We Are the Champions Overkillers

Okay, now I’m really looking forward to reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Review by Kathryn Schulz, in NYMag:

Environmental issues are not known for their entertainment value: Pollution is dreary, energy wonky, climate change depressing. Perversely, extinction, which should be the most existentially troubling, is something of an exception. That’s thanks almost entirely to the end-Cretaceous, whose outer space–meets–T. Rex plot could have been written by H. P. Lovecraft, or 10-year-old boys, or the folks who brought us Snakes on a Plane.

In print, at least, the New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert shares none of those sensibilities. But in her new book, The Sixth Extinction, she makes a page-turner out of even the most sober and scientifically demanding aspects of extinction. Combining a lucid, steady, understated style with some enviable reporting adventures (chasing frogs in the Panamanian jungle, watching coral spawn in the Great Barrier Reef), she produces a book that is both serious-­minded and invites exclamation points into its margins. You will finish The Sixth Extinction knowing a lot about the history and ecology of mass die-offs. You will also know that the Bikini Atoll once went by the less wearable name of Eschscholtz; that certain frogs “survive the winter frozen solid, like popsicles”; and that, if you were a dinosaur in Canada when that asteroid hit the Yucatán, you had approximately two minutes to live.

Those facts—not just the fun ones, the sum total—supply the substance but also the tenor of this book. For a work of what we might term mid-apocalyptic nonfiction, The Sixth Extinction is remarkably restrained. Unlike in her last book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, Kolbert does not embroil herself here in the politics of environmental disaster. Instead, she exposes its ecological mechanisms, and, in what must be among the most studiously neutral sentences ever written, expresses the hope that readers “will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.” By which she means, of course, the truly extraordinary moment in which so much around us begins to die….

In the penultimate chapter of her book, Kolbert [examines] one particularly troubling extinction. The Neanderthals were extremely similar to us; less than 0.3 percent of our DNA diverges. But they did not venture into new terrain, they did not significantly alter the terrain they were already in, and they certainly did not make a bonsai project out of the tree of life. They had, in Kolbert’s words, “no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate.”

Meanwhile, we Homo sapiens traveled out of Africa en route to everywhere, encountered the Neanderthals in Europe, had sex with them, and, directly or through competition for resources, exterminated them. Some 30,000 years later, we rediscovered them, via their remains, in a cave in limestone cliffs in a valley in Germany. That cave no longer exists. Those cliffs no longer exist. We quarried the limestone, smelted it with coke and iron ore, and converted it to steel.

What species does this? Only ours. Somewhere along the line, thanks to some twist in that 0.3 percent of uniquely human DNA, we became the sort of creatures who could level cliffs and turn stone to steel; “the sort of creature,” Kolbert writes, “who could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.”…

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53 replies
  1. 1
    Schlemizel says:

    It’s too depressing, we are a dead species walking. I am just hoping for a miracle for my grandkids. We are still years away from actually trying to stop the bleeding let alone actually doing anything.

    OT – here is a good story to open discussions:

  2. 2
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    You will also know that the Bikini Atoll once went by the less wearable name of Eschscholtz;

    I already knew that.

  3. 3

    This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius the Antropocene.

  4. 4
    Schlemizel says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader:

    I like going to the beach & watching the girls in their Eschscholtz. Nah, doesn’t work as well

  5. 5

    Agent Smith had us pegged in the Matrix:

    I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

  6. 6
    NotMax says:

    Yellow Polka Dot Eschscholtz would never have made the charts.

  7. 7


    Isn’t that the problem with human beings, we are like a flea infestation on the surface of the planet, we really are just a problem. The movie “The day the earth stood still” should really be a wake up call for us, but of course it won’t be. “are you here to save us?” “I am here to save the planet”. Humans self righteously believe that the planet is ours to plunder at will. We will eventually kill ourselves because of our short sightedness.

  8. 8
    Belafon says:

    Copied from previous thread:

    Dale Hanson at WFAA here in Dallas has a great rant about the NFL and Michael Sam. Well worth the watch. Got it from LGF.

  9. 9

    Why the constant doom and gloom on Balloon Juice off late, is it because of SAD?

