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Extinctions and Catastrophes: First-Year Students Start with the Tough Questions

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New Yorker science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert will appear in Bender Arena on September 4 at 8:00 pm.

If you’re worried about the Amazon rainforest burning, reading more about environmental devastation won’t cheer you up. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert not only confronts the present and future of global climate change, but invites readers to grapple with five previous examples of mass extinction.

“If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It’s also a fascinating one,” Kolbert readily admits in the prologue. “My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.”

The Sixth Extinction is this year’s Writer as Witness Program book selection, meaning every incoming first-year student was assigned to read it for their writing classes. Kolbert, a longtime New Yorker journalist, will appear at American University’s Bender Arena on Wednesday, September 4 at 8:00 pm.

Even with the grim topic, AU environmental science professor Karen Knee thinks it’s critically important that students learn about this sixth mass extinction. “I don’t want to inspire despair in anyone. I don’t really think despair is the necessary, or only, consequence of realizing there’s a serious problem,” Knee says. “I would like students to understand what’s going on, to care, and to want to do something about it.”


No Ordinary Time

Kolbert conveys the immediacy of our environmental challenges, and how they may be unique to this geologic period. One way she does this? By looking at frogs.

In ordinary times, extinction is an extremely rare occurrence. “Probably, one amphibian species should go extinct every thousand years or so. That species could be from Africa or from Asia or from Australia. In other words, the odds of an individual’s witnessing such an event should be effectively zero,” she writes.

Now, just about every herpetologist working has witnessed several amphibian extinctions, and Kolbert documents the rapid disappearance of golden frogs in central Panama. Even for an environmental scientist well-versed in the subject matter, this surprised Professor Knee.

“I had visited a friend who did Peace Corps service in that part of Panama, right where the frog center was,” she says. “I honestly had no idea that this massive die-off of frogs was happening in this place.”

Kolbert examines extinct animals like the American mastodon and the great auk, and what scientists learned from their annihilation. About 25 years ago, scientists were working toward a general theory to explain all mass extinctions. But now, Kolbert reports, scientists generally believe no single model can account for the drastic suddenness of mass extinctions.

“It may, in fact, be the very freakishness of the events that renders them so deadly; all of a sudden, organisms find themselves facing conditions for which they are, evolutionarily, completely unprepared,” Kolbert writes.

In showing how scientists came to believe these extinctions were abrupt, she follows the path of “uniformitarian” geologist Charles Lyell. She writes that Lyell believed “every feature of the landscape was the result of very gradual processes operating over countless millennia” and extinction was so slow that “it would not be surprising were it to go unnoticed.”

Yet the record now shows how Lyell’s reading of the fossil record was wrong. “The problem with the record is not that slow extinctions appear abrupt. It’s that even abrupt extinctions are likely to look protracted,” she writes.


Lucid Writing and Honest Reporting

Kolbert’s gift for translating complex concepts into easily discernable facts makes her an exemplary guide for young writers. “She might be a model for, ‘how do I unpack complicated things for a more general audience?’’’ says Adam Tamashasky, a senior professorial lecturer of literature who chaired the book selection committee. “There’s all this ‘debate’ about climate change and global warming. But in Kolbert’s book, she demystifies the science behind it.”

Tamashasky points to the vivid writing in her chapter on ocean acidification. “She explains how scientists are using an island off the coast of Italy, with these acidic vents in the ground,” he says. “The closer you get to the vents, the more acidic they get and the more you get a sense of what the oceans of the future will look like.”

While detailing the dangers of ocean acidification, Kolbert notes that roughly one-third of the CO2 humans have pumped into the air has been absorbed by oceans. She sheds light on the ramifications by comparing the process to how the human body metabolizes alcohol.

“Just as it makes a big difference to your blood chemistry whether you take a month to go through a six-pack or an hour, it makes a big difference to marine chemistry whether carbon dioxide is added over the course of a million years or a hundred. To the oceans, as to the human liver, rate matters,” she writes.

Tamashasky thinks Kolbert includes just the right amount of scientific detail in the book. “If she uses too much, she’s going to turn the audience off. If she uses too little, she won’t be accomplishing what she wants,” he says. “She is really trying to be a reporter by saying, ‘you need to understand what’s going on right now with climate change—its effect on water, its effect on species.’”


Opening Minds, Broadening Perspectives

During the initial stages of choosing the Writer as Witness book, Tamashasky says numerous campus student groups are consulted, including the Darkening, the College Democrats and the College Republicans. And over the years, various Writer as Witness books have certainly contained an ideological viewpoint.

Last year’s selection, Strangers in Their Own Land, involved a Berkeley sociologist empathizing with conservative voters in the heart of Tea Party/Trump country. While there is a scientific consensus on the climate-change issues raised in The Sixth Extinction, there’s by no means a political consensus on how to deal with them.

But Tamashasky, who also teaches a writing course on Charles Darwin, welcomes that kind of ideological diversity. “I love when students come in resistant to the idea of evolution and natural selection. Because A), those students tend to be just interesting. But then, as a class, we can all collectively engage with these ideas. The people of Darwin’s time were by and large skeptical—at best—of his ideas. So how does he write with that audience in mind, and what tools does he use to try to reach them?”

It could be similar with Kolbert’s book, Tamashasky says. “If a student comes into this class with an ‘eh, I don’t know about this climate change thing,’ well then, there’s some hard and fast passages in the book where she explains, ‘this is the science. This is what’s going on.’ And then we can engage with it and think, ‘how do you read this? How can we bolster those arguments?’”

Knee adds that, in her Gen Ed science classes, this material can illuminate the larger narrative about altered landscapes and climate change.

“Students may not be aware of how severe some of these problems we’re facing with extinction are,” Knee says. “She does a really good job of bringing the story to life. Enabling people to virtually travel to these places that most of us are never going to be able to physically travel to. And to become more aware of these problems that you might just write off and think, ‘oh, this has nothing to do with me.’”

In the Writing Studies Program, Tamashasky says faculty will frequently discuss writing about a conversation. He wants first-year AU students to recognize it’s their time to join this conversation.

“I hope that we’re opening the students’ eyes to the world around them, enlarging their perspectives and their concerns. So they can become a part of different solutions. If this book does that, then it’s a success.”