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Witnessing mass extinction: what’s invisible, what’s visible, what’s possible

This paper was published in full online in Biological Conservation in October 2022 by Professor Eileen Crist. You can obtain the full paper from Eileen at


We are living in the time of the Sixth Mass Extinction. While many details elude us, we know that a mass extinction is underway from comparisons between background and current extinction rates, precipitous drops in wildlife populations, the shrinking of wild places, and the critical endangerment of biodiverse ecologies such as grasslands, tropical forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes, coral reefs, and continental shelves. This paper dissects the underpinnings of the Sixth Mass Extinction, with the intention of joining many other activists and thinkers to disrupt its seeming inevitability.

First, I discuss what has been invisible about anthropogenic mass extinction—the event itself—and the factors of silence, ignorance, and denial underlying its invisibility. Then I turn to the visible dimension of the Sixth Mass Extinction, namely, the action orientation of “entitled instrumentalism” that is driving it; I describe entitled instrumentalism as the wholesale assimilation of the natural world into a human-owned domain.

I end with considering the possibility of humanity charting an altogether different course.

We must recognize mass extinction as the inevitable upshot of nature colonization and awaken to the need to restore and preserve Earth’s cosmic wealth.


Photo credit: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

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