Here’s my complaint. What does it mean to label anthropogenic climate change “unnatural”? Given naturalism, we’re just another animal doing what our natures dictate: pursuing a survival advantage amidst competition for finite resources. No one calls a beaver’s dam “unnatural” when it obstructs the flow of water from a stream – how are our activities any different? Even if our contribution to the ecosystem radically altered the climate (I’m not saying it hasn’t), there’s simply no rationale for singling out humankind as somehow capable of “violating” nature. Given naturalism, how could climate change possibly be anything other than natural?
I think it comes down to the way we use the word “natural” and its prefixes. For example, what is meant by “unnatural?” It’s usually only used in a moral sense. Maybe it means the same as synthetic. Artifact. Not created by natural forces, but designed by a human.
The difference between the beaver dams and human dams is that beavers build them instinctively and always in the same way. There hasn’t been any innovation in beaver dam-making for hundreds of thousands of years that I know of. Humans, however, were not born knowing how to make damns. They had to figure it out and only began doing it relatively recently. And once started, they kept innovating, unlike the beavers, who always repeated the pattern.
(I don’t know the history of damns but I’m guessing damn-building started no earlier than 6000 years ago, when other unnatural arts, like irrigation were being figured out.)
Natural enterprises are those that are done blindly — like beaver dams, birds’ nests. Instinctive hard-wired behaviors that compel the brain to start constructing and always dictate the same pattern of construction.
Human enterprises are not natural (blind). They’re done with foresight. We look at a problem like flooding. We imagine how we might stop the flooding. On the canvass of our mind’s eye we imagine what kind of things might hold the flood back. We get an idea, persuade others to participate, and try to build a dam. (Or maybe they watch beavers doing it and copy them) There will be lots of mistakes but there will also be constant and continual innovation. Beavers could never build the Hoover dam. That takes foresight.
Humans are that part of Nature which sees; which can look ahead and foresee danger, opportunity and solutions. Nature is blind — it can’t look ahead. Of Nature’s creatures, only one species has developed foresight. Maybe we should be called Natural+.
What we *really* should be called is supernatural. We are one step *above* the rest of nature because of our sightedness. But we’ve already assigned that label to beings we’ve created. Originally, it was most likely the memories of exceptional ancestors who had died but whom we continued to experience in our dreams and believed were still alive somewhere and could be petitioned to help their descendants. (Or propitiated so they wouldn’t hurt them)
So this Sixth Extinction, if it occurs, will be the first extinction that was *foreseen*. No creature ever knew that the other five were coming, but humans have strong intimations about this one. And this will be the only extinction that was theoretically preventable by the species who caused it and who saw it coming.
Despite the evidence that humanity is driving mass extinctions, we have been woefully slow to adopt the necessary measures to solve this global environmental challenge. Our response to the mass extinction — as well as to the climate crisis — is still controlled by a hopelessly outdated view of our relationship to our environment.
Fortunately, history is full of examples of our capacity to overcome even the most difficult challenges whenever a controversy is finally resolved into a choice between what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong. The anomalies Kolbert identifies are too glaring to ignore. She makes an irrefutable case that what we are doing to cause a sixth mass extinction is clearly wrong. And she makes it clear that doing what is right means accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world.
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION
An Unnatural History, By Elizabeth Kolbert, Illustrated. 319 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $28.