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Endgame

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
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Global Warming’s Evil Twin

This epoch’s paper-plate award for “global warming’s ‘equally evil twin'” (120) goes to… ocean acidification! Like global warming really needs an evil twin. And I highly anticipate that there we have yet to meet the rest of the family. As global warming progresses, ecosystems will start to reshape and eventually collapse in ways unimaginable right now. I must admit, I don’t sound altogether enthused but it is fairly hard to write an upbeat blog on a book called The Sixth Extinction.

The most recent chapters of Kolbert’s book have focused on our planet’s wonderful but declining oceans. First, she took me to the Mediterranean where an underwater vent spewing a constant stream of carbon dioxide bubbles has acidified the water and created a microcosm of water from the future. There researchers have been able to peer into the water of oceans to come, and in varying degree too, because as distance from the vent increases, so does pH! The moral of the story learned from the vents is that acidified water is very unfavorable for sea life, as so many organisms, both micro and macroscopic, depend upon calcification to create their shells and exoskeletons. And when you remove even one link of the food chain, the rest is fairly messed up.

After watching bubbles in the Mediterranean, Kolbert took us to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most magnificent and diverse ecosystems on earth, the ocean equivalent of the tropical rainforests. As atmospheric carbon dioxide increases and the ocean subsequently acidifies, the delicate symbiosis that every coral depends on is messed up. Coral is actually two groups of animals coexisting: coral polyps and zooxanthellae. As the ocean increases in acidity, the zooxanthellae begin to produce dangerous radicals, leaving their neighbors no option but to evict them. Without the zooxanthellae, the polyps lose their color – hence the term “bleaching” – and the polyps cease to grow and reproduce, and eventually starve and die. Kolbert also makes it clear that many coral reefs may not even last long enough for acidification to get to them. The rest of the threats are much more directly anthropogenic: overfishing, deforestation and pollution, and more.

Again, I cannot stress enough that this situation mandates action not despair. Kolbert does an admirable job (far better than I have done) of presenting the evidence in a pragmatic way. I encourage you to read the book yourself. Clearly the book is not disheartening enough to make me put it down forever.

To end on a more magical note, Kolbert describes snorkeling at night during coral spawning like swimming in “a blizzard in the Alps, only in reverse” (147). Let the moments like these remind us what were fighting to preserve and what is at stake if we fail, and as Apollo 13 reminds us “failure is not an option.”

Bon Jovi and JFK

Woah, we’re halfway there.

Bon Jovi

Okay. The quote looks very different typed out then what I hear in my head when I read it. It turns out that that my good friend Bon Jovi is right in a couple of ways. First, I am almost exactly halfway through throught The Sixth Extinction. I have been reading it for some time but only got around to creating this site now. My thoughts so far? Amazingly written but utterly terrifying in content. Each page I flip I become more and more aware of the meaning of the words ‘crisis’ or ’emergency’ or ‘apocalypse’. Not kidding. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Choosing a career in conservation can be likened to choosing to empty the ocean with a teaspoon: seemingly futile. Which leads me back to Bon Jovi: we are definitely living on a prayer.

So far I’ve read about frogs vanishing in our rainforests. Why? Because with today’s global economy, a fungus that many amphibians should never have been exposed to can travel around the world, effortlessly. I’ve read about historical views on evolution, on extinction, on catastrophe. Frightening is the fact that at one point in time, a mere 170 or so years ago, scientists were in denial of all three of those things, and now the muzzle is pressed against our forehead, and yet often we pretend it isn’t there. Also equally unsettling is that, in another 170 years, students like me (God willing humanity still exists) might read in a different New York Times bestseller that there was a time when climate change, or the adverse effects of greenhouse emissions, or the utter disappearance of biodiversity were similarly denied by many with whom we share this planet today. It all seems eerily similar. More about the scientists of the past and their standpoints can be found under the Historical Figures link above.

I’ve read about a prolific penguin-like bird, the Great Auk, whose existence on this planet was single-handedly ended by the introduction of mankind to their habitat. We found any and every excuse to kill the bird, whether practical or not. Need I go on? Each chapter of this book is subtitled with one creature of note, of present or past. Each one can be found under the Important Critters link above.

As this is my first of likely not many reflections, let me leave off on a positive note. The problem we face is daunting, yes, and the solution, if at all possible, will be far from easy, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t try. Just like any good sports team would do, we must acknowledge the strengths of our opponent, but then step up to the challenge. I’ll let JFK finish it off.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

President John F. Kennedy