  10. 10
    Eric S. says:

    I listened to her interview on Fresh Air while running today instead of music. The distance went by wicket than normal. I think I’ll be putting it in my reading queue.

  11. 11
    Corner Stone says:


    “are you here to save us?” “I am here to save the planet”

    Shit. The earth is 14B+ years old. It’s killed pretty much every species that was ever in existence. I’m pretty sure there is nothing we can do to harm “the planet”.
    In 20,000 years Chernobyl will be livable again.

  12. 12
    jayboat says:

    I remember a quote by Carl Sagan…

    from the late 70’s/early 80’s – hell, what’s the diff? It was a while ago.
    I think it was an article in OMNI mag and they had asked 10 famous thinkers to share their thoughts on the general state of mankind.

    To paraphrase CS:
    *”Hopefully, technology will advance quickly enough in the next 50 years to prevent us from killing ourselves.”*

    I am sure I was generally more hopeful 25 years ago.
    That article last week predicting loss of all saltwater fish by 2048 has stuck with me like a ringing phone.
    The fact we are even having that discussion makes me want to do really bad things…

    We’ll probably be able to fling a few folks into space in a few more years but their expected lifespan is a subject open for debate.

    The planet is not an empire. I hope we have not lost the battle.

  13. 13
    NotMax says:


    Plan 9 From Outer Space on the human mind and how we apply its capabilities.

  14. 14
    Eric S. says:

    @Corner Stone: No less than George Carlin did a routine where he suggested the Earth created human beings so humans could create Styrofoam (or plastic I can’t recall) because Mother Earth couldn’t do it herself. Now that She has our byproduct She no longer need us.

  15. 15
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Corner Stone:

    I’m pretty sure there is nothing we can do to harm “the planet”.

    Yeah, the planet will keep right on turning, but our species just might have screwed ourselves — well, our immediate descendants.

    Back in 1973, my first semester at a Midwestern state university, I took a class on population ecology. Around the midpoint of the semester, some of the more gungho students worked out the multifactorial equation for predicting boom-and-bust species populations like voles, with ‘humans’ as the measured species. Point where the global hairless-primate cadre was due for a 70%-90% dieoff was… sometime in the late 1980s, give or take. Students demanded the professor tell us what this meant, to which he said, essentially: We can’t think about it, because we can’t do anything about it.

    One among many reasons why I never had kids. But, on the bright side, we’ve outlasted the pessimists by a generation, right?

  16. 16
    JGabriel says:


    Somewhere along the line, thanks to some twist in that 0.3 percent of uniquely human DNA, we became … “the sort of creature,” Kolbert writes, “who could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.”…

    Man. We really are assholes.

  17. 17
  18. 18
    JGabriel says:


    I like going to the beach & watching the girls in their Eschscholtz. Nah, doesn’t work as well.

    Actually, it kind of sounds kinkier. Like dressing up in some sort of Escher-derived pan-dimensional sexual pleasure gear.

  19. 19

    @Anne Laurie: Haven’t people been predicting the end of the world and the human species for a millenia now?

  20. 20
    Cassidy says:

    Pretty sure this warrants an extinction level event.

  21. 21
    Elizabelle says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    is it because of SAD?

    Yeah, no kidding. A sea of Eeyores. Gag.

  22. 22
    Baud says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    This time, we’re serious!

  23. 23
    JGabriel says:

    Corner Stone:

    The earth is 14B+ years old.

    I assume that’s probably a typo, but no, the earth is about 4 billion years old, not 14. And there’s only been multicellular life on it for about 600 million years, assuming the Ediacaran biota is composed from multicellular life forms.

    14 billion years is roughly the age of the universe.

  24. 24
    Corner Stone says:

    @JGabriel: Oh, sorry. I meant 4000 years old.

  25. 25
    Mike E says:

    @Corner Stone: Take the 1 off 14+b and you’ll have the age of our planet correct…I like to put it at 4.56789b, for greater accuracy.

  26. 26
    jl says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    ” Haven’t people been predicting the end of the world and the human species for a millenia now? ”

    Yeah, but that was religious fanatic stuff, and we expected the divine being of our choice to do it for us.

