Customer Reviews: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
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HALL OF FAMEon February 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
As a former invertebrate paleobiologist, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" is the book I have been waiting for years to be written. It is a clarion call for ending the current mass extinction that we humans are causing, and a book that should be, according to Scientific American, "this era's galvanizing text", worthy of comparison with Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". It is also a vastly superior popular science book than last year's "Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction" written by IO9 science editor Annalee Newitz, simply because Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has done a superlative job in science reporting, accurately reporting and interpreting work done by some of the most notable researchers of our time studying mass extinctions, whether it is research from Berkeley vertebrate paleobiologist Anthony Barnosky (The lead author of a 2011 Nature paper estimating that current extinction rates are equivalent to those of the five great mass extinctions recognized from the fossil record; the terminal Ordovician, terminal Permian, terminal Triassic and the terminal Cretaceous; the latter in which non-avian dinosaurs became extinct.) or American Museum of Natural History curator of invertebrate paleontology Neil Landman, a noted researcher of Cretaceous ammonites, or evolutionary geneticist and anthropologist Svante Paabo, whose team is sequencing the entire Neanderthal genome and recognized the existence of another late Pleistocene hominid species, the Denisovans, from genomic material in a fragment of a finger bone found in a Siberian cave. What Kolbert has written is a spellbinding work of science journalism worthy of comparison with David Quammen's "The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions", and one that belongs on the bookshelves of anyone interested in science, and especially those who may not grasp the full extent of the ongoing mass extinction being caused by us, humanity. Moreover, at the end of her book, she provides an extensive bibliography which notes many of the most important relevant scientific papers as well as important texts written by the likes of notable ecologists James H. Brown and Michael Rosenzweig, and paleobiologists Michael Benton, Douglas Erwin and Richard Fortey. Without question, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History", may be one of the most discussed, most important, books of popular science published this year.

In her opening chapter, "The Sixth Extinction", in prose that is hauntingly beautiful and poignant, Kolbert cites the disappearance of Panamanian frogs and toads as one emblematic of the ongoing crisis in biodiversity, noting that of all the major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, amphibians are the ones which are most rapidly going extinct before our very eyes. She uses the discoveries of fossil mastodons and mammoths in North America and Europe in the 18th and early 19th Centuries in the second chapter ("The Mastodon's Molars") to introduce readers to the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier who was the first to recognize the existence of extinct species and the likelihood that they died during great cataclysms in Earth's history. Her third chapter, "The Original Penguin", is an especially lucid account of British geologist Charles Lyell's uniformitarian view of Earth's history, and how that inspired Charles Darwin's thinking, not only in geology, but especially, in his conception of the Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection, while describing the rapid extinction of the Great Auk - which was the first bird to be dubbed a "penguin" - in the North Atlantic Ocean along the northernmost coast of North America and Iceland. In the fourth chapter, "The Luck of the Ammonites", she offers an especially lucid account of geologist Walter Alvarez's discovery of the iridium-rich clay at the end of the Cretaceous, leading to the development of the asteroid impact theory for the Cretaceous mass extinction, while also discussing work by such notable invertebrate paleontologists as David Jablonski, David Raup, Jack Sepkoski, and Neil Landman, in noting how the Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites and other notable terrestrial and marine organisms, was simply a case of bad luck, which she emphasizes further in describing the probable causes for the terminal Ordovician and terminal Permian mass extinctions (Chapter V).

