At the end of her talk at the Seattle Town Hall about her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert takes questions from the audience. The final question is from a boy in his mid-teens. He's the only one at the microphone who's likely to be around when this the extinction process has gone into high gear. So, what does he ask?
Back up for a moment. In her talk, Kolbert focuses on three things we humans are changing: the atmosphere, the oceans and how we keep redistributing animals around the planet. (You can watch the whole talk on Book TV and it's well worth 45 minutes of your time.)
It's like we're running geological history backwards very fast by sending all that carbon back up into the atmosphere.
The Atmosphere: Right now we're adding about 10 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year – mostly through the burning of fossil fuels. It took hundreds of millions of years for all this carbon to be buried under the surface of the Earth, and it's like we're running geological history backwards very fast by unearthing it and sending it all back up into the atmosphere – literally millions of times faster than it took to bury it.
(If you want to see how this has affected the climate over the past 130 years, check out this quick video from NASA.)
The Oceans have absorbed about a third of the greenhouse gases we've poured back into the atmosphere – about 150 billion metric tons. Right now the oceans are absorbing about a million metric tons every hour.
As a result, ocean acidity has increased by about 30 percent, which makes it very difficult for living creatures to build their shells – from shellfish to the micro-organisms at the base of the food chain to the coral reefs, which are likely to become the first entire ecosystems in the modern world to go extinct.
Moving Species Around: 250 million years ago, the great continental mass known as Pangaea began to break up into the continents we know today. Now that we're transporting animals all over the planet (which we started doing several thousand years ago), it's another way of running geological history backwards at very high speed. Today, we move thousands of species around the planet every day.
We call most of them invasive species. But they didn't invade. We brought them here. We brought the Asian carp, for example, to the Great Lakes from Asia. And since the local wildlife have had no time to adapt to the new arrivals, the carp are wiping them out by the millions. For the Army Corps of Engineers to keep them from taking over the Great Lakes altogether would cost $18 billion. That's just one invasive species. (Of course, the single most expensive invasive species is humans. But there's no corps of engineers that can keep us at bay.)
What to Do? At the end of her talk, Kolbert pays tribute to all the people who are trying to save animals who are going extinct – from the frogs to the elephants to the coral reefs. But will this help turn things around?
"Even people who are not directly part of efforts like these give lots of money to groups that do really great work. And I would like to be able to end on that sort of upbeat note, and that we just need to get even more people involved in efforts like that.
"But that, unfortunately, wouldn't really be true ... Caring is not really the issue. It doesn't really matter how we feel about this. It doesn't matter how much we're concerned about it. What matters is that we are changing the world. That's what makes us comparable to an asteroid [like the one that caused the previous mass extinction 65 million years ago].
"And until and unless we confront that – that we are that world-changing force, I'm afraid that we're really just not confronting the problem."
At question time, Kolbert says she doesn't know if humans, too, will go extinct.
We're very good at taking over the habitat and resources of other animals. But the dinosaurs were an incredibly successful group of animals for tens of millions of years. And when the rules suddenly change, as in an asteroid impact (and as in what's happening now), you never what's going to happen.
Can humans act in a way that's beneficial to the planet?
Maybe. But hunter gatherers were sending animals to extinction for thousands of years before any kind of civilization. "I'm sad to say that we've been doing this for a very long time, and it's now just ramped up incredibly."
What about all the children who have to walk miles for a bowl of water?
The trouble is that lifting people out of poverty tends to take resources, so the more we do to help humankind, the worse off we leave the other animals. It's a Catch-22.
And so to the teenage boy. He gets the last question –a two-parter. It's a poignant moment. Perhaps more than anyone in the auditorium, he understands what this means for him and his generation.
Is the situation irreversible? And what can we do?
Unlike most of her peers, Kolbert is too honest to hold out false hope. And unlike most of his peers – most of the entire population – the boy asking the questions wants the truth.
And the truth is that the problem is not what we humans DO. It's not even what we ARE. It's THAT we are.