    Now we are making sure it gets done right, we are making it happen ourselves, dammit. Which maybe proves some old proverb or another.

    We’ll know we got it right when reactionaries and wingnuts go from saying ‘liberal myth’ to ‘well, maybe it’s for the best’ to ‘It’s the American way, let winners win and losers lose!’. Which will be cold comfort to sane people.

  27. 27
    Baud says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Why the constant doom and gloom on Balloon Juice off late, is it because of SAD?

    Ever since John’s car got stuck in the middle of that field, people have been kind of mopey.

    It’s like that car…symbolizes…us…abandoned and alone in a frozen country field.

    It haunts me….

  28. 28
    Ripley says:

    So the entire human species is a destructive virus? Wow. Now that’s punching down.

  29. 29
    jl says:

    @Baud: I thought it was Cole’s cat butt hygiene fiasco.

  30. 30

    @Baud: Sounds like a country song.

  31. 31
    Mike E says:

    @Baud: Katanusqatsi: Pet Life Out of Balance and Without Mustard.

  32. 32
  33. 33

    First we lost the mustard
    Then we lost our beloved Tunch
    Losing the car was the last straw
    Now we wait for the world to end
    While tapping on the keys of the our latest electronic device.

  34. 34
    Francis says:

    On the good side: we are a tremendously inventive, creative and adaptable species. Our aggregate levels of violence continue to drop and even here in the US some states (like my home of California) actually manage to govern themselves moderately competently.

    Also on the good: Food in the US is so cheap that we can throw away tons of it. The existence of so much slack in the food system means that as droughts and heat waves hit we still have enough land to grow enough food (for a while).

    On the bad: We show no signs of being able to kick the hydrocarbon habit. Yes solar and wind are exploding in use. But they are starting from such a low baseline that it seems unlikely that they can replace coal / oil / natural gas in time before global warming really bites hard.

    So even though I probably won’t live long enough to see it, my guess is that in 40 – 60 years from now there will be a series of desperate attempts at geo-engineering (sulfates into the high atmosphere) that will at first stave off the worst of the heat waves, but will ultimately in the following decades lead to the collapse of industrial farming, starvation and war.

  35. 35
    muddy says:

    @JGabriel: I know, so mean. Personally I am glad for it, as I have gotten to know much more about my peeps.

  36. 36
    Anoniminous says:


    And don’t that just shave the cat’s ass?

  37. 37
    Pogonip says:

    @Schlemizel: Aren’t all species, with the possible exception of cockroaches, dead men walking? Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, as a great 20th century philosopher noted.

  38. 38
    Eric S. says:

    @Anoniminous: John doesn’t declaw his cats (I fully approve of his choice) and that means there will be no ass shaving.

  39. 39
    Pogonip says:

    My car’s in a field
    My mustard can’t be found
    My cat’s butt is unpeeled
    Lord, life’s gettin’ me down
    I got them old toxic-water West Virginia fracking blues

  40. 40
    jl says:


    ” geo-engineering… that will at first stave off the worst of the heat waves, but will ultimately in the following decades lead to the collapse of industrial farming, starvation and war. ”

    Another good side is that we DO have a lot of practice at war.

  41. 41

    @Pogonip: Much better than my sad attempt at poetry!

  42. 42

    @jl: And the most dangerous weapons.

  43. 43
    jl says:


    The song titles will look good on a late night commercial for a self-produced album.

    Lost Mustard Lament
    Cat Butt Dingleberry Blues
    Real Bitch ,Gittin’ the Car from the Ditch

    And the classic

    That Skinny Kid I Yelled at Thinking He Were a Drunken Frat, It Got Me So Down.

    Which sounds like a novelty song, but is a heartfelt country meditation on civility, or something like that.

    Edit: And, the unforgettable country boogie: Mom’s Snarkin’ at Me on the Tely-phone.

  44. 44
    Mart says:

    Keystone is a Trojan Horse for Enbridge.

    Google Enbridge + Projects and look around. Few people know that there are pipelines currently feeding the sludge to refineries northeast of Saint Louis. They are currently expanding line capacity from Flannagan, a central Illinois terminal, to the mother of all terminals in Cushing. (FYI Both terminal sites are in very high frequency tornado zones with 7/10,000 sq. miles expected annually.)