Kolbert devotes two chapters (Chapters VI and VII) to the ongoing "experiment" humanity is performing on the world's oceans, ocean acidification, caused by an excessive increase in carbon dioxide being dumped into them, and noting that it was a likely cause for several of the mass extinctions known from the fossil record. I must commend her for an excellent discussion of the species-area curve known for decades by ecologists, especially through the important research by E. O. Wilson and his colleague Robert MacArthur in the early 1960s (Chapter VIII), as a means of understanding habitat fragmentation (Chapter IX) as a major contributing factor in determining a species' prospects for survival. There are also excellent discussions on how human activity has fostered the unexpected dispersal of animals and plants, creating, in essence a "New Pangea" (Chapter X), that has only accelerated the tempo of the ongoing mass extinction, and the "Pleistocene Overkill" hypothesis (Chapter XI) proposed by geologist Paul S. Martin that has been confirmed, in spectacular fashion, by palynological (fossilized pollen and spores) data from Australia and North America. She describes the extinction of Neanderthals as another, much earlier, example of human-driven extinction (Chapter XII) relying on the notable research by Svante Paabo and his team, noting the importance of the "Out of Africa" theory in explaining Homo sapiens' global dispersal, while also discussing Paabo's "leaky-replacement" hypothesis that accounts for Neanderthals' eventual replacement by Homo sapiens through interbreeding, resulting in hybrids whose descendants include all non-African populations of humanity, contributing between 1 and 4 percent within the genomes of non-African populations, remnants of the Neanderthal genome. In the concluding chapter (Chapter XIII), Kolbert acknowledges she has been amassing evidence demonstrating why the current mass extinction exists, and warning us that "...we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy."
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on March 29, 2015
"The Sixth Extinction" is one of many fundamentally flawed books on climate change; yet I still recommend people read this book. That's because of the dearth of well-done climate change books coupled to the importance of developing public literacy on climate change.

You would think that perhaps humanity's greatest contemporaneous threat would result in too many great books to feasibly read. E.g., consider all the great books published around 2009 honoring 150 years since Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species". I read seven in that period. Yet with climate change we too often suffer through the amateurish (Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change by Guzman, Andrew T. [2013]), the overwrought (Storms of My Grandchildren; The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Chinese Edition) ), and here a book that insufficiently covers the very topic referenced in the title - "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History".

Here's what Elizabeth Kolbert does well:
' Defines mass extinctions relative to the background extinction rate.

' Succinctly explains past mass extinction rates to help us better appreciate individual studies that are now being published regarding current findings.

' Provides some good examples of current extinctions that also illustrate why these are harbingers to far worse in the near future.

' Good explanation of the lack of diversity at more northern climes and therefore those regions' disproportionate vulnerability.

' Excellent reporting on migration rates and varying results, including altitude limitations on migration to chase colder climates.

' Kolbert provides a decent explanation on why a warmer world might ultimately result in more biodiversity; but in the short term given current `cold adaptation' of extant life on earth, mass extinction is inevitable in a `business as usual' scenario.

' Kolbert is an excellent writer and good reporter on the events she reports.

Here's where Ms. Kolbert fails:
' Vastly insufficient coverage validating we are currently in a mass extinction event with the exception of her coverage of ocean acidification.

I bookmark ScienceDaily articles that report especially impactful scientific climate change findings. I counted fourteen recent peer-reviewed articles preceding publication of this first edition by a couple of years. Not nearly enough of these findings were covered. That where the very title of the book references our already being in a mass extinction event.

' Failed to more expansively report and illustrate why a small change in climate can have a devastating impact to whole regions [1]. Such illustrations should help people understand that we can't possibly predict all the catastrophic changes that will comes from a fast changing climate; i.e., the "law" of unintended consequences. Such reports would help better align the public's urgency on climate change to the urgency expressed by scientists and scientific organizations.

' Failed to adequately footnote and refer to scientists and studies that she references. For example, on page 166 of the paperback version, Ms. Kolbert refers to a 2004 study on a "species-area" experiment. Both extreme scenarios, the `best case' and `worst case', predict catastrophic extinctions by 2050. Not only is this study not end-noted, the author only refers to the year of the experiments; failing to report the authors' names, the articles they published, and where these articles were published [2]. Inadequately providing citations is always a loss of one star with me.

