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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Image of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Book Number: 
646
Date Fred Read: 
April 2016
Fred's Rating: 
5
Author: 
Elizabeth Kolbert
Total Pages: 
271
Publisher: 
Picador
Year: 
2015

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. This book won a Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also a NYT bestseller and was chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the NYT Book Reviews.

The Amazon website for the paperback edition of this book is

http://www.amazon.com/Sixth-Extinction-Unnatural-History/dp/1250062187/r...

The home page has an adequate summary of this book (use ‘Read more’) as well as an editorial review by Booklist (scroll down the home page for it plus several words of phrase). More is available with Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option. I recommend scrolling down to see the Contents page. I found her 3-pp Prologue to be the best preview of this book. But Amazon’s online preview omits the first page of the Prologue. Since I very much enjoyed her opening strategy, I can’t understand why Amazon chose to omit her Prologue’s first page, so I give it here:

“Beginnings, it is said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts 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 capacity to name things.

“As with any young species, this one’s position is precarious. Its numbers are small, and its range restricted to a slice of eastern Africa. Slowly its population grows, but quite possibly then it contracts again – some would claim nearly fatally – to just a few thousand pairs.

“The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators, and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; farther inland, they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much like … [continue reading pages 2 and 3 of the Prologue on Amazon’s online preview]. Pages 2 and 3 continue the opening scenario then explain what she present s in the book’s 13 chapters.

Note that the title of Ch. V uses the word Anthropocene – a word that is so popular with those who study the various periods of the earth’s history that it seems to me that it is a sure shot to win as title to the sixth extinction. What is still being debated, however, is the date for the beginning of the sixth extinction. Some have suggested the invention of the first machine – the steam engine. Others focus on the first nuclear explosion since such weaponry could be the grand finality of the sixth extinction. Some prefer the first automated assembly line. This range of dates is very small on a geological scale, but geology isn’t the reason for the sixth extinction.

The last paragraphs of Ch. XIII summarize the future possibilities well enough, so I give them here: “In an extinction event of our own making, what happens to us? One possibility – the possibility implied by the Hall of Biodiversity [in Smithsonian’s American Museum of Natural History] – is that we, too, will eventually be undone by our ‘transformation of the ecological landscape.’ The logic behind this way of thinking runs as follows: having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems. By disrupting these systems – by cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans – we’re putting our own survival in danger. Among the many lessons that emerge from the geological record, perhaps the most sobering is that in life, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results. When a mass extinction occurs, it takes out the weak and also lays low the strong. V-shaped graptolites were everywhere, and then they were nowhere. Ammonites swam around for hundreds of millions of years, and then they were gone. The anthropologist Richard Leakey has warned that ‘Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.’ A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.

“Another possibility – considered by some to be more upbeat – is that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion. There are serious scientists who argue, for instance, that should global warming become too grave a threat, we can counteract it by reengineering the atmosphere. Some schemes involve scattering sulfates into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back out to space; others involve shooting water droplets over the Pacific to brighten clouds. If none of this works and things really go south, there are those who maintain people will still be OK; we’ll simply decamp to other planets. One recent book advises building cities ‘on Mars, Titan, Europa, the moon, asteroids, and any other uninhabited chunk of matter we can find.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ its author observes. ‘As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive.’

“Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human – some of my best friends are humans! – I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, 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. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have – or have not – inherited the earth.”

I can well understand why this book was so highly praised. I agree she has done an excellent job in revealing all the things and creatures, including humans, of great importance for humans to pay attention to and act upon. I rate this book at five stars, but with my emphatic comment ‘think six stars!’

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