The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction cover image

Elizabeth Kolbert. Picador, New York, 2014

ISBN 978-0-8050-9979-9 276pp

What a delightful surprise this book turned out to be! I had not thought I would enjoy it, expecting yet another version of “Here comes global warming.” Instead, we are treated to a very detailed and thoughtful examination of extinction as a process. The author has a simple and very serious question in mind: what sort of things do different extinctions have in common? Her book has thirteen chapters, each tracking a species that has gone extinct, or seems about to do so. Early chapters feature past mass extinctions; the great auk is here, as well as mastodons and ammonites (sea creatures that disappeared alongside the dinosaurs). In later chapters the author visits places home to species on the verge of extinction: fragmented Amazon rainforest, fast-warming glaciers of Andean mountains, dying fringes of the Great Barrier Reef – and one more-or-less in our own backyard. She visited research stations, tagged along on expeditions to remote places, and in general seems to have had a wonderful time getting a hands-on familiarity with individual extinction events happening right before her eyes. So what did she learn? Each extinction she finds to be a unique event, with its own particular cause. Is there anything that all extinction events have in common? Yes: Change — most particularly, rate of change. Said simply, when the world changes faster than species can adapt, many species go extinct. And the mass extinction that is happening right now all across the globe? Could it be averted if people were willing to make sacrifices? Asking the question this way misses the point, she argues: “What matters is that people change the world.” The very qualities that make us human — restlessness, inquisitiveness, creativity – lead us to impact the world we live in. It is who we are as a species. And as soon as humans learned to communicate abstractly, they became dangerous to other species in a totally new way, leading to explosive change with no time for the world’s nonhuman species to adapt. “If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species,” she says, “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.” That is an image to take away and chew on.