Here where I live, on a small peninsula called Cape Cod that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean from New England, negative changes in the environment are obvious. Some problems result directly from overdevelopment and careless use of natural resources – such as ground water pollution from old septic tanks and fertilizer runoff in marshes choked by weeds and problems with the drinking water supply. Through a multitude of public agencies and NGOs, we are at least mitigating these local problems, if not resolving them. Other negative impacts, however, are related to global climate change – such as coastal erosion from an overall rise in ocean levels exacerbated by battering storms, and the decline in fishing stock related to warmer ocean temperature. No matter how many strategies we pursue to expand resilience on Cape Cod, the rapid pace of global climate change feels overwhelming. Do you share this feeling, where you live?
During the last month, I imagine that some of us have been feeling overwhelmed by compassion for the homeless families fleeing the hurricanes hurtling across Central America, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, and the Gulf Coast of the U.S., as well as fear for those fleeing the wildfires along the northern Pacific coast of the U.S. And we probably all have shared some fear for our vulnerability in the face of what appears to be random human violence that could affect any of us or our families at any time.
And now, as a book club assignment, I have read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014, Picador) by Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Kolbert tells the story of the impact of our human species on all the other forms of life during our era on this planet. One of the amazing facts about this time in the life of the planet is that the history of the five prior eras terminated by extinctions has been recovered just as people have come to realize that they are causing another die-off that will terminate what is being called the Anthropocene Era.
Each of thirteen chapters in The Sixth Extinction tracks the disappearance of an emblematic species – such as the American mastodon, the auk, dinosaurs, golden frogs, the Amazon rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef, the Neanderthals, etc. As Kolbert tells these engrossing stories (all vetted by scientists), she leads the reader to “an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.” Those of us alive today not only are witnessing one of the most fruitful periods of our singularly resourceful, adaptive, and innovative human species, but we are also very close to the time when a mass extinction that we have created will end our Anthropocene Era.
Needless to say, thinking about mass extinction is transformative. Suddenly, there is no “forever.” Certainly no “world without end.” How should I talk with my grandchild about the future? How can we gauge the distance to the end of “forever”? William James equated “intelligence” with “tolerance of ambiguity.” But how much ambiguity can we tolerate?