The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
I am using this book for a conservation biology class that I am teaching this semester. In this book, Elizabeth Kolbert tell us that over the last half a billion years, there have been five major mass extinctions. During each one of these episodes of massive species loses, the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted.
The author of this book makes the compelling case that human activities are behind the sixth mass extinction in the Earth’s history. This extinction did not happen in the past, this extinction is happening right now, and we are the main reason why it is occurring.
We are putting down massive amounts of pavement, moving species around the planet, over-fishing and acidifying the oceans, changing the chemical composition of rivers, fragmenting and destroying natural habitats, and much more. Contrary to previous mass extinctions, the cataclysm that is currently driving thousand of species to extinction is us.
Welcome to the Anthropocene!
One of the chapters of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is entitled "Welcome to the Anthropocene". The term Anthropocene was coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s. Interestingly, the term has been popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen who has indicated that the influence of human behaviour on our planet's atmosphere in recent centuries is so significant that it should constitute a new geological epoch for the lithosphere.
According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age. However, the use of the word Anthropocene is now so popular that the question whether or not we are still in the Holocene is now debatable. Last year, the term Anthropocene appeared in nearly 200 peer-reviewed articles and the publisher Elsevier launched a new academic journal titled Anthropocene in 2013. A quick search of the word "anthropocene" in Amazon.com resulted in 134 books, including a few that attracted my intention: The Anthropocene: A New Planet Shaped by Humans, Entrepreneurship in the Anthropocene Era: It Could Be the Best of Times or The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us. Recently, the IUGS convened a group of scholars to decide by 2016 whether to officially declare that the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun.
During our class discussion, my students and I were literally "fascinated" by the use of the term Anthropocene. I should specify that we were not necessarily interested in examining the question whether or not we are currently in the Holocene or the Anthropocene, but on the belief system behind the use of the word anthropocene. Why do people use this term?
I think that as a collective group, my students and I realize that why and how people use the term "anthropocene" may also be a good subject for a debate. Are we using the term Anthropocene to indicate that we are finally aware of all the adverse effects that our behaviour and activities are having on the other species and the planet? Or, are we using the term Anthropocene simply because we (humans) see ourselves as the center of the universe, and believe that this is the epoch of human domination on Earth?
It is clear that the implications of viewing ourselves as the dominant species in the planet are far more important than determining whether or not the Holocene is over. I believe that the main issue that we are facing today is to know whether or not we are capable of using the knowledge, technology and tools that we have developed or acquired over the last 250 years to change things. Or, are we going to pursue our search for unlimited power and dominance on other species and see them going extinct without feeling any remorse? Although the idea that one species could dominate a planet is usually the subject of science fiction movies, it is the disturbing reality of our planet in this case.