I learned a lot reading this book. I enjoyed Ms. Kolbert's writing. I wouldn't remove any material from the book. But ultimately, the mostly anecdotal reports of current extinctions are insufficient for a book that promises to report on the current mass extinction event.

1] For example, mountain pine beetles in the Rocky Mountains are killing off millions of acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pines. This is the result of a "minor change" of a 2.7º F warmer region over the past couple of decades. A change that has resulted in an enormous increase in pine beetle procreation rates due to much higher winter survival rates and two reproductive cycles per Spring/Summer/Fall rather than the historical one cycle per year given the shorter winters. The net effect is pine trees dying from up to 60 times higher beetle infestation rates. Mitton and Ferrenberg, "Mountain Pine Beetle Develops an Unprecedented Summer Generation in Response to Climate Warming", The American Naturalist Vol. 179, No. 5, May 2012. doi: 10.1086/665007.

2] I think Elizabeth Kolbert was referencing Thomas, Chris D. & et al., "Extinction risk from climate change", Nature 427, 145-148 (8 January 2004) doi:10.1038/nature02121.
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VINE VOICEon February 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
From the title of this book, it would be easy to imagine that it was another science writer creating a book about climate change and attributing our future to that singular event. On the contrary, Elizabeth Kolbert has shown, through a number of examples, how we are destroying our environment and possible ourselves in the process.

Kolbert begins by going through the past five extinctions and explaining what is known of them and how they came about, as well as what organisms were present during each of them that eventually were wiped out. She then travels around the world to look at a number of ways in which we humans are causing the death and destruction of our current environment. That ranges from acidification of the oceans from excessive carbon dioxide levels to clear cutting of forests and to our unwitting transfer of invasive species around the globe on a regular and frequent basis.

This book is a wakeup call for all humans. In one way or another, we are all working to end the existence of numerous species and possibly our own. We may possibly be too smart for our own good. A quote from near the end of the book is certainly a message that is cause for us all to ponder! " If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap."

Kolbert writes with the non-scientific individual in mind and makes even the most difficult subjects easy to understand. As I said above, we are looking in a mirror and failing to see the destruction we are creating. Kolbert makes us look at that image. This book is fascinating and thought provoking and very much well worth the price!
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VINE VOICEon February 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Elizabeth Kolbert's globe-trotting effort to probe the concept of Extinction covers all the angles. In the first half of her book she explains the complex process by which scientists such as Lyell and Cuvier pieced together an understanding that large extinction events have occurred several times in our planet's history. The most notable of these was the case of the Yucatan meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, an amazing episode of mass-extinction that has only been understood over the past thirty years. In the second half, she branches out into the anthrocene era, with the terrifying prospect of ocean acidification, alien species introductions, and the gradual isolation and disappearance of tropical plants. Kolbert's perspectives reveal that humans have driven extinctions not just today, and not just with the nineteenth century eradication of the Great Auk, but back to the end of the ice age with our hunting of the Mastodons and Giant Sloths. For Kolbert, it does not mean that humans are inherently vicious- but it does mean that our drive to change our environment to suit our needs is a dangerous drive- because it risks sawing off the branch on which we are perched.

Kolbert is studiously non-political in this effort, which may frustrate environmentalist readers seeking a red-meat endorsement of change in human society. But her thoughtful and wide ranging analysis is extremely informative on a topic that is not well understood by all. A careful reading will leave the reader disturbed and frightened, despite her matter-of-fact tone.
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VINE VOICEon February 15, 2014
This is the second book I've reviewed over the years by this title. The first was by Richard Leakey The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind by Leakey, Richard E. Reprint Edition [Paperback(1996)].
Leakey's version of this very bleak story is more focused on disappearing biota, and Kolbert's more broadly observant of how extinction has happened over the centuries. Still, I'd commend both books to any reader interested in how our species is bending life on earth to the breaking point. We forget our dependence on the whole system to our peril, and we (writ large) have definitely forgotten how we fit.

