“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”
Note: I read this book as a part of Doing Dewey’s Non-Fiction Book Club. Check it out or join in!
In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert, a science writer for the New Yorker, covers five of the largest known extinction events in Earth’s history in order to provide some context for the theory that we may currently be in the middle of a sixth such event of similar magnitude. But while previous extinctions are attributable to such natural events as asteroid impacts, ice ages, or volcanic activity, Kolbert marshals ample evidence to suggest that this most recent, and ongoing, event may be a result of human impacts on Earth’s ecosystems. Humans have an unparalleled ability to kill, often faster than a species can reproduce, as was the case for the great auk. Combine that with our ability to destroy or alter habitats, and transport invasive species across the globe, and you have an ongoing ecological catastrophe that is probably already irreversible.
From a modern perspective, it can be easy to forget that the concept of extinction had to be invented, that at one time, it was thought that every species that God had ever created was still living on the earth, part of an essential balance that could not be disturbed. Similarly, for anyone under thirty, the impact theory explanation for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the death of the dinosaurs) has been generally accepted all our lives, but anyone a bit older will remember how contentious it once was. For some, climate change remains equally controversial. But as Kolbert details, perhaps a third of the carbon that was once sequestered in fossil fuels has now been absorbed into the oceans, causing them to become more acidic, and less hospitable to many forms of life. By taking us through how our understanding of extinction developed, Kolbert makes our modern predicament more understandable.
The topic of extinction offers Kolbert a surprisingly broad scope, freeing her to explore everything from climate change to ocean acidification, and encompassing geology, paleontology, and the study of invasive species. Kolbert traveled extensively as part of her research for the book, from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in Reykjavik, to One Tree Island and the Great Barrier Reef, and from El Valle de Anton in Panama to Castello Argonese on the Mediterranean. Not far from her own home, she investigates white-nose syndrome, a cold-loving fungus that is killing bats all over the Eastern United States and Canada. Kolbert takes a broad swathe of scientific knowledge and explains it clearly. Although many of the concepts have been simplified significantly, she is careful to note where certain ideas are (or were at one time) controversial, and introduce the varying theories that might account for different events. Her work is also an excellent demonstration of how deeply interlinked things are, and how our impact on one area can have untold consequences.
You might also like The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
3 thoughts on “The Sixth Extinction”
Thinking about the way the facts we take for granted change over time was one of the things I found most entertaining about this book! I can’t imagine the idea of extinction being a revolutionary idea when it’s now such common knowledge. I also agree that the scope of this book was pretty impressive. Although I wish all the stories she’d told had been a bit more organized, I loved all the different things I learned and I wanted to read more about nearly every topic!
Some more structure and organization certainly wouldn’t have hurt, but I was so captivated by the interesting topics she was covering that I wasn’t overly bothered by it.