    Met a man in Quincy, IL building the Enbrdge Flannagan South line to Cushing, OK. It crosses the Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas Rivers to name a few. Flannagan is one of many Enbridge death funnel projects, although they have scaled back plans for new lines in Canada.


    “Enbridge Energy Company, Inc. (Enbridge) is currently constructing the Flanagan South Pipeline Project – a nearly 600-mile, 36-inch diameter interstate crude oil pipeline that will originate in Pontiac, Ill. and terminate in Cushing, Okla., crossing Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. The majority of the pipeline parallels Enbridge’s existing Spearhead crude oil pipeline right-of-way. Enbridge has also proposed to install seven pump stations including one at the Flanagan terminal and six along the pipeline route. Initial capacity will be 600,000 barrels per day (bpd).

    The Flanagan South Pipeline Project will provide the additional capacity needed to bring increased North American crude oil production to refinery hubs in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Flanagan South Pipeline Project will provide a long-term, stable and reliable source of energy for the U.S, enhancing the nation’s energy security. Communities located along the pipeline route will benefit from property taxes over the life of the pipeline, as well as from the creation of high-paying construction and manufacturing jobs, and associated economic activity during construction.”


    “The Flanagan South Pipeline gives North Dakota’s Bakken and western Canadian producers timely, economical and reliable options to deliver a variety of crude oil supplies to refinery hubs throughout the heart of North America or as far as the Gulf Coast. From Cushing, shippers can continue through the Seaway Crude Pipeline System to meet the crude supply needs of refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

    Here is a map of the Flannagan South project:


    Again, look around their website. Plenty more lines feeding the global death funnel.

  45. 45
    NotMax says:


    Plus the old standards “Who Let the Cat Out?” and “I Brought No Pants Tonight.”

  46. 46
    Cervantes says:

    Related (published this week):

    The largest mass extinction in the history of animal life occurred some 252 million years ago, wiping out more than 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of life on land — including the largest insects known to have inhabited the Earth. Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction, including an asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions, or a cataclysmic cascade of environmental events. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

    Now researchers at MIT have determined that the end-Permian extinction occurred over 60,000 years, give or take 48,000 years — practically instantaneous, from a geologic perspective. The new timescale is based on more precise dating techniques, and indicates that the most severe extinction in history may have happened more than 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought.

    Technical abstract and full paper here.

  47. 47
    stinger says:

    @Mart: Thanks for the information. I got a robocall last night wanting me to “press 1” to sign a petition to the President in support of the Keystone pipeline. I was shouting at the unresponsive young woman about how I was AGAINST the pipeline and SUPPORTED the President’s position, when I finally realized there was no human being on the other end of the line.

  48. 48
    Amir Khalid says:

    … But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

  49. 49
    Pogonip says:

    @Amir Khalid: I hope so. I’m tired of coming out on the losing end.

  50. 50
    Bugboy says:

    I saw Elizabeth Kolbert on the Daily Show last night, and I have to say as a biologist I usually cringe when authors investigate science topics. But what she said about global warming really caught my attention: it is causing mountain fauna to relocate down slope to remain in their optimum habitats, at a mind blowing rate of something like 30 feet a day. And if they are unable to mobilize to keep up with transient habitats, they die out.

  51. 51
    celticdragonchick says:


    I can remember from geology classes in the late eighties when that was still called the pre-Cambrian or the Cryptozoic.

  52. 52
    E. says:

    I am an attorney who has spent my entire adult life (30 yrs now) fighting this problem. I tell people that in my area of law (1) you don’t make any money, (2) everyone hates you, and (3) nothing you do makes any difference.

    The problem is provably unsolvable. And yet I carry on anyway. Don’t ask me why unless you want to hear a lot of contradictory nonsense about Albert Camus and unjustifiable persistence.

    There is hope, but not for us.

  53. 53
    C.V. Danes says:


    It’s too depressing, we are a dead species walking. I am just hoping for a miracle for my grandkids.

    Humanity will survive. It’s our societies that are the walking dead.

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