Is Humankind the New Planet and Species-Destroying Asteroid?

After fighting so long as a Cassandra of the coming ecological catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert's latest, The Sixth Extinction, embraces the long view of disaster.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Publisher: Henry Holt
Length: 352 pages
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-02

Not so long ago, the idea of a species winking out of existence was a laughable proposition. Now, it’s accepted science. Not only that, but species are disappearing at a disquietingly rapid rate. In other words, take a good look now at all the animals you can. They may not be around in a few years.

That, at least is the warning of Elizabeth Kolbert's impactful new book. In her swift and breezy apocalyptic survey, The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert writes about Georges Cuvier, one of the most important scientific researchers whose name is today barely spoken by non-scientists. A temperamental French naturalist who infuriated as much as he enlightened, Cuvier was working at the Paris Museum of Natural History — whose holdings had been liberated by the revolution from Louis XV's private Cabinet du Roi — in 1795 when he came across some interesting bones that had been shipped to the king decades earlier by one of his explorers in the Ohio River Valley.

Cuvier compared these bones to those of elephants, which they most closely resembled. There were many fascinating discrepancies, particularly with the brick-size teeth. In a 1796 lecture on "the species of elephant, both living and fossil", Cuvier presented his findings: the American bones came from an animal that no longer existed. He said that the animal he would later term a mastodon had last been alive some five or six thousand years previous.

According to Kolbert, this discovery "of a world previous to ours" — and his followup theory of periodic “cataclysms” — was one of those thunderclap breakthroughs that fundamentally reshapes the way humanity looks at itself and its environment. Cuvier wasn't an all-around revolutionary thinker, though. He was so set in classical ways of looking at the natural world that he found early theories of natural selection, called transformisme at the time, preposterous. Nevertheless, his discovery that entire species of organisms could be erased entirely from the planet’s surface, and frequently were, was one of science’s first steps towards the realization that humanity could dramatically impact our ecosystem, frequently for the worse.

The first five of the calamitous mass extinction events discussed here — periods of “substantial biodiversity losses” in one chillingly clinical understatement — have all natural suspects. The last of the "Big Five", after all, took place during the end-Cretaceous period some 65 million years ago, well before hairy bipeds had first waggled their opposable thumbs. That was the mega-disaster caused when a six-mile-wide asteroid smashing into the Yucatan peninsula at about 45,000 miles an hour, with an impact comparable to over one million of the most powerful hydrogen bombs ever tested. An apocalyptic cloud of fiery, toxic debris incinerated much of the Earth’s surface, and sulphurous dust shrouded the sky. "Day turned to night," Kolbert writes, "and temperatures plunged."

In this massacre, on land “every animal larger than a cat seems to have died out.” Four-fifths of all lizard and snake species vanished, and the marine ecosystem essentially collapsed for a period of several million years termed by one scientist "the Strangelove ocean." The 1980 paper first proposing this blockbuster movie-like cause for the period’s well-recorded disappearance of whole swaths of the animal kingdom was initially greeted with some derision. But the fossil record and an easily graspable cause-effect scenario (a comet killed the dinosaurs) quickly made a compelling case. Carl Sagan and other scientists further popularized the idea by proposing that a similar scenario of long-term darkened skies and freezing cold could happen after a nuclear exchange.

Even if humans makes it through without ever lobbing ICBMs at each other, though, our species is already leaving its dark mark on the Earth’s history. In Kolbert's somewhat haphazardly organized book, she jumps from the scene of one massacre to the next. It’s a globe-trotting environmental crime story. From a field in strip-mall New Jersey to an elegant Italian island castle in the Tyrrhenian Sea, she zooms in on examples of how seemingly small changes portend the great changes to come. Unlike some of the more apocalyptic climate-change writers out there, Kolbert doesn’t use her book to warn that humanity is endangering itself — though it’s impossible to read of these wholesale extinctions and not take the next logical step — so much as to document the full extent of the species’ impact on our surroundings. Many scientists are even starting to call the current era the Anthropocene, in deference to that impact.

In Kolbert’s account, the Anthropocene is marked by accelerated change and disruptions recalling the natural calamities of the past. In other words, humankind is the new asteroid. There’s the ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide concentrations destroying everything from frogs to coral reefs (increased "biotic attrition" in one of the book's more memorably clinical terms). "Fragmentation" of ecosystems by residential sprawl, transportation corridors, and ranching and farmland slashes ecosystems to ribbons. Interlocking webs of travel networks make continental boundaries meaningless, mixing flora and fauna together at higher rates of speed, dooming even more. The result, Kolbert writes, is much the same as the pulses of "megafauna" extinctions that started occurring some 40,000 years ago when humans began sweeping across the Earth and wiping out megaherbivores like Cuvier's North American mammoths. "It might be nice to imagine there once was a time when men lived in harmony with nature," Kolbert notes dispassionately. But "it's not clear that he ever really did."

That rate of human-caused extinction — which is added to the usual, nature-dictated "background extinction rate" of around one mammal species dying out every seven centuries or so — continues today at a murderous rate with no likely end in sight, according to this fairly resigned book. Roughly a quarter of mammal species and perhaps one in ten of all species are currently "headed towards oblivion" in the near future. Kolbert posits that “a century from now, pandas and tigers and rhinos may well persist only in zoos.” She writes in somewhat despondent fashion about ark-like “frozen zoos” where animal samples are kept in deep freeze so that they won’t disappear entirely. "Does it have to be this way?" She asks. "Does the last best hope for the world's most magnificent creatures really lie in pools of liquid nitrogen?"

There isn't much in the way of a prescription for change here. Kolbert's other writings on climate change, particularly Field Notes from a Catastrophe and her frequently incensed New Yorker pieces, have plenty of evidence to show that the hole being dug by climate change is a deep one. There’s an almost blasé cast to her writing that likely comes from having spent so long warning about the obvious and seeing so little demonstrable change.

But there’s realism and then there’s despondency. The Sixth Extinction leans towards the former. Kolbert gamely tries to end her book on a positive note, and it’s a good one. She points out the extraordinary, and mostly volunteer, measures that humanity has taken to save species like the whooping crane and condor from disappearing as examples of what can be done when energies are focused and passions ignited.

Hope does matter in the end, even when it’s slim.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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