Amanda's Reviews > The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, blog

Seemed a good time to float this bad mama-jama (spoiler alert: we're screwed):

Looking for a good horror novel that will keep you up late at night? One that features the most remorseless, inventive, and successful serial killer to ever stumble into the written word? One whose body count grows exponentially as his appetite becomes more ravenous, never sated? One who is so adept at killing that he does so without even seeming to try? Well, I have just the ticket: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is as frightening as it gets, people, and the villain here is us: me, you, and everyone else inhabiting this little blue marble called Earth.

Throughout history, there have been five mass extinction events: the Cretaceous-Paleogene, the Triassic-Jurassic, the Permian-Triassic, the Late Devonian, and the Ordovician-Silurian. All of these involve a cataclysmic shift in environmental conditions, some the result of an external impact. And now Kolbert reports that there may be a sixth extinction: the Anthropocene, caused by the impact of humanity on the environment. Many may believe that this is a byproduct of the Industrial Age, but Kolbert shows us how humans have always had a knack for wreaking wide scale environmental havoc. Always needing and wanting more from our natural resources, we, like kudzu, multiply rapidly, take over every inch of land available to us, and choke out the life that surrounds us.

Kolbert makes the case for recognizing the Anthropocene as a mass extinction event by exploring its casualties and its future victims. As she relates the extinction of the American mastodon, the great auk, and the Neanderthal, as well as the near extinction of the Panamanian golden frog, Hawaiian crow, Sumatran rhino, and several types of bats, one truth becomes increasingly clear: most of these extinctions began to take place when humans entered the environment.

Despite the disheartening nature of the topic, Kolbert writes with dry wit and gallows humor which (for me) always made an appearance at just the right time before things became too depressing. While there is a lot of science here, Kolbert keeps it accessible for those of us who don't while away our days reading scientific journals (you know, while our basic needs and consumer choices destroy everything around us), and her first person narrative keeps it from veering into textbook territory.

There's a lot here that I enjoyed, but three highlights stand out:

1) Kolbert's early chapters about men like Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, who were among the first to speculate on extinction and evolution. From our modern perspective, it's easy to forget that extinction, in particular, is a relatively new idea. There was a time when many scientists believed that nothing could become extinct over the natural progression of time; the discovery of fossils began to shift human understanding of the world and of creation. Reading as these men stumble in their understanding of the world, shifting and revising hypotheses, and ultimately discovering that there was a world that existed before mankind is fascinating.

2) The chapters on the sea and corals (which may eventually become extinct, taking with them several organisms that live symbiotically with corals) is particularly interesting for someone like myself who is happily landlocked. For those who don't live near or have a relationship with our seas and oceans, it's easy to see it as a vast nothingness and forget about the world teeming below our waters. The rate of ocean acidification is frightening.

3) The concept of a new Pangaea is an intriguing one. The ease with which we travel to other states, countries, and continents has, in a sense, reconstituted Pangaea in that we knowingly (and unknowingly) introduce new and often invasive plant and animal species into new environments. In doing so, these new host environments haven't developed nature's evolutionary safeguards to keep the balance between predator and prey, often with disastrous results.

While Kolbert makes all of this lucid and entertaining, as well as terrifying, I must admit to some fatigue when I got to the final chapters. Reading about mass extinction can really take a toll on someone whose worldview can basically be summed up as "people suck." Reading such incontrovertible evidence, and knowing that I myself cannot escape the guilt of this accusation, is, in the words of Kolbert on The Daily Show, "kind of a downer." However, we need more downers. We need to be more educated about what we're doing to our environment. Early man deserves a pass: you come into a place and think, "Damn. Look at all these mastodons. We can feast like kings!" So you settle in, live a life filled with mastodon hunts and mastodon meat, have several children, dress them in mastodon onesies, kill more mastodons, always assuming there will be more. After all, you've found the great all-you-can-eat mastodon buffet! You have no concept of the impact your consumption is having on the environment. You haven't seen Disney's The Lion King and therefore don't know of the majestic power of the circle of life (nor of the comedic gold of pairing a warthog with a meerkat). Such days of ignorance should be behind us. We know better, so we should do better.

