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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Paperback – January 6, 2015
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"[The Sixth Extinction] is a wonderful book, and it makes very clear that big, abrupt changes can happen; they're not outside the realm of possibility. They have happened before, they can happen again." ―President Barack Obama
“Riveting . . . It is not possible to overstate the importance of Kolbert's book.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“Arresting . . . Ms. Kolbert shows in these pages that she can write with elegiac poetry about the vanishing creatures of this planet, but the real power of her book resides in the hard science and historical context she delivers here, documenting the mounting losses that human beings are leaving in their wake.” ―The New York Times
“Surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining . . . Kolbert is a masterful, thought-provoking reporter.” ―The Boston Globe
“Your view of the world will be fundamentally changed. . . . Kolbert is an astute observer, excellent explainer, and superb synthesizer, and even manages to find humor in her subject matter.” ―The Seattle Times
“Powerful . . . An invaluable contribution to our understanding.” ―Al Gore, The New York Times Book Review
“Natural scientists posit that there have been five extinction events in the Earth's history (think of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs), and Kolbert makes a compelling case that human activity is leading to the sixth.” ―Bill Gates
“[Kolbert] makes a page-turner out of even the most sober and scientifically demanding aspects of extinction.” ―New York Magazine
“Ms. Kolbert's lively account is thought-provoking.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“[Kolbert] grounds her stories in rigorous science and memorable characters past and present, building a case that a mass extinction is underway, whether we want to admit it or not.” ―Discover Magazine
“Throughout her extensive and passionately collected research, Kolbert offers a highly readable, enlightening report on the global and historical impact of humans . . . a highly significant eye-opener rich in facts and enjoyment.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“The factoids Kolbert tosses off about nature's incredible variety--a frog that carries eggs in its stomach and gives birth through its mouth, a wood stork that cools off by defecating on its own legs--makes it heartbreakingly clear, without any heavy-handed sermonizing from the author, just how much we lose when an animal goes extinct. In the same way, her intrepid reporting from far-off places--Panama, Iceland, Italy, Scotland, Peru, the Amazonian rain forest of Brazil, and the remote one tree Island, off the coast of Australia--gives us a sense of the earth's vastness and beauty.” ―Bookforum
“Kolbert accomplishes an amazing feat in her latest book, which superbly blends the depressing facts associated with rampant species extinctions and impending ecosystem collapse with stellar writing to produce a text that is accessible, witty, scientifically accurate, and impossible to put down.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Rendered with rare, resolute, and resounding clarity, Kolbert's compelling and enlightening report forthrightly addresses the most significant topic of our lives.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“An epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller--only more terrifying because it is real. Like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction is destined to become one of the most important and defining books of our time.” ―David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“I tore through Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction with a mix of awe and terror. Her long view of extinction excited my joy in life's diversity -- even as she made me aware how many species are currently at risk.” ―Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo's Daughter
“With her usual lucid and lovely prose, Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the sad and gripping facts of our moment on earth: that we've become a geological force, driving vast swaths of creation over the brink. A remarkable addition to the literature of our haunted epoch.” ―Bill McKibben, author Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
“Elizabeth Kolbert's cautionary tale, The Sixth Extinction, offers us a cogent overview of a harrowing biological challenge. The reporting is exceptional, the contextualizing exemplary. Kolbert stands at the forefront of what it means to be a socially responsible American writer today.” ―Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams
“The sixth mass extinction is the biggest story on Earth, period, and Elizabeth Kolbert tells it with imagination, rigor, deep reporting, and a capacious curiosity about all the wondrous creatures and ecosystems that exist, or have existed, on our planet. The result is an important book full of love and loss.” ―David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo and Spillover
“Elizabeth Kolbert writes with an aching beauty of the impact of our species on all the other forms of life known in this cold universe. The perspective is at once awe-inspiring, humbling and deeply necessary.” ―T.C. Boyle, author of San Miguel
About the Author
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
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And that truth is there is nowhere to move on to. This book is a detailed and fascinating delineation of just what we are doing to the planet and how. From the fishes in the sea to the polar bears on the ice: all fall down. Why? Willful ignorance, stupidity, and the devil take tomorrow.
(But it might be said, so what if we kill off all sorts of creatures great and small? We don’t need them. We have our pigs and cows and chickens. We grow corn and soy. Yes, the little foxes are cute and the lions magnificent. But we have zoos and preserves. After you’ve seen a few elephants you don’t need to see vast herds of them.)
This is the view of many people in high places in government and at the helms of giant corporations whose main concern is staying in power and improving the bottom line. But here’s the rub: with the extraordinary rate of the current extinction what we might be left with is nearly sterile oceans, stunted scrub forests, destroyed ecologies and starving humans at one another’s throats. Combine that with global warming and desperate leaders flinging nuclear bombs around, and yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Okay, rant over with. Let me say a few things about this splendid book that is so readable and so full of information, humor and the kind of passion that lights up the pages. Kolbert combines research, interviews and fieldwork into a very readable, vivid and informative narrative that is so good that…well, she won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2015.
Some notes and quotes:
“The reason this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one, has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.” (p. 91)
“Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly.” (p. 162)
Kolbert notes that during the Pleistocene (2.5 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago) “…temperatures were significantly lower than they are now…,” mainly because the glacial periods tended to be longer than the interglacial periods. What this means is that most life forms are probably not going to be able to deal with the heat “...since temperatures never got much warmer than they are right now.” In other words, we are experiencing an accelerated catastrophe. (p.171)
Kolbert describes the red-legged honeycreeper as “the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.” (p. 178) So naturally I had to Google it. It is indeed beautiful. The reader might want to take a look. It’s very blue with some neat black trim and those incongruous red legs!
Kolbert observes that we are creating a New Pangaea because our global transport systems are sending plants and animals all around the globe. Instead of the continents moving closer together the plants and animals are moving closer together as on a single continent. (p. 208)
A joke: after the journal “Nature” published proof of the existence of the Denisovan hominids because of a DNA-rich finger found in southern Siberia, there came a newspaper headline: “Giving Accepted Prehistoric History the Finger.” (p. 253)
As to the “controversy” over what killed off the megafauna in e.g., North and South America, in Siberia, in Australia, Kolbert minces no words and comes down strong on the likely suspect—us. And as for the Neanderthal, ditto. See chapters XI and XII.
She writes: “Before humans finally did in the Neanderthals, they had sex with them.” She notes that “most people today are slightly—up to four percent—Neanderthal.” (p. 238) Personally, according to “23 and Me,” I am 3.8% Neanderthal.
--Dennis Littrell, author of “Understanding Evolution and Ourselves”
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?