Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Henry Holt and Company

I liked this book.

There are 5 Extinctions in the history of the world as we know it:

  1. Ordovician-silurian Extinction: 440 million years ago.
  2. Devonian Extinction: 365 million years ago.
  3. Permian-triassic Extinction: 250 million years ago.
  4. Triassic-jurassic Extinction: 210 million years ago.
  5. Cretaceous-tertiary Extinction: 65 Million Years Ago.

The premise of this book is that we are potentially at the cusp of a 6th extinction.

Natural History has a PR problem, and it mostly has to do with the complexity of the topic, exacerbated by the language they use in describing everything from the eras and periods of history and the species, genus, and families of animals.1 Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Carboniferous, Cretaceous, Paleogene, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cetozoic, Atelopus zeteki, Mammut americanum, Pinguinus impennis, are a sampling of the language the reader is expected to define, understand, and remember. Kolbert does a great job of making the topic accessible, she is a journalist, but even a capable writer for the public has a difficult job of conveying esoteric ideas to the masses. This reality frustrated me as a reader – not so much a knock of Kolbert, but a challenge for such an important topic that more people need to pay attention to.

One of the more important contemporary terms used in the book is “anthropocene.” “Anthropocene is the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”2

“The word “Anthropocene” is the invention of Paul Crutzen, a Dutch chemist who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds…It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch. Among the many geologic-scale changes people have effected Crutzen cited the following:

  • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted
  • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ coastal waters.
  • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.”

A plaque in the Hall of Biodiversity in the American Museum of Natural History highlights the 5 Extinctions. Also written on the plaque is this: “Global climate change and other causes, probably including collisions between earth and extraterrestrial objects were responsible for these events…Right now we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”

The evidence points to the probability that we are in the midst of a major extinction, and we are the primary cause of this event. The irony is that we are causing the extinction, and we will be one of the victims of this extinction. “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 Erlich: ‘In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.'”

This book does not offer solutions, that isn’t the purpose. Reading it should cause some form of response.

One of the unprovable, but highly likely, ideas in the book is that wherever homo sapiens is, extinction happens. Since our arrival into the world, animals, organisms, and most likely the Neanderthals – all owe their passing to our behavior. I find that this characteristic rings true. I spent many years in the Inland Empire of Southern California where the world of nature and home construction collided. At stake was the habitat of the Kangaroo Rat. I don’t know the details of the debate, but I know the attitude of those who were inconvenienced by concerns of the conservationists. “Who cares about rats?” Humans are susceptible to indifference toward the flora and fauna of our planet when it causes too much inconvenience. The other tendency we have is gross consumption – often again at the expense of the planet and life on the planet – even other human life.

Theology and Natural History are probably odd bedfellows. But the idea of creation as the product of God’s good work, humanity’s place in creation as that of steward and caretaker, and the need for human growth away from destructive and self-centered behavior toward kindness and selflessness are areas of focus. These ideas are broader than the scope of this review, but here are some books that might be of help:

Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

  1. One of the more telling example of this appears in a footnote on page 96 of the book: “A useful mnemonic for remembering the geologic periods of the last half-billion years is Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak (Cambrian,-Ordovician-Silurian-Devonian-Caroniferous-Permian-Triassic-Jurassic-Crutaceous).” My note above the footnote is simply “haha.” The mnemonic doesn’t really help – it is all too complex.
  2. https://www.lexico.com/definition/anthropocene

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