The Extinction We’ve Enabled

Feb 14th, 2014

Brad Plumer interviews Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book on the coming mass extinction:

BP: One thing your book explores is that there’s no one factor causing modern-day extinctions. There’s hunting. There’s deforestation. There are changes in land use. There’s climate change and the acidification of the oceans. Which of these stands out as most significant?

EK: To me, what really stood out… And I always say, look, I’m not a scientist, I’m relying on what scientists tell me. And I think many scientists would say that what we’re doing to the chemistry of the oceans is the most significant. One-third of the carbon-dioxide that we pump into the air ends up in the oceans almost right away, and when CO2 dissolves in water, it forms an acid, that’s just an unfortunate fact.

The chemistry of the oceans tends to be very stable, and to overwhelm those forces is really hard. And we are managing to do it. When people try to reconstruct the history of the ocean, the best estimate is that what we’re doing to the oceans or have the potential to do is a magnitude of change that hasn’t been seen in 300 million years. And changes of ocean chemistry are associated with some of the worst crises in history.

Bill McKibben also has a fascinating conversation with Kolbert:

McKibben: The hallmark of evolutionary biology is adaptability. Is the main thing that’s different in this era the speed with which we are forcing things to adapt? Is that the single biggest new variable in this new system?


Kolbert: I once got this question from a person who said, “Well, if things start going extinct, won’t new things just evolve?” It was like extinction and evolution were a one-for-one trade. But the answer is that you can drive things extinct quickly, but it is very difficult to speed up evolution. If we were driving these changes at a pace that’s hundreds, even a million times slower, then yes, maybe most things would adapt to that, and we would get a very different world but not necessarily a humongous wave of extinctions. But otherwise you can do the math yourself.

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