While other reviewers of this book have cast it as a wake up call, or a demand for action, I'm afraid my own reaction is a bit more resigned. It appears to me, from the evidence presented in both books (and much elsewhere) that the die is cast. We have initiated an unraveling that is highly unlikely to be halted. We will save a species here, an ecotone there, for a while. But the release of fossil carbon and the intercontinental transfer of species (and diseases) is going to play itself out. We are very unlikely to survive our own mischief, and we are taking down most of the rest of our fellow travelers in the process.

This too shall pass.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon February 11, 2014
“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, is exactly what it’s title and subtitle implies. It is a natural history about an ongoing unnatural worldwide biological event: the sixth extinction. In the 4.5-billion-year history of planet earth, there have been five mass extinction events and many smaller events. Each was triggered by some cataclysmic phenomenon; each lasted many millions of years; each ushered in a new geologic era; each left the earth’s biological diversity immensely impoverished yet ripe for another many-million-year expansion of enormous evolutionary change.

At the present time, most scientists believe that we are in the process of a sixth mass extinction event. What is unnatural about this event is that we are causing it. This mass extinction is antropogenic in origin. It is ongoing. When it started and when it might end—and whether it ends with the demise of our own species—is under scientific discussion.

This book is not a popular literature review of the subject; rather, it is a work of stellar science journalism. Kolbert informs the reader about the subject through a series of stories. We become tag-alongs on an adventure journey of scientific curiosity.

Kolbert is an outstanding prize-winning science journalist. Her style of writing is clear, easy to understand, and thoroughly engaging. When you read one of her books, you are part of the process of uncovering the truth.

For this book, Elizabeth Kolbert traveled the world interviewing scientists, and often accompanying them on field research projects. In this manner, she manages to get a first-hand story angle on many of the most significant aspects of this immense and complex ongoing historical event. Even events of distant science history are related through some type of story that takes the reader on a present-day journey to discover what remains of the origins of these important, centuries- or many-decades-old discoveries.

In her own words, Kolbert explains that the book is divided into thirteen chapters. “Each tracks a species that’s in some way emblematic…The creatures in the early chapters are already gone, and this part of the book is mostly concerned with the great extinctions of the past and the twisting history of their discovery…The second part of the book takes place very much in the present—in the increasingly fragmented Amazon rain forest, on a fast-warming slope of the Andes, on the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. I chose to go to these particular places for the usual journalistic reasons—because there was a research station there or because someone invited me to tag along on an expedition.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I read it cover-to-cover with avid interest in a couple of days. I enjoyed tagging along with this journalist as she investigated this topic with a large range of scientists around the globe. Many times the book felt like a natural history adventure travelogue rather than a science book.

I already knew a great deal about the Sixth Extinction, but this book provided me with a structure within which to experience the whole of it and try to comprehend the enormity of what is happening. Because this book took the form of a journalistic inquiry and investigation, it seemed very personal. Thus the impact was perhaps greater than it would have been had I read a scientific literature overview.

I join with “Scientific American” in hoping that “this powerful, clear and important book” may not merely be “compared to ‘Silent Spring’” but that it might become “this era’s galvanizing text.”
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on February 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Elizabeth Kolbert demonstrates in The Sixth Extinction that she is a superb writer. She presents in VERY readable form some of the history of beliefs about life on earth, some basics of paleontology, and some present-day science. She very ably demonstrates that we human beings (which she refers to as a "weedy race" reminiscent to me of David Brin's reference in his novels The Uplift Trilogy to humans as having sprung up without instruction or development from more advance races in the universe) are probably in process of causing a 6th major extinction period here on earth -- the fifth having been the period when the dinosaurs disappeared.