Although, many of us are 4% Neanderthal because apparently early homo sapiens just couldn't resist the seductive power of a ridged brow. So maybe we're not so smart after all.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder
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Reading Progress

February 11, 2014 – Shelved
February 11, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
February 13, 2014 – Started Reading
February 14, 2014 –
page 26
7.74%
February 17, 2014 –
page 58
17.26%
February 18, 2014 –
page 80
23.81%
March 2, 2014 –
page 151
44.94%
March 5, 2014 –
page 173
51.49%
March 13, 2014 – Finished Reading
March 15, 2014 – Shelved as: non-fiction
March 23, 2014 – Shelved as: blog

Comments Showing 1-34 of 34 (34 new)

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message 1: by carol. (new)

carol. Like! (sort of--I hear it's a a downer of a book) Look forward to your review.


message 2: by Lisa (new)

Lisa M. How couldn't it be a downer? It's about a mass extinction ...


message 3: by carol. (new)

carol. Lisa--to further explain, that comment was me trying to be funny--hopefully Amanda at least will get it, because she knows the sorts of books i like--and partly because I saw the author on Jon Stewart and she basically said, it's a little pessimistic in outlook, but she was trying to take a "Stewart-ian tone" on the topic.


message 4: by Lisa (new)

Lisa M. I apologize for being short Carol, have a good weekend :)


message 5: by carol. (new)

carol. Lisa wrote: "I apologize for being short Carol, have a good weekend :)"

No problems--that's the challenging part about on-line communication. And me making jokes. ;)


Amanda Carol. [All cynic, all the time] wrote: "Lisa--to further explain, that comment was me trying to be funny--hopefully Amanda at least will get it, because she knows the sorts of books i like--and partly because I saw the author on Jon Stew..."

That's where I saw it and part of what convinced me to read it--I liked that the author was able to joke about such a serious topic, so I figured it would at least be an entertaining look at the man-made apocalypse. (I loved it when she said, "And the amazing thing is, we're not even trying. Imagine if we really put our minds to it.")


Amanda Lisa wrote: "How couldn't it be a downer? It's about a mass extinction ..."

It's definitely a downer, but I have to admit that it's also really fascinating. She starts by taking the reader through the first 5 mass extinction events, so I haven't gotten to mankind's involvement in the 6th event yet. That may be when I have to turn to hard liquor to get me through . . .


message 8: by Lisa (new)

Lisa M. Hahaha Amanda, maybe you'll make the liquor in your house extinct ... OMG I'm terrible


Amanda Lisa wrote: "Hahaha Amanda, maybe you'll make the liquor in your house extinct ... OMG I'm terrible"

I'll be the asteroid that wipes out that entire corner of my kitchen!


message 10: by Tom (new)

Tom Carol. [All cynic, all the time] wrote: "Lisa--to further explain, that comment was me trying to be funny--hopefully Amanda at least will get it, because she knows the sorts of books i like--and partly because I saw the author on Jon Stew..."

It was a good interview - I thought the author was giving good banter and made me want to check out the book.


Amanda Tom wrote: "It was a good interview - I thought the author was giving good banter and made me want to check out the book."

The Daily Show interviews always inspire me to pick up books I would never look at in the bookstore--the author's willingness to go with it and engage in witty banter definitely hooked me.


message 12: by carol. (new)

carol. She was funny and I admired how she was able to engage with Jon and poke at her subject. I just re-watched it when it was a re-run, and she still cracked me up when she admits, "its kind of a downer."


message 13: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto Ridged brow, you say? Kinda cute.


Amanda Jonathan wrote: "Ridged brow, you say? Kinda cute."

There's something irresistible and mysterious about a man with a ridged brow. It's like he's trying to hide something--and not just his eyes.


message 15: by Gary (new)

Gary Good review- detailed and laced with humor!


message 16: by Shorty (new) - added it

Shorty Once again, you show us all how to write a real review. Seriously, the first paragraph had me thinking this novel was about something completely different. I, for one, am in love with your snark. Great job, Amanda!


message 17: by carol. (new)

carol. Excellent review!


message 18: by Trudi (new)

Trudi Carol. [All cynic, all the time] wrote: "Excellent review!"

Agreed!


Amanda Gary wrote: "Good review- detailed and laced with humor!"

Thank you!


Amanda Stephanie wrote: "Once again, you show us all how to write a real review. Seriously, the first paragraph had me thinking this novel was about something completely different. I, for one, am in love with your snark...."

