According to a study published in Science Advances, the current extinction rate could be more than 100 times higher than normal—and that’s only taking into account the kinds of animals we know the most about. Earth’s oceans and forests host an untold number of species, many of which will probably disappear before we even get to know them.
Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. We talked with her about what these new results might reveal for the future of life on this planet. Is there any chance we can put the brakes on this massive loss of life? Are humans destined to become casualties of our own environmental recklessness?
ND: The new study that’s generated so much conversation estimates that as many as three-quarters of animal species could be extinct within several human lifetimes, which sounds incredibly alarming.
EK: Yes. That study is looking at very well-studied groups of animals. They restricted themselves to vertebrates—like mammals and birds and reptiles and amphibians—and said, OK, let’s look at what is actually happening. And they document pretty compellingly that extinction rates were already extremely elevated in [the year] 1500, and are just getting worse and worse.
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