The title is a bit of a sledgehammer. Would you guess that The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals is a beautiful thing? Anne and Paul Ehrlich’s latest book (co-authored with Gerardo Ceballos) invites the reader to linger over mesmerizing photographs and to slowly absorb intricately crafted captions illuminating the life and times of Earth’s most fascinating denizens. The Sumatran orangutan, the scarlet macaw, the Asian elephant—black-tailed prairie dogs! Some books you like to hold in your hands and keep on holding, and this is one of them. That’s partly because the point-blank text makes it very clear that the gorgeous and beguiling subjects of its alarm soon may not exist much longer here or anywhere ever again.
The sixth extinction taking out species at a rate and magnitude rivaling the event that took out the dinosaurs presents a conceptual logjam. You and I are checking devices on our wrists that tell us how many calories those last three steps burned up; oops, we’ve got many more to go if we want to lose that extra pudge. There’s the registration sticker to put on the car; the kid to goad into getting higher SAT scores; the earnest desire to achieve more at work; the dream to have an exotic and profound vacation. We consider that the ultimate “reality check” is encapsulated on our tax returns. We are constantly in motion and it is very hard to stop and reconsider that all the boxes we routinely check to measure our forward ho! progress in this world is having a contrary result. We think we are achieving but we are taking away. We think we are creating but we are destroying.
The Annihilation of Nature explains what’s really going on. The virtues of the book go well beyond the beauty of its design and photographs, though those are enough reason to own and enjoy it. The text focuses on bird and mammal extinctions underway because these are the animals we Homo sapiens tend to identify with; many more species of all taxa are also blinking out all over the place.
In very clear prose it lays out the processes by which species extinctions are occurring, summarizing ecological principles like coevolution and trophic cascades in a way that makes them easy to understand. From this more focused attention on underlying mechanisms, the book goes to the larger vision of what’s out of whack here. In keeping with the Ehrlichs’ long focus on the subject, it’s the over-population of the Earth by one species, Homo sapiens.
Just a week ago I sat down with an evolutionary biologist friend who is in his late 70s. I wailed that I did not understand how all this could be happening – aren’t humans smart? Haven’t we figured out ways to do things more quickly and efficiently, haven’t we worked hard to achieve human rights for more people than historically one might have thought possible? How is it that we could allow our population to mushroom beyond the capacity of our resources to sustain us? Don’t other species ratchet down their breeding when conditions aren’t favorable to support their progeny? Surely we at least have some sort of equivalent instinct to keep our population at a sustainable level. My scientist friend very quietly, very patiently, told me that the way evolution works does not provide any reassurance that a “best” outcome is what happens. The most optimal outcome for all participants could unfold, or — things could go another way.
Essentially, the responsibility for a good or at least tolerable Earthly result is a matter of choice. Our choice. And of course the will and commitment to stick with that choice and see it through. We all know what the problem is – we constitute too much of the Earth’s biomass, and we consume too much. Between all of us and our domesticated livestock, we use up so much photosynthesis there isn’t enough left over to power other species through their days and lives. We use up other creatures directly to make the goods and services we adore, like sushi. We take away habitat from other plants and animals both to house ourselves and to stage the mercenary activity that fuels our economy. We are crowding other critters off the very planet. Paging slowly through this beautiful and profound book, gazing at the gorgeous creatures every moment becoming more memory than reality, one has to ask – is this a planet worth living on without them?