Book Review: “The Sixth Extinction”

My inaugural foray into regular book reading went as well as I could have hoped

Science can often intimidate and bore those who are not well-versed in its taxonomies and the associated jargon.

So when research meets the light of day, it’s largely up to journalists to convey the content into easily discernible copy. This is not an easy job, as the journalists themselves must possess the ability to digest finer points of the research and use at least somewhat-common vernacular in order to make sense of it.

No shortage of articles take away the wrong message from some studies. (I point you to social media clickbait that shouts you’ll come down with cancer if you even touch bacon.)

When people struggle with just 400- or 500-word click pieces, it’s no small undertaking to compile a bevy of studies from across the timeline of mankind’s scientific endeavors and parlay it all into not just an informative and balanced piece, but an engaging one as well.

Well, it’s now that I gesture toward “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” a 269-page offering which steers the reader through the ebb and flow of the extinction event very few of us know is occurring, all while maintaining scientific insight, detail and even a pinch of humor.

Its author, veteran writer Elizabeth Kolbert, has authored multiple pieces centered around the environment, and it’s evident from the first chapter. Her penchant for blending immersive storytelling with cold-hard data makes this 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction an easy read. I can easily see someone binging this book in less than a week.

In terms of content, the book’s chapters generally follow the rubric of blending an anecdote from one of Kolbert’s adventures (she recounts experiences from multiple places in South America, Europe and the United States) with historical events and transgressions – like past extinction events, exploits and theories of famed naturalists Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell, and many other examples.

Her modern-day stories discuss problems facing an assortment of species (South American amphibians, North American bats), how humans have contributed to them and what we’re doing to understand and solve them.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is the footwork Kolbert put in. This is the kind of research any college professor should strive to teach students of the craft. To be frank, there are few pieces its equal in this regard.

She talks with paleontologists, geologists, archaeologists, biochemists, zoologists, you name it. The environment is about a complex a topic as the human mind can wrap itself around, which Kolbert recognizes and responds to by providing voices to as many pundits as she could possibly muster.

I‘m not going to sugar coat it:  This book can be depressing and straight-up scary.

That should probably be expected based on its title, but it’s Kolbert’s meticulousness in her prose that transmits the poignancy of the situation we as a species simultaneously face and pose.

We are like nothing the planet has ever seen in its 4.5-billion-year history. As put by one of the book’s sources, our ingenuity has allowed us to effectively escape evolution and become as influential as a pulverizing meteor or an exploding super volcano. While it’s not necessarily as perceptible due to how we see time, we are affecting how the world functions, most notably in carbon dioxide cycling.

We might not be exclusively driving global warming and ocean acidification, as such occurrences have likely happened in the past,  but the research presented in Kolbert’s account is hard to rebuff. We are hastening the process, and the Earth’s natural systems are having trouble keeping up with our breakneck pace.

On a slightly smaller yet equally troubling scale, we’re adversely affecting other species through hunting, logging, pollution, man-made migration and a host of other mediums.

Another strength is how Kolbert delivers such grim realities in a soft, eloquent manner, like how a veteran physician would deliver bad news to a patient.

You’re left feeling distraught, but it also offers careful doses of hope.

It should be noted that this commentary is just that:  a commentary. It does not explicitly offer avenues for participation or calls to action.

Some might feel perturbed by this. However, I appreciated the omission. Kolbert cannot do everything herself, and those who wish to make change are perfectly capable of searching out ways to do so.

The book is about catching the population up on the gravity of the situation and beginning a conversation. It is up to us to decide where we go from there.

Many environmental click pieces succumb to espousing cataclysmic thinking.  “So-and-so species will be extinct by some date, or the ocean levels will rise by so-and-so feet by the year whatever.”

Such projections – when utilized carefully – are certainly useful. But they can also be inaccurate, and they can dull public urgency when not properly scrutinized. “The Sixth Extinction” skirts such an issue by focusing on what’s happening now; what cannot be consumed with skepticism.

“The Sixth Extinction” should be a requisite reading for those who want knowledge on this vital topic. It is scientific reporting at its apex.




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