The planet has survived five mass extinctions, but it’s the sixth that we should be worried about. Elizabeth Kolbert’s wonderful book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History outlines the human impact on the globe by following researchers who are studying not only the past but today’s resources and species currently at risk, from the oceans to the rainforests. “What this history reveals, in its ups and downs” Kolbert writes, “is that life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so.”
In first half of the book, Kolbert covers species that are already gone—the mastodon, the great auk—and while this is fascinating reading, what’s even more compelling is the second half, which deals with the current crises facing the planet. As Kolbert writes, “If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so…I try to convey both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it.”
And while the science Kolbert brings us in The Sixth Extinction is indeed exciting, the ultimate effect of humans on the planet is horrific. As Kolbert writes in her prologue, the story beings with “the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. This species does not yet have a name—nothing does—but it has the ability to name things.”
This species, Kolbert tells us, is “singularly resourceful” and expands into all regions of the globe, killing off lesser creatures of every kind. After thousands of years, “several things happen more or less at once that allow Homo sapiens, as [this species] has come to call itself, to reproduce at an unprecedented rate…Vast forests are razed. Humans do this deliberately, in order to feed themselves…Having discovered subterranean reserves of energy, humans begin to change the composition of the atmosphere. This, in turn, alters the climate and the chemistry of the oceans…Extinction rates soar, and the texture of life changes.”
From the loss of the great auk, slaughtered to extinction by humans (auks, like penguins, were fat and unable to fly), to the critically endangered Sumatran rhino (there are believed to be fewer than a hundred left in the world) to the diminishing coral reefs and rainforests, the book shows us that the planet’s future is anything but rosy. Yet despite the grimness of the subject matter, the language is lovely and sensory (“The leaves were leathery and tasted like old books,” Kolbert writes of eating coca leaves; the foliage was so dense in an Amazon forest that “even with the sun directly overhead, the light was still murky, as in a cathedral”), and the tone is cautionary without being melodramatic.
The Sixth Extinction is science writing at its best—engaging, edifying, and often unsettling. The book’s stories take readers from past to present, from the Amazon to Albany, from the Great Barrier Reef to the conservation centers of zoos. These journeys combine the scientific and the personal to make utterly fascinating reading—and, we should all hope, will inspire readers to take better care of the planet while we still can. “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,” Kolbert writes. “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”