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Read This Book: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert


I finished the last page, closed the paperback book, and looked up. I was on the subway heading over the Williamsburg bridge, with a view of both banks of the East River. Usually, I treasure this view, especially at night, when the lights of DUMBO and the southern tip of Manhattan glow white.

But today, all I saw was grime. I saw the concrete and metal peeling with paint rushing by, the projects, the roiling water of a polluted river sweeping oil and toxic effluent out to sea. I couldn’t snap myself out of it. As I got off at Canal street, I noticed the smooshed, fossilized gum ground into every surface, the un-biodegradeable crushed bottles and plastic wrappers underfoot. I looked at people in their nylon puffy coats stuffed with down ripped from geese, their shoes made by exploited workers overseas of chromium-tanned leather. I saw candy bars in windows, made with palm oil that leads to the destruction of the rainforest and the demise of orangutans, wrapped in plastic. The smell of hot, sizzling meat from CAFO-raised animals, discharging their nitrogen-rich, hormone-saturated into rivers to suffocate aquatic life, made me nauseous.

Beware: This is the effect that Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History will have on you. By the time you have read through all the fascinating and horrifying ways humans have fucked up every ecosystem on earth, you will be more shocked, angry and bereft than the end of Gone Girl. Way more.

But like any good murder mystery, it’s hard to put this book–one of The New York Time’s  best ten books of 2014–down. (It just came out in paperback, which is why I’m reviewing it now.) You see, Kolbert, who is a staff writer at The New Yorker, is skilled at weaving science and history into a rich narrative of human folly. She travels from place to place, introducing us to a cast of nerdy but passionate scientists, using pop culture references like Lady Gaga, talking about using coca in the rainforest, and using her dry wit to make you laugh, all the while highlighting the serious of small catastrophes playing out across the planet. Frogs disappearing in South America. Bats dying in droves in New York State. The lasted great auk in Iceland, stuffed in a museum.

One notable theme in Sixth Extinction is how long it takes each new scientific theory–tectonic plates, evolution, extinction, an asteroid hitting earth–to be accepted. There is denial first, the discovering scientist is made fun of and vilified. As the evidence piles up, people find all sorts of convoluted reasons to dismiss the new theory. Until, people start to come around and then, finally, it becomes commonly accepted knowledge. Sound familiar? Yup, sounds a little bit like the debate around climate change. And if climate change is a conspiracy, then my, is it an elaborate one, because the evidence is everywhere, from migrating forests, to dying coral reefs.

In summary, we’ve altered the rivers, oceans, biodiversity and atmosphere in massive ways that are not fully understood. We’ve reshuffled species all over the globe. Nearly a third of all plant species in Massachusetts, for example, are not native. And we will be losing at least 10 percent of our species to extinction, if not a third or half. We’ll probably lose two-thirds of our mammal species as we fragment their territory smaller and smaller. We’re looking at global temperatures not seen since there were palm trees in the arctic. Though, with climate warming as fast as it is, the palm tree species and monkeys might die off before they’re able to get themselves up to their new habitat.

Everything is already dying off. I honestly did not know, until I read this book, how many species we’ve lost. The word “apocalyptic,” is used by one scientist. And he’s not a crazy person. Pretty much every scientist in the book seem to agree that, at least in their area of specialty, things are looking dire.

It’s easy to say that it is all other people’s fault. Just look at egg collectors, who would gleefully drive birds to extinction, just so they can get their hands on a pretty egg for their collection. Or the people snorting rhino horn for virility in Asian nightclubs. Yeah, those people suck. But if there’s one thing you learn from this book, is that we send animals to extinction just through our being born.

Kolbert never says so, but after reading of all the little ways in which we mess up ecosystems, the only conclusion to draw is that we are royally fucking the planet just by existing. When we take a tour of a cave, we could unwittingly bring with us a fungus that kills 90% of the bat population. When we buy a Fair Trade backpack from South America, the boat that carried it here could discharge an invasive mollusk out of its ballast and into the bay where it docks. When we eat a candy bar, we could be contributing to rainforest deforestation.

Even more disheartening is this information: All the continents used to be populated by all sorts of megafauna–giant anteaters, wooly mammoths, a tiger-sized carnivorous marsupial, saber-toothed cats, gigantic sloths, giant elk and others. And each time humans migrated to a new continent, those fantastic creatures went extinct. Yup, even tribespeople were fucking it up, when all they had were bows and arrows to hunt. What’s worse is that this extinction likely happened over thousands of years. We slowly chipped away at the populations of megafauna–a savage marsupial here, an elephant bird there–having no idea the damage we were doing until their populations collapsed. When you compare that oh-so-gradual but inevitable decline, to the slashing of the Sumatran tiger population over just a few decades, well, lions and tigers and bears clearly do not stand a chance. To say that saddens me would be an understatement.

Another, more selfish issue looms: if we manage to kill of a third or more of the animal and plant kingdom as a hole, acidify the oceans, and heat up the atmosphere, will humans survive? After all, in the grand scheme of things, humans haven’t been here for very long at all. It may well be that become our own undoing, killing each other off as we fight for water, starving to death as we hunt down the last of the edible animals for our dinner.

(There are dim spots of hope. Kolbert recently wrote in the New Yorker about New Zealand’s crusade to rid itself of invasive species. It may or may not work, but at least they are trying.)

Half of me wants to say, “Fuck it. We’re all going to hell, may as well party on the way.” The other half of me doesn’t want to be like person who unwittingly wrung the neck of the last great auk. I want to visit all these places and see the big cats and elephants before they disappear, but I don’t want to contribute more carbon to the atmosphere in the process. (I actually have been to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef, the setting for one of her stories.)

I would hope that Kolbert pulls a Pollan, and follows up her informative book with an instructional one, a la Food Rules, which came about after Pollan’s readers wanted to know what they could do about all the alarming information in Omnivore’s Dilemma. But perhaps that is not possible. First of all, Food Rules was couched in our self interest. “Eat this way and you will be healthier.” It also addressed just one aspect of environmental disaster. What could Kolbert possibly tell us about stopping mass extinction? Perhaps: Please don’t have children. Don’t travel. Don’t consume anything. But is that a promising line of attack? For most people, it’s ridiculous.

That’s what is so awful about this wonderfully engaging, must-read book. She leaves us engaged, shocked, ready to change the world … and without any answers. Perhaps because there are no answers.

And that, my readers, is why I am depressed.

Still, you should really read this book.

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