- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Picador USA; Reprint edition (6 January 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1250062187
- ISBN-13: 978-1250062185
- Product Dimensions:: 14.4 x 2.6 x 21 cm
- Shipping Weight: 295 g
- Customer reviews: 2,077 customer ratings
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: 20,487 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History Paperback – 6 January 2015
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[The Sixth Extinction] is a wonderful book, and it makes very clear that big, abrupt changes can happen; they're not outside the realm of possibility. They have happened before, they can happen again. --President Barack Obama
"Riveting . . . It is not possible to overstate the importance of Kolbert's book." --San Francisco Chronicle
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And that truth is there is nowhere to move on to. This book is a detailed and fascinating delineation of just what we are doing to the planet and how. From the fishes in the sea to the polar bears on the ice: all fall down. Why? Willful ignorance, stupidity, and the devil take tomorrow.
(But it might be said, so what if we kill off all sorts of creatures great and small? We don’t need them. We have our pigs and cows and chickens. We grow corn and soy. Yes, the little foxes are cute and the lions magnificent. But we have zoos and preserves. After you’ve seen a few elephants you don’t need to see vast herds of them.)
This is the view of many people in high places in government and at the helms of giant corporations whose main concern is staying in power and improving the bottom line. But here’s the rub: with the extraordinary rate of the current extinction what we might be left with is nearly sterile oceans, stunted scrub forests, destroyed ecologies and starving humans at one another’s throats. Combine that with global warming and desperate leaders flinging nuclear bombs around, and yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Okay, rant over with. Let me say a few things about this splendid book that is so readable and so full of information, humor and the kind of passion that lights up the pages. Kolbert combines research, interviews and fieldwork into a very readable, vivid and informative narrative that is so good that…well, she won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2015.
Some notes and quotes:
“The reason this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one, has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.” (p. 91)
“Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly.” (p. 162)
Kolbert notes that during the Pleistocene (2.5 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago) “…temperatures were significantly lower than they are now…,” mainly because the glacial periods tended to be longer than the interglacial periods. What this means is that most life forms are probably not going to be able to deal with the heat “...since temperatures never got much warmer than they are right now.” In other words, we are experiencing an accelerated catastrophe. (p.171)
Kolbert describes the red-legged honeycreeper as “the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.” (p. 178) So naturally I had to Google it. It is indeed beautiful. The reader might want to take a look. It’s very blue with some neat black trim and those incongruous red legs!
Kolbert observes that we are creating a New Pangaea because our global transport systems are sending plants and animals all around the globe. Instead of the continents moving closer together the plants and animals are moving closer together as on a single continent. (p. 208)
A joke: after the journal “Nature” published proof of the existence of the Denisovan hominids because of a DNA-rich finger found in southern Siberia, there came a newspaper headline: “Giving Accepted Prehistoric History the Finger.” (p. 253)
As to the “controversy” over what killed off the megafauna in e.g., North and South America, in Siberia, in Australia, Kolbert minces no words and comes down strong on the likely suspect—us. And as for the Neanderthal, ditto. See chapters XI and XII.
She writes: “Before humans finally did in the Neanderthals, they had sex with them.” She notes that “most people today are slightly—up to four percent—Neanderthal.” (p. 238) Personally, according to “23 and Me,” I am 3.8% Neanderthal.
--Dennis Littrell, author of “Understanding Evolution and Ourselves”
So, what is the sixth extinction and why is it different? The causes of the five previous mass extinctions were natural catastrophes. The sixth, in contrast, is man-made. And it is occurring now.
As she discusses this sixth extinction, Kolbert, follows three narrative strategies. Mostly, she focuses each chapter in TSE on a particular animal that is extinct, on the verge of extinction, or that is becoming increasingly rare. Then, she examines the habitats and vulnerabilities of these animals and the human-induced causes of their decline or demise. These animals and the scourges to their existence include: the golden frog, a fungus, harmless to African frogs, that humans spread through the exigencies of pregnancy tests and fine-dining; great Auks, overhunting; corals, acidification of the oceans; North American brown bats, another fungus, this time originating with immune European bats; white-plumed antbirds, habitat fragmentation and a consequent reduction in army ant colonies, which is their primary food; and megafauna, such as the mastodon and Sumatran rhino, which are doomed by their long gestation periods and human predation.
Meanwhile, her second strategy is to focus on environments. In this case, her subjects are: oceans, which are gradually becoming more acidic as they absorb the carbon humans generate through burning fossil fuels; and rain forests, which are losing species because of global warming.
Finally, Kolbert examines the attempt by scientists to preserve species that are on the verge of extinction. Here, she visits a frozen zoo, where cells of threatened species are preserved in cryogenic fluid and thereby kept viable. And she discusses actual zoos that have breeding programs for rare animals.
The blurbs on my edition of TSE observe that this book is “arresting, riveting, and powerful”. And they describe Kolbert’s writing as “masterful, surprisingly breezy, and engrossing.” All this is true and she gets the final word. “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals… But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion… If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard.”