This book is equal parts heartbreaking, infuriating, fascinating, and beautiful. It hits my sweet spot exactly between natural history, science, environmentalism, and travel writing (freaking Kolbert got to go to, off the top of my head, Australia, Germany, France, Peru, Panama, Iceland, Scotland, and Italy for this book, and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting some). This genre is my catnip, and if I could trade lives with any author on the planet, well, it would probably be Michael Palin, actually, but Elizabeth Kolbert and Mary Roach are close seconds.
When I’ve described The Sixth Extinction to people, they assume I’m talking about science fiction. I’m not. This book is about the current extinction event we are living through now. There have been five other extinction events so drastic and impactful, the most famous of which is the asteroid that killed not only the dinosaurs but a good 80% of species in existence at that time. Each has been caused by a different unique event. The asteroid. Global cooling. Plate tectonics. This one is being caused by us, not only through climate change but through deforestation, habitat loss and fragmentation, overhunting, overfishing, and general carelessness and exploitation of the planet on which we and a rapidly decreasing number of other species live.
We start with the gradual realization in the end of the 18th century that “extinction” was even a thing that could happen. That the plants and animals we live with now may not have always been here, and may not always be. From there we move on to the discovery of extinct animals, plants, microscopic organisms. of extinct time periods and continents, back in time to the history of life on Earth, and then forward to the alarm bells ringing today, the devastation we’re living through and what scientists are trying to do to stop it.
Elizabeth Kolbert does an excellent job doling out massive amounts of information and making it easy to digest, and spreading out the bad news so that it all doesn’t get too depressing.
It’s still pretty depressing, though.
I was amazed at how early we knew about the major causes of the current climate change. I remember first becoming aware of global warming and environmental issues in my first year of high school, when the environmental club circulated a petition for us to sign calling for Canada to sign the Kyoto Protocol. In my memories of that time, most people I talked to didn’t really believe in the issue or care that much. News on the topic was a constant debate about whether climate change actually existed. It honestly shocked me how long before that scientists knew about, and began studying, the crisis.
But centuries before that, people could see evidence of the great extinction right in front of their eyes.
In 1785, George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer, observed of these teams: “The destruction which they have made is incredible.” If a stop were not soon put to their efforts, he predicted, the great auk would soon “be diminished to almost nothing.”
But Kolbert does make sure to end on a hopeful note. The last few chapters describe human efforts to rescue species on the brink of extinction, to study and preserve the memories of what it might be too late to save.
Wouldn’t it be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can be done and is being done to save species, rather than to speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials? The director of a conservation group in Alaska once put it to me this way: “People have to have hope. I have to have hope. It’s what keeps us going.”
Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we’re willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows.