Kolbert goes to the Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) in San Diego to study a peculiar topic—the future. There, she is shown a set of vials, in which the last genetic remains of the black-faced honeycreeper, a nearly extinct Hawaiian bird, reside. Kolbert sees other vials that contain the genetic material of other extinct or near-extinct animals. In all, the ICR’s collection of genetic material is known as the “frozen zoo.”
While conservation is a very new field, there are scientists all over the world who have devoted their lives to preserving endangered species. The lengths to which ICR is willing to go in order to try to preserve endangered species illustrates the contradictory nature of humans—human activities endanger animals and also save them.
Kolbert wonders, “Does it have to end this way?”—do the world’s beautiful plants and animals need to go extinct to make room for humanity? While it’s true that humans can be destructive, they can also be “forward-thinking and altruistic.” In 1974, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which arranged for the protection of animals on the verge of going extinct. Teams of scientists and conservationists have done a great deal to prevent species from being wiped out. It seems altogether better to save at-risk species than to “speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials.”
Kolbert takes a nuanced view of human nature: even if humans have enormous capacity for destruction (they’ve been wiping out other species for as long as they’ve been on this planet), they also have the capacity to nurture and protect. So perhaps it’s possible that scientists, working with the general public, will be able to prevent certain at-risk species from dying out for good—at any rate, working towards protection is better than pessimistic speculation, which is one of Kolbert’s few prescriptive statements in the book.
Next to the ICR, there’s a veterinary hospital that serves both the ICR and the nearby San Diego zoo. Inside, Kolbert speaks with Barbara Durrant, a reproductive physiologist, about extinction and survival. Durrant tells Kolbert about a Hawaiian crow named Kinohi. As Hawaiian crows are endangered, Durrant was trying to get Kinohi to reproduce, but she had no success. It’s indicative of how seriously humans take extinction that they are willing to spend thousands of hours getting crows, rhinos, and other species to bear offspring.
Barbara Durrant’s efforts to get Kinohi to have offspring symbolize the collective effort that human beings—particularly scientists and conservationists—are putting into protecting endangered species. Perhaps if more people were aware of the Sixth Extinction, they would be willing to change their behavior and protect some endangered species. In this sense, Kolbert’s book could play an important role in educating the public and protecting wildlife.
Throughout her book, Kolbert has been talking about the Anthropocene era, or, put another way, the Sixth Extinction: the mass-extinction of the world’s life forms, caused by human behavior. It’s not clear if the Sixth Extinction will continue to eliminate many more species, or if humans will be able to control their behavior and preserve what remains of the world’s biodiversity. Humans have an enormous capacity for solving problems and behaving selflessly, so perhaps it’s not inevitable that biodiversity will continue to plummet.
Kolbert does not come down forcefully on one side of this issue. Perhaps the “damage is done” and the Sixth Extinction will continue to cause the deaths of countless species across the Earth, or, perhaps, if humans are capable of altering their own environments, they’ll be able to change their behavior and increase the planet’s biodiversity once again. However, one thing is clear: if humans do nothing at all, species will continue to go extinct at an incredible rate.
In the middle of the American Museum of Natural History, there is a small exhibit about the Sixth Extinction. The exhibit shows some of the extinct animals of the past, and even implies that, one day, humans could go extinct, too. When we study the history of life on Earth, it becomes clear that “past performance is no guarantee of future results”—thus, the fact that humans have survived for so long doesn’t prove that they’ll continue to survive.
One implication of this passage is that, if human beings aren’t conscious of the role they play in mass-extinction, they could go extinct themselves. Thus, for their own good, as well as for the good of the planet, humans need to find ways to preserve the ecosystem. Otherwise, the world’s rising sea levels and plummeting biodiversity could have serious ramifications for human populations.
Some argue that human ingenuity will allow the species to survive indefinitely—perhaps we’ll explore other planets and find more space to develop. But Kolbert argues that the survival of the human species, while important, isn’t the most important question we should be asking. Perhaps, instead, we should focus on the present state of life on Earth: right now. Humans are unknowingly causing some species to go extinct and others to survive. No matter what decisions humans make, it’s already clear that “the Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life” for a long time to come.
To some extent, humans have changed their environment irreversibly (there’s no chance, for example, that mastodons will walk the Earth again). However, it may be possible for humans to change their behavior and preserve what remains of the world’s biodiversity. The first step toward preserving the environment must be education. At the moment, the theory of mass-extinction is familiar to a handful of scientific specialists, and unknown to much of the general public. Perhaps, by writing about mass-extinction in her book, Kolbert can educate the lay-reader and convince people to take climate change more seriously.