Well, if you lead with the phrase "mass extinction," most people are going to tune out. I had to hook 'em somehow! Glad to know my snark isn't going to waste. :)


Amanda Trudi wrote: "Carol. [All cynic, all the time] wrote: "Excellent review!"

Agreed!"


Carol. [All cynic, all the time] wrote: "Excellent review!"

Thank you, ladies!


Peter Mcloughlin You should read a book called the "the Party's over". The author in it compares the industrial age of the last 200 odd years since the discovery of fossil fuels as the equivalent of finding a treasure in the basement a spending it on a lavish party. Humanity found resources in its basement and built modern society which was a huge party without thinking about the future. The author says any other species in our place would have done the same. He says now as the reckless party begins to wind down we have to take stock sober up and prepare for a massive hangover that may literally kill us if we don't take action.


message 23: by Amanda (last edited Mar 27, 2014 09:32AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amanda Peter wrote: "You should read a book called the "the Party's over". The author in it compares the industrial age of the last 200 odd years since the discovery of fossil fuels as the equivalent of finding a treas..."

Ha! I love that analogy. Thanks for the recommendation--I'll have to check it out!


Stephanie *Extremely Stable Genius* Excellent review...I've yet to read this since it's a downer, but I'll be in the mood at some point.


Amanda Stephanie wrote: "Excellent review...I've yet to read this since it's a downer, but I'll be in the mood at some point."

It's a downer, no doubt, but Kolbert manages to give it just enough wit and humor that it can be amusing amid all the dire portents for the future.


message 26: by Esteban (new) - added it

Esteban del Mal Great review!


Amanda Esteban wrote: "Great review!"

Thanks!


message 28: by Cisca (new) - added it

Cisca Ballot Well written!


Amanda Cisca wrote: "Well written!"

Thank you for the kind compliment.


message 30: by Palmyrah (new)

Palmyrah This is excellent. You may be being a little too hard on the human race, though. Yes, we're responsible for all those extinctions in the past, and probably for the planet-wide mass extinction that has now begun to occur. But this doesn't make us a particularly nasty species — just a particularly successful one. Any other species — bacteria, plant or animal — would do just the same in our position, unfortunately. Think of the plagues of mediaeval Europe, or rabbits destroying the Australian ecosystem, or the way beaver dams destroy the riverine habitats of other species.

You could argue that we should be doing better because we're intelligent, not just dumb animals. Maybe so. But if you look at the behaviour of human beings en masse, as opposed to individual behaviour, it is always instinctive, never rational. Our reason simply isn't strong enough, or extensive enough, to overcome our animal instincts.

Will our species survive the Anthropocene mass extinction? Or will it perish along with so many others? Interesting question, though I doubt any book can answer it.


message 31: by Esteban (new) - added it

Esteban del Mal Animal rationis capax.

I like you, Palmyrah. You're matter of fact about it.


Amanda Palmyrah wrote: "This is excellent. You may be being a little too hard on the human race, though. Yes, we're responsible for all those extinctions in the past, and probably for the planet-wide mass extinction that ..."

Thank you for the comment. You make some interesting and compelling points. I can certainly see the reason in that perspective, but there's something in me that bristles against it a bit. Certainly the argument could be made that we're an extremely successful species doing what any other apex predator does--dominating our environment and thriving. But unlike the plagues or rabbits, we have a conscience and, while we have primal instincts, we are capable of rational thought. And I think our reason is often strong enough to do the right thing (I'm thinking of the positive social changes that have come about as the result a society realizing the error of its ways, even though it would be easier to maintain the status quo)--our ability to be aware and to think logically should make us more accountable than other species.

Of course, this is only my perspective, which is constantly evolving. It certainly is an interesting philosophical question. I hope reason wins out over instinct in the end, but currently there's probably more evidence to support your point of view than mine.


message 33: by Juan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Juan Castañeda Thanks Amanda for such a great review. I am in the middle of reading this book now, and so far - it has created a deep impression on me....I just keep thinking in my head: Why have we done to this beautiful earth??.


Amanda Juan wrote: "Thanks Amanda for such a great review. I am in the middle of reading this book now, and so far - it has created a deep impression on me....I just keep thinking in my head: Why have we done to this ..."

Thanks--it's beyond depressing, isn't it? It seems so obvious that humans are responsible for much of what is happening and yet so many continue to deny it.


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