Here again I employ dual meaning: 1) I have come to the end of the book (huzzah!) and 2) the endtimes are what the world as we know it faces unless we radically alter our current trajectory, which becomes less and less likely with each passing day. I must hand it to Kolbert, however, for masterfully concluding the book with an exhortation to treasure the present without sounding defeatist.
In the final chapters of the book, we again return to the tropical rainforests. What Kolbert first emphasizes there is that while we picture skinny polar bears on measly icebergs when we think about global warming, the tropics will be even more impacted by changing global temperatures. Yes, the ice is melting, but the polar biomes are the least species dense, and therefore not all too many species will perish as in the tropics. For in the tropics, species density is immensely high and with it, interspecies competition which leads to high niche specialization. In the tropics, species are very, very good at what they do, and should things alter even slightly, they’re essentially screwed. Tree species are perfectly adapted to their altitude and the temperature there that as temperatures in the tropics increase, they must migrate to higher altitudes. But mountains only go so high. What happens once a species has nowhere else to go? Bad things, let me tell you.
Then Kolbert took us to another interesting study in the tropics. Roads, powerlines, farmland, urbanization, all cut through the environment and segregate and partition areas of an ecosystem. These so-called “islands” of an ecosystem are beginning to show behavior as actual islands. Species numbers are gradually declining in these islands. Because the segregation proves to be an obstacle to species moving between these islands. In the tropics where species have become perfectly adapted to their role, if one species disappears or is not as reliable, as in the case of the army ant marches (read under the Important Critters tab), there is a cascade effect on all the species that are dependent on the one. This combination of incredibly high levels of dependence, and the inability of new species to step up to fill in because of the island segregation, poses another very serious and unique threat to the tropics.
In the next chapters of the book, we read about bat die-offs, again at the hands of a deadly fungus, and we read about species held in existence in captivity and the attempts to preserve them, no matter how artificial the means. And finally, to conclude the book, Kolbert turns her eye on humans and our recent ancestors. What has made us so destructive? Some claim it to be this itch to never cease exploring even if the odds of survival are slim. Some believe that this tendency to explore is genetic and hope to find the gene that truly distinguishes humans from Neanderthals.
Kolbert doesn’t pretend to know what will happen. Will we be the victims of our own destruction? We have made the bed, now we must lie in it? Or will technology triumph and humans put themselves out of the reach of evolution and natural selection? Will we leave this burning planet behind? None of these questions can be answered. And so my opinion is that it is not worth wasting time speculating the uncertainties of the future. We live in the present and must therefore act in it. The evolutionary gauntlet has been thrown. Will we accept the challenge and step up to the plate? Okay, enough mixing of metaphors. I hope that this site has provoked some introspection and perhaps has even prompted you to read the book for yourself. As I sign off this last reflection, I will let J.R.R. Tolkien have the honor of the final thought.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring