Welcome to the Sixth Extinction

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Nancy Joseph 05/02/2017 May 2017 Perspectives

As Jason Groves tells it, inspiration struck in his local supermarket. Standing in the check-out line, he noticed a chocolate bar from Endangered Species Chocolate, calling attention to the looming crisis of extinction. Groves, assistant professor of Germanics, reasoned that if extinction awareness had found its way into his grocery store, perhaps it was time to develop a humanities course on the topic.

“Though my background is in literary studies, that chocolate bar triggered me to think about offering a course on cultural representations of extinction, because there was clearly a cultural significance to something perhaps more commonly thought of as a scientific topic,” says Groves. 

Groves developed Cultures of Extinction, a course offered by the Department of Germanics and cross-listed with other humanities units and the College of the Environment. The focus is the Sixth Extinction, a term popularized over the past decade to describe the present period of extinction. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same title, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is one of the assigned readings.

"This class is one of my favorites to teach," says Jason Groves, with teaching assistant Nina Doejen.

“Over the course of history of life on the planet, the general consensus is that there have been five major extinction events,” Groves explains. “We are now in the middle of the sixth one. We are in the midst of a massive loss of biological diversity, with more than half of currently existing species expected to be extinct over the course of this event, which will probably last a couple hundred years. Most factors for this event can be traced back to human activity.”

To study the Sixth Extinction, Groves divides the course into three units: past, present, and future. He starts with the question “What is missing?” and presents memorials, including Maya Lin’s memorial to diversity loss — an interactive website that invites people to share personal memories of the natural world. Groves also touches on the loss of cultural diversity, noting that studies have shown a strong correlation between a loss of biodiversity and a loss of languages and other cultural diversity. 

...I’m advocating for the importance of the imagination, given the radical unknowability of the future of life.

Moving to the present, Groves asks, “What remains?” Students read Robinsonades, a literary genre with the theme of solitary survival, inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Groves assigns German post-World War II and Cold War Robinsonades that deal with individuals contending with a radically altered environment. “Robinsonades aren’t exclusively a European phenomenon, but those Robinsonades are interesting because so much of the built environment had been bombed into oblivion and populations were radically reduced, especially among marginalized groups. We discuss how writers came to terms with that insular condition, which has certain parallels to fragmented habitats in the Sixth Extinction.”

Looking toward the future, Groves then asks, “What will be?” The class reads Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a popular work of dystopian literature that takes place in the future, when nearly all humans and animal species are extinct as a result of a rogue genetic scientist. “Atwood is able to address so many contemporary issues — underfunding of the arts, ethical questions of biotechnology, adolescence, religion — all in this one book,” says Groves. “Students really respond to it.”

Texts assigned in class include Elizabeth Kolbert's nonfiction book The Sixth Extinction and Margaret Atwood's futuristic novel Oryx and Crake.

When he developed the course, Groves was concerned that the topic of extinction might be too depressing for students. He needn’t have worried. In class discussions and in group projects — designing a memorial, writing a Robinsonade, proposing a post-natural history museum exhibit — the 55 students in the class prove more than willing to engage with difficult material. “The content is heavy, but there is a sense of excitement in the class because I’m advocating for the importance of the imagination, given the radical unknowability of the future of life,” says Groves. 

The students also benefit from collaborating with classmates from about a dozen different majors. Salina Abraham, who took the class last year, still remembers her diverse team writing a Robinsonade about the last individual left on Kiribati, a Pacific Island likely to be hard hit by rising sea levels. “We began writing this separately; each person wrote one section and handed it off to the other,” recalls Abraham, a double major in economics and environmental science & resource management. “We had no idea where the story would end and how our writing styles would blend, but when we finished, it was an incredible blend of different perspectives in one seamless story. That experience has stayed with me because I think it alludes to how we should approach all global and environmental problems—with a diverse but integrated approach.”

Abraham says the class has also had a lasting effect in other ways. “I definitely look at the world differently,” she says. “I think even more about the humanity behind the numbers I encounter in environmental science and economics and the impact of my lifestyle and actions on those in the world.”

That’s the strength of the humanities — providing a human lens to better understand a pressing global issue. And that’s what inspired Groves to develop the course in the first place, after noticing that chocolate bar.

“Tackling a problem like extinction, a problem of this scale, requires public awareness and engagement alongside research by experts in order to be fully addressed,” Groves says. “As it turns out, this class is one of my favorites to teach. It’s exhilarating. I didn’t expect that.” 

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