Her writing is so readable that in her chapter about frogs I kept recollecting times in about the last 20 or so years that I have been in places where I expected to hear choruses of frogs singing at night as I did in my childhood and young adulthood -- and wondered fleetingly why I was not hearing them. Though I have always had some concern about what humanity is doing to the earth, it never even occurred to me before reading this book that we may already have wiped out a species as widespread and plentiful as I always knew frogs to be.
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on April 22, 2014
I had great expectations for this latest offering from journalist Elizabeth Kolbert since her prior book ("Field Notes from a Catastrophe") was outstanding. Sadly, I was disappointed. The presentation of material seemed overly formulaic, with an endless pattern of anecdote, discussion, anecdote, discussion.... The treatment of past extinction events and the history of human thought on extinction, while interesting, was not only muddled, but provided much more detail than was necessary to tie-in to the bigger, main point of the book (which is that humans are the ultimate cause of the current -- or sixth -- mass extinction). The final chapter, where I expected the big pay-off and tie-up of all the preceding material, seemed trite, weak, and anti-climactic, and merely attempted to offer a thin ray of hope and an apparent plea for humans to prevent the coming extinctions. Another major disappointment for anyone who has followed environmental issues (climate change, invasive species, habitat loss) for any length of time in the scientific and/or lay literature, is that there is little new information here. In addition, I gather from some other reviews that readers who lack scientific backgrounds may have trouble with some of the topics, which I see as another failing on the part of the author.

On the positive side of the ledger, those who are new to the topic may find much of interest. Certain stories, such as the ones about white-nose syndrome in bats and the loss of so many frog species, are so heart-breaking that they may inspire some readers to get involved with conservation efforts before it's too late (with the caveat that it is already too late for many species). To me, this is a 2-star book, but I've given it a "bonus star" because any book that takes this topic out of the realm of academia into the public spotlight can't hurt.
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on February 20, 2014
I bought this book because I was impressed with how well Elizabeth Kolbert managed her interview with John Stewart on the Daily Show and suspected I was in for a great read based on her work in "The New Yorker".

Even with such high expectations I was still stunned by the beautiful craftsmanship this book represents.

This is not another global warming book. Kolbert walks us through many other examples of ways in which human presence on the planet has changed the rules in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, for other life forms to survive their encounter with us. Things like predation by early hominids, and the global transport of pathogens are also major human contributed forces that are responsible for the current acceleration of extinction events.

Another thing that I think Kolbert does a good job of explaining is the concept of "instantaneous" events on the scale of geologic time. Extinction events that may stretch over a few thousand years are quick in terms of the process of evolution. Many times we humans have a hard time grasping the significance of events that happen on time scales that are significantly longer than our own life spans,. I feel that Kolbert did an excellent job of addressing this issue from many directions. She started with the fundamental realization by early investigators, like Cuvier, that the evidence pointed to extinction as an obvious explanation of observed evidence (i.e., the fossil record).

By its very nature paleontology is a science with more questions than answers. The fossil record is not complete. If it were the evidence would be less credible. But the big game changer is in the area of paleogenetics that takes advantage of the fact that each and every living thing on the planet carries a much more complete record of evolutionary history than the few bones and other body parts that have been fortuitously preserved in geologic layers that are occasionally pushed up where we can find them.

In my opinion Kolbert went to the right source to make her case for the power of paleogenetics when she managed to hang around with Svante Paabo at the Max Plank Institute. Many of us consider Paabo the father of paleogenetics. I heard him speak a dozen years ago at a scientific meeting in Edinburgh and was stunned by the power of what he was doing. At the time I remember thinking how much fun it would be to share a beer with him but now the experience would not be as good if Eizabeth Kolbert were not tagging along to ask the good questions.

This is not a book that preaches about the terrifying future we are creating for ourselves and our fellow earthlings. Kolbert lets the facts speak for themselves and puts enough effort into the story that her readers can not help but come to the logical conclusion because she has helped them understand the issues rather than just taking her word for it. .
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Since multi-celled life began around 600 million years ago, natural history has seen five mass extinctions. Life's trend line favors greater complexity: more than twice the number of life forms exist today than right before the dinosaurs vanished. Yet five times, the number has contracted violently. Scientists who study and classify life's profound complexity say we're now facing a sixth mass extinction, the first caused by one species' actions.

