The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt $28
Reviewed by Taylor Brorby
According to the UN Environment Programme, “Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago.” In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe, The Prophet of Love) highlights the intricacies of what scientists are most recently labeling the sixth great extinction of many of Earth’s species.
Kolbert is, perhaps, the history or biology teacher you and I never had, one that uses exacting prose and luscious imagery to forward a narrative. Listen to the opening line of Prologue: “Beginnings, it’s said, are apt to be shadowy.” There’s lyricism, wit, and tension, which Kolbert continues throughout the book. She goes on, “So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years go.” Kolbert highlights that, unlike the previous five mass extinctions, this one is wholly brought about because of one species: Humans.
The structure of The Sixth Extinction is thirteen chapters, each of which highlights an already extinct species, such as the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), or a species that is now known as “extinct in the wild,” such as the golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). The effectiveness of The Sixth Extinction is not so much that Kolbert focuses on the macro (all the species that are in peril), but draws a thread through the micro-examination of individual species, linking humans’ far-reaching overconsumption of natural resources and fossil fuels, contributing to the rapid acceleration of species loss.
Kolbert’s writing is luminous, balanced, and vivid. As a staff writer for the New Yorker her work has typically focused around the environment and disaster-related issues. The genius of Kolbert is her ability to bring heady scientific research into economic prose, guiding the reader and helping shed new light on the complexities of global warming: “But global warming is going to have just as great an impact — indeed, according to Silman, an even greater impact — in the tropics. The reasons for this are somewhat more complicated, but they start with the fact the tropics are where most species actually live.” (Miles Silman is a forest ecologist who teaches at Wake Forest University.)
For writers struggling with introductory paragraphs, here’s a zinger from the chapter “The Madness Gene”: “The Neander Valley, or, in German, Das Neandertal, lies about twenty miles north of Cologne, along a fold in the Düssel River, a sleepy tributary of the Rhine. For most of its existence, the valley was lined with limestone cliffs, and it was in a cave in the face of one of these cliffs that, in 1856, the bones were discovered that gave the world the Neanderthal.”
Perhaps best of all — if there is a good qualifier for the reality of a warming and changing planet — is that a writer such as Elizabeth Kolbert exists and writes for the reading public. She weaves narrative, vivid detail, and scientific intricacies seamlessly into her sentences, creating a compelling argument for our systematic destruction of the world. If you haven’t read The Sixth Extinction yet, get a copy — because, as Kolbert highlights, we might not be around that much longer.