Global Extinction VI (Starring Us)


I recently finished The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. A Stephen King thriller, it was not. But it was well organized and a great read, and as a bonus, I actually learned something.

Since life began on earth, there have been five major extinctions where lots of species – often most of them – died off suddenly. We are apparently in the midst of a sixth extinction. Whereas previous extinctions were caused by things like the massive asteroid that took out T. Rex and Friends, this one is all on us.

The book’s organization is a bit untraditional, but it works. Rather than marching slowly and ponderously toward a scientific proof, Kolbert brings in a ton of different disciplines and examples to weave a really effective story. She’ll go into great detail in one chapter on a narrow topic and then pivot to a sweeping general one in the next. The chapters link together well, but most of them would also be interesting and insightful as standalone essays. Finding a way to bring so many different areas of science and natural history together into a comprehensive, seamless narrative is brilliant, and the folks at Pulitzer agree.

As a caveat, I’m a pretty normal guy as it relates to climate change alarmism. I try to do my bit, but my bit might include ensuring lights are turned off in empty rooms of my nicely air conditioned, above-average-sized house. I’ve always paid attention to the science on climate change, but I haven’t been seriously worried (until now).

My Review

This is a really good book. I can’t recommend it equally to everyone though, because Kolbert goes into some topics (like the history of interpreting mastodon molars – yeah!) that get pretty dry. I can, however, recommend it in some form or fashion to almost anyone:

  • If you are a curious individual and have a lot of time on your hands, read it all the way through – you’ll have to trust me in a couple of early rough patches, but it’s worth it to see her weave everything together in the end.
  • If you are keenly interested in climate change and the sixth extinction but not as interested in a history lesson, skip chapters 2, 3, and 4 – sadly, these early ones are the driest by far. 
  • If you want the most important bits, just read chapters 1, 7, 10, 12, and 13. You’ll get most of the book’s value and won’t suffer too much from missed references.
  • If the topic seems really interesting and you want to get scared about climate change, but don’t have time to read a book, check out this page
  • If you are a serious skeptic on climate change and aren’t big on the whole “science” thing, you should definitely skip it. Kolbert uses a soft sell, so this isn’t going to change your mind.

My Takeaways

One of my first takeaways is that climate change alarmists suck at marketing. For years now, we’ve heard about how global temperatures are going to rise like 2 degrees or something by 2100. 2 degrees? How is that supposed to scare me?

Consider instead this quote:

\”To find carbon dioxide levels (and therefore, ultimately, global temperatures) higher than today’s requires going back a long way, perhaps as far as the mid-Miocene, fifteen million years ago. It’s quite possible that by the end of this century, CO2 levels could reach a level not seen since the Antarctic palms of the Eocene, some fifty million years ago. Whether species still possess the features that allowed their ancestors to thrive in that ancient, warmer world is, at this point, impossible to say.\”

Palms in the Antarctic? Reversing 15 million years of cooling in the last few decades? A return to the conditions of the dreaded Eocene? Now that’s scary. And don’t be fooled by the passive aggressiveness of the last sentence – translated from scientist to normal person, it says, “WE\’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”

CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and we’ve jacked up CO2 levels at an insane rate in the last fifty years (with much, much more to come) – it’s inevitable that the planet is going to get toastier. A climate change skeptic might ask, “Why isn’t it hotter already?” And the answer to that is, “Just wait.” To help explain, Kolbert offers:

\”From an earth history perspective, several hundred years or even several thousand is practically no time at all. From a human perspective, though, it’s an immensity.”

The earth doesn’t turn on a dime, which means that it will take some time for the extra CO2 to trap more heat and for temperatures to materially rise. But rise they will. I imagine we’re already well past the point of no return, and even if human use of fossil fuels dropped to zero tomorrow, some of our descendants are going to have sweet beachfront vacation homes in Antarctica. 

So We Trashed the Planet – How Do We Profit?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a personal finance aspect to this book. 

Climate change is definitely going to have an economic cost. Extreme weather and warming temperatures are already taking their toll, and the fun has just begun (I wouldn’t recommend buying property in low-lying areas, and maybe go underweight on property insurers / reinsurers…).

Governments (well, most of them) are finally starting to take notice, and they will surely attempt to tackle climate change. Who knows what form that will take, but any climate change initiatives will have a cost and could slow growth. I’d say giving up a little growth to avoid (further) trashing the planet is a fair trade, but it’s a trade nonetheless.

Any energy companies might be at serious risk of a sudden regulatory shift or technological breakthrough, so underweightning them might be prudent. 

Any technologies or companies that could help solve this mess could be great investments. Things like wind and solar power are mildly interesting since they help slow the damage, but the real money will be made on as-yet-undiscovered technologies that can actually cool the planet back down. Fingers crossed…

I’m definitely going to encourage my kids to consider careers in science that might help. It’d be great if they could solve this mess, and it’d be a nice bonus if they got super rich doing it.

And if they start selling lots in Antarctica, I’m getting in on the ground floor.

Final Thoughts

I’m far more worried about climate change than I was before reading this book. We probably won’t suffer too much from it, but the generations that follow us very well could. They’re going to judge us harshly for orchestrating a man-made mass extinction and torching the planet (but it’s OK – they’ll do the same thing to Mars). Much of the damage may already be done, but that doesn’t justify us closing our eyes and plugging our ears. We’re a pretty clever species, so if we make saving the planet a priority, we just might get lucky. I’m hoping late is better than never.

I’ll close with a final quote. It captures the spirit of this very important and insightful book, and it highlights the enormity of the legacy we may leave:

\”Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human—some of my best friends are humans!—I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust.”

2 thoughts on “Global Extinction VI (Starring Us)”

  1. Hi Paul,

    This topic can raise very passionate speeches on both sides. I’m not a specialist, but I do see our activities damaging the ecosystem in a way that the planet cannot heal by himself.

    I would like to share 2 links about CO2 emission:

    Check the first one and we can see how much the recent generations enhanced the CO2 emission.

    I have the feeling that, unfortunately, it is too late for us. And that the ones that will suffer the most are the ones with less access to capital.

    Let’s see. All the best to you.


    1. Yes, the violent passions on both sides are rather amazing to me. This feels like an area where we should look at the data and make calm, informed decisions based on science (or perhaps should have done so many years ago). I’ve yet to meet the person with a strongly held opinion who changes their mind after someone screams and insults them.

      The two links on CO2 emissions are very informative and important bits of data. I think the China / U.S. contribution is particularly relevant to the current state of affairs. While I would hope everyone would want to lower emissions, I’m reminded of the moral hazard presented by a big dinner party with an equally shared bill. The U.S. ordered a massive lobster, and now it is telling China that it needs to order a bowl of soup because the bill is going to be so high 🙂 I’m afraid that same moral hazard is going to thwart most efforts – at both an individual and country level – to make meaningful changes. And like you, I’m worried that it is too late anyway.

      Thanks for the added data and thoughtful note!

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