The Sixth Extinction Quotes

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
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“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world. This capacity predates modernity,”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Somewhere in our DNA must lie the key mutation (or, more probably, mutations) that set us apart—the mutations that make us the sort of creature that could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Zalasiewicz is convinced that even a moderately competent stratigrapher will, at the distance of a hundred million years or so, be able to tell that something extraordinary happened at the moment in time that counts for us as today. This is the case even though a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers—roads, clear-cuts, cities—that prevent them from doing so.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but "one weedy species.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been sequestered for tens—in most cases hundreds—of millions of years. In the process, we are running geologic history not only in reverse but at warp speed.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it. A tiny set of genetic variations divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“By transporting Asian species to North America, and North American species to Australia, and Australian species to Africa, and European species to Antarctica, we are, in effect, reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent—what biologists sometimes refer to as the New Pangaea.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“The anthropologist Richard Leakey has warned that “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“One of the many unintended consequences of the Anthropocene has been the pruning of our own family tree. Having cut down our sister species—the Neanderthals and the Denisovans—many generations ago, we’re now working on our first and second cousins. By the time we’re done, it’s quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems. By disrupting these systems—cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans—we’re putting our own survival in danger.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“If climate change drove the megafauna extinct, then this presents yet another reason to worry about what we are doing to global temperatures. If, on the other hand, people were to blame—and it seems increasingly likely that they were—then the import is almost more disturbing. It would mean that the current extinction event began all the way back in the middle of the last ice age. It would mean that man was a killer—to use the term of art an “overkiller”—pretty much right from the start.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“with the exception of humans, all the great apes today are facing oblivion.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”)”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“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 and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“From the standpoint of the world’s biota, global travel represents a radically new phenomenon and, at the same time, a replay of the very old. The drifting apart of the continents that Wegener deduced from the fossil record is now being reversed—another way in which humans are running geologic history backward and at high speed. Think of it as a souped-up version of plate tectonics, minus the plates. By transporting Asian species to North America, and North American species to Australia, and Australian species to Africa, and European species to Antarctica, we are, in effect, reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent—what biologists sometimes refer to as the New Pangaea.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Darwin’s theory about how species originated doubled as a theory of how they vanished. Extinction and evolution were to each other the warp and weft of life’s fabric, or, if you prefer, two sides of the same coin. “The appearance of new forms and the disappearance of old forms” were, Darwin wrote, “bound together.” Driving both was the “struggle for existence,” which rewarded the fit and eliminated the less so.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“In fact, the American Mastodon vanished around thirteen thousand years ago. Its demise was part of a wave of disappearances that has come to be known as the megafauna extinction. This wave coincided with the spread of modern humans and, increasingly, is understood to have been a result of it. In this sense, the crisis Cuvier discerned just beyond the edge of recorded history was us.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Even now, at least thirty thousand years after the fact, the signal is discernible: all non-Africans, from the New Guineans to the French to the Han Chinese, carry somewhere between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“If warming were held to a minimum, the team estimated that between 22 and 31 percent of the species would be “committed to extinction” by 2050. If warming were to reach what was at that point considered a likely maximum—a figure that now looks too low—by the middle of this century, between 38 and 52 percent of the species would be fated to disappear.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“In a similar vein, Jared Diamond has observed: “Personally, I can’t fathom why Australia’s giants should have survived innumerable droughts in their tens of millions of years of Australian history, and then have chosen to drop dead almost simultaneously (at least on a time scale of millions of years) precisely and just coincidentally when the first humans arrived.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“A group of scientists led by Bärbel Hönisch, of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, recently reviewed the evidence for changing CO2 levels in the geologic past and concluded that, although there are several severe episodes of ocean acidification in the record, “no past event perfectly parallels” what is happening right now, owing to “the unprecedented rapidity of CO2 release currently taking place.” It turns out there just aren’t many ways to inject billions of tons of carbon into the air very quickly.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Amphibians—the word comes from the Greek meaning ‘double life.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Other calculations of his show that to keep pace with the present rate of temperature change, plants and animals would have to migrate poleward by thirty feet a day, and that a molecule of CO2 generated by burning fossil fuels will, in the course of its lifetime in the atmosphere, trap a hundred thousand times more heat”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Archaic humans like Homo erectus “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” Pääbo told me. “They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“the center of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Biodiversity, there’s an exhibit embedded in the floor. The exhibit is arranged around a central plaque that notes there have been five major extinction events since complex animals evolved, over five hundred million years ago. According to the plaque, “Global climate change and other causes, probably including collisions between earth and extraterrestrial objects,” were responsible for these events. It goes on to observe: “Right now we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
“Crutzen wrote up his idea in a short essay, “Geology of Mankind,” that ran in Nature. “It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch,” he observed. Among the many geologic-scale changes people have effected, Crutzen cited the following: • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet. • Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted. • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems. • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ coastal waters. • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff. Most significantly, Crutzen said, people have altered the composition of the atmosphere. Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by forty percent over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, has more than doubled. “Because of these anthropogenic emissions,” Crutzen wrote, the global climate is likely to “depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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