very effective weedy species itself, will persist. That's the view of paleobiologist David Jablonski, who sees us as one of the survivors, "sort of picking through the rubble" of a world that has lost much of its biodiversity -- and much of its comfort. For along with that species richness, the ecosystem is likely to loose much of its ability to provide many of the valuable services that we take for granted, from cleaning and recirculating air and water, to pollinating crops and providing a source for new pharmaceuticals. And while the fossil record tells us that biodiversity has always recovered, it also tells us that the recovery will be unbearably slow in human terms -- 5 to 10 million years after the mass extinctions of the past. That's more than 200,000 generations of humankind before levels of biodiversity comparable to those we inherited might be restored."


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