New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert takes two tacks in her analysis of extinction. She considers extinction as a philosophical concept and scientific fact, while also exploring current circumstances where entire species are vanishing under human eyes. The results are often astonishing. Our understanding of Earth's biome continues evolving, but Kolbert cannot escape the consequence that humans, inevitably, change all life around ourselves.

Natural philosophers once couldn't comprehend the idea of extinction. Whenever explorers encountered bones of vanished animals, they invented extravagant explanations how the bones arrived: Noah's flood, or mythological creatures, or we'll find them across the horizon. Even Thomas Jefferson, himself a noted naturalist, couldn't compass the idea that species might vanish. This even as European colonialism changed environments wherever white plows broke the soil.

But French researcher Georges Cuvier examined the evidence and could only conclude: entire categories of species no longer existed on earth. Cuvier identified mammoths, pterodactyls, giant sloths, and other vanished species. But he didn't just prove that species had vanished in the past; he proved that species could still vanish today, changing how humans perceive our relationship with nature. Any species could potentially vanish--including, imaginably, us.

Globally, innumerable species now face critical jeopardy. Kolbert travels to witness heroic efforts to preserve the Panamanian golden frog, tropical corals, and complex Amazonian biomes. But extinctions resist easy explanation. Traditional narratives, like global warming, habitat loss, or hunting, prove too simplistic for Earth's complex, shifting biology. One factor underlies all likely explanations, though: species are vanishing because of human actions. We're annihilating species we haven't even identified yet.

Humans pushing other species off the brink is nothing new. Science has demonstrated that ancient "megafauna," like mastodons and moas, vanished when early humans overhunted them. We probably also exterminated Neanderthals, too. But circumstances have changed today. Humans know the consequences our actions are producing, and have the choice whether to continue. Unlike our ancestors, we can no longer sit back in ignorance, blind to the consequences of our actions.

This makes today's extinctions different from the past. Each of the "Big Five" had different causes: depletion of breathable air, or global cooling, or the Chicxulub asteroid. Some mass extinctions have happened slowly, and one happened in one violent day. But never before has one species so thoroughly changed Earth's ecology. Humans so completely dominate Earth today that some scientists recognize a new geological era, beginning around 1750, the Anthropocene.

Essentially, humans aggressively reverse natural history. Earth separated the continents to create separate life spheres; our transportation technologies bring these spheres together, turning ordinary species into invasive weeds. Earth pulled carbon out of the air, creating a temperate, breathable atmosphere; we turn that carbon into fuel, burn it, and create the most carbon-soaked conditions our planet has seen in forty million years. We turn Earth's clock back.

Kolbert doesn't completely disparage human activity. Though our consumption has driven many creatures to, or past, the point of extinction, we've also worked to prevent that very effect. Professional scientists and interested volunteers strive heroically to prevent extinction. Species long vanished in nature survive because humans persevere. But even this proves Kolbert's underlying thesis, that human action, not wind and water, now dominates Earth's surface.

One recalls the invisible morals Lee Van Ham warns about.

Notwithstanding her title, Kolbert admits we aren't in a sixth mass extinction event. Yet. Though many, many species are critically endangered, and extinctions currently occur far beyond what ordinary biology explains. But growing knowledge and humans' ability to make moral decisions make reversal of this dismal trend possible. Humans could restore Earth to the unprecedented diversity that life enjoyed relatively recently. The question, then, becomes: will we?

Humans act. That's our nature. Unlike, say, the tropical trees Kolbert spotlights in one chapter, we don't just strike balances with nature; we make choices, devise plans, and act. But in our technological we've accepted complacency as the price of comfort. Kolbert calls humans to choose against passivity and dedicate ourselves to reversing our destructive ways. The burden lies on us now. Will we listen while we still have time?
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