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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Paperback – January 6, 2015
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERA NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALISTOver the last half billion years there have been Five mass extinctions when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs This time around the cataclysm is us In prose that is at once frank entertaining and deeply informed New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost and the history of extinction as a concept Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind s most lasting legacy compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human A MAJOR BOOK ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD BLENDING INTELLECTUAL AND NATURAL HISTORY AND FIELD REPORTING INTO A POWERFUL ACCOUNT OF THE MASS EXTINCTION UNFOLDING BEFORE OUR EYES Over the last half billion years there have been five mass extinctions when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs This time around the cataclysm is us In prose that is at once frank entertaining and deeply informed New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost and the history of extinction as a concept Ko
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Sure you do. And if you're still a little wistful for those times, Elizabeth Kolbert's 2014 book, "The Sixth Extinction," is not going to be very satisfying. It may sound like a new cinema offering but it is far, far from it.
"The Sixth Extinction" is a series of personally crafted portraits of life in its many different forms in flux and, in some cases, ceasing to exist - even as we read the author's words. Drawing on her writing experience with "The New Yorker" Magazine, Kolbert blends knowledge, anecdote and eyewitness details to create a sense of authenticity so the reader feels like he or she is part of the experience.
Those seeking more rigorous analysis and exposition should try Scientific American's collections such as the 2014 "Storm Warnings: Climate Change and Extreme Weather" (see my Amazon November 3, 2014 "Whistling in a Warm Wind" review - here's the link: https://www.amazon.com/review/R3NXXCNADBUTUI/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm).
Through thirteen chapters the author presents pictures of various species in crisis, the probable reasons for their present state of emergency and the efforts undertaken to aid and preserve them.
Each chapter has a particular species focal point such as golden tree frogs in Panama, the American mastodon, graptolites in Scotland, coral colonies around Australia's Great Barrier Reef, declining biodiversity in the Amazon, Sumatran rhinos in U.S. zoos and new insights about relationship between Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens in Germany.
Interspersed in the initial chapters is the history of the development of various scientific approaches to understanding fossil remains, historical epochs, eras and periods, and the development of evolutionary theory, whether by catastrophe or gradual change (or "long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic").
While still anecdotal, the latter chapters weave some interesting fact-based information, for example:
- Earth has an estimated 50 million habitable acres, of which 27 million have been converted by people for multiple uses such as cities, housing, and pastureland. The remaining 23 million acres are roughly 60% for forests in which various species live and the remaining 40% are mountains, deserts, tundra, etc.
- The various species on Earth are composed of two to seven million for insects, ten thousand for birds and five thousand for mammals, including people.
- Amphibians are the most endangered group followed by reef corals, fresh water mollusks, sharks and rays, mammals and birds.
Along the way, other startling observations emerge: biodiversity is declining not only due to the "old causes" such as hunted to extinction for various reasons but also new ones such as global warming impact on life-sustaining ranges, the loss of habitat space, the inability to regenerate a species due to slower reproduction rate and the rapid vulnerability to new diseases (fungal, bacterial or viral). All of these causes are now achieving a dark and unexpected synergy.
Kolbert is presenting the current conditions as potential for a Sixth Major Extinction of the planet's species. In the prior roughly 500 million years there have been upwards of 25 periods of species extinction, of which five are considered to have been major ones due to breadth and probably rate of surrounding change. Nearly all of these were due to factors beyond the control of the inhabitants at the time: changes in chemical balances, glaciations and global warming due to Earth orbit wobbles, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impact leading to global cooling that killed off many of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
What makes the concern for the next big extinction is that it may be triggered by us - very, very rapidly. At a speed of change far beyond anything that has happened before - be it global warming by burning millions of years of fossil fuels, by eliminating living space on land or in sea for other species, or by sheer carelessness.
Shall we support initiatives for mitigating factors that we can affect such as global warming?
Or shall we fiddle while home burns?
Previous extinction events have asteroids or volcanic eruptions to thank as their root causes. But, humans, take a bow: our presence is every bit as destructive.
Kolbert's writing is direct and powerful. Here's one passage of many that hit a chord with me:
"The one feature these disparate events have in common is change and to be more specific, rate of change . When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world."
I really liked Kolbert's writing on how the science of extinction came into being. At what point did people become aware that there were species no longer with us? Kolbert takes you through that sequence from the late 18th century. Similarly, she takes you through such revolutions in thinking as plate tectonics and 'asteroid as dinosaur extinction event .'