“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book in your lap.” In this one sentence, in the final chapter of her book, Elizabeth Kolbert implicates you, the reader, as the cause of the sixth mass extinction of species on this planet. When reading of the human impact upon Earth, upon the other species with whom we share—or do not know how to share—this planet, it can become so easy to want to seek the source of blame outside oneself, to charge other humans with responsibility for the ecological crisis. But we have been “othering” for far too long, and it is time to take that responsibility within ourselves. So I am sitting here with this book on my lap, I am writing these words on my computer screen, and I know that this crisis is my fault. What, then, do I do with this deeply personal recognition, a recognition that must break afresh upon us again and again if we are to move forward honestly in this field?
My response to Kolbert’s book was wholly positive, a response I do not take lightly. I felt that she was undertaking a task similar to Bruno Latour’s Science in Action in which she opens the mysterious black boxes that create our scientific knowledge to reveal the specific and all-too-human processes of knowledge creation about our planet’s geological and biological history. Her research undertaking in itself was highly impressive; to make it so accessible to a wide audience in such an intelligible way I find even more so. Somehow this volume on mass extinction was not written in a depressing tone, as so much environmental literature is, but rather in an empathic human tone, taking in the emotional reality that we hold many responses to this material and cannot remain in one emotional state for long. The human response is ever changing, and the tone of this book reflected that. Yet I did grieve too: for the loss of the amphibians, the calcites, the rhinos, the coral reefs, the rainforests, as well as the ancient losses of mastodons and the other great megafauna, the ammonites, the auks, the Neanderthals. Of course, I cannot name them all here. No one has ever named all the species we have lost from Earth, nor will we ever be able to name all those who we are bringing to extinction now. But as we wake up to the reality we have created, cannot we remember Aldo Leopold’s words and recognize how far we have come as a species as well: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.”
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York, NY: Picador, 2014.
 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York, NY: Picador, 2014), 266.
6 Replies to “Sitting with “The Sixth Extinction””
Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
Here’s another sensitive, yet difficult post from Becca Psyche Tarnas. I’ve not read The Sixth Extinction, but I feel those tugs of hypocrisy daily — as I type on my laptop trying to raise awareness about our connection to our gorgeous planet, as I read late night permaculture books by electric light, as I attempt to find balance between overgrown weeds and growing my own food. Thank you to Elizabeth Kolbert and to Becca for pulling such musings into the light of day, where they do belong, so that we can find ways to ameliorate our role.
It’s difficult to remain optimistic when we read about species extinction isn’t it. One or two eco-poems of mine on http://erikleo.wordpress.co.uk
Thank you so much for sharing your poems: they are beautiful and inspiring. I particularly resonate with the one titled “A Child’s Vocabulary.” Children are born with an innate sense of connection to the Earth and our culture tries everything it can to sever that connection, along with the child’s imagination (which I see as that connective tissue between Earth and child). I also really appreciate your painting “Earth Spirit.” What creative beauty you express!
Thanks Becca. I agree with you about melding spirituality with eco-awareness. I visit a Buddhist monastery here in the UK and there was an article recently by the monks about how care for the environment grows naturally from a spiritual practice.
Sorry, that should be dot com! ;-(