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

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
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it was amazing

As most will have realized by now, I declared this March nature/science month. Thus, I'm reading (mostly) only non-fiction books. Many of these are about what was originally known as "natural history", which later became several scientific fields. There are a lot of books about this subject, of course, but I decided to finally catch up on the classics (Darwin, Wallace, Humboldt) and take it from there. Humboldt was the father of what we nowadays consider environmentalism and it was therefore only a small step from this incredible man's biography (who's 250th birthday we celebrate on 14 September incidentally) to books about the Big Five, the five mass extinctions that have shaped our planet and the 6th that we might be living in right now.

While yesterday's book wasn't very gripping, this one was wonderful. Elizabeth Kolbert introduces us to a few extinct or almost extinct animals:
The Golden Frog (extinct in the wild)

as well as the Great Auk (extinct)

The former was attacked by a fungus (much like the bats she later introduced/presented). Some biologists saw what was happening (at first not knowing what killed off the amphibians) and saved as many as they could find, taking them to a hotel (no, I'm not kidding) where they built a habitat in several rooms.
The latter was killed off by fishermen and for the clothing industry as it was fashionable to wear their feathers in times past. Much like with shark finning nowadays, people plucked the birds, leaving them naked and with partially ripped-off skin in the cold to die horribly. Either we humans therefore caused their extinction directly or the population was decimated to a point where they could no longer survive some other factor.

The author then also describes older epochs where dinosaurs and other creatures roamed and ruled on Earth.
She tells about research, how we came up with considering extra-terrestrial factors such as meteor strikes for an extinction event, digging up fossils, how original theories were established, disbelieved, proven or disproven, amended etc.

And we follow her to various places around the globe to witness nature's might and beauty as well as its destruction.
Like when she swims and dives through various reefs (the Great Barrier Reef amongst others), thus showing us sharks and fish, corals and the rest of the incredible diversity these "jungles of the sea" have to offer.
Or when she hikes through the Amazonian rain forest (reserve 12-0-2).
Or when she crawls through caves in the US in the endeavor to count the last remaining bats that have not yet been killed by the afore-mentioned fungus (white-nose).

She's thus also telling the reader about invasive species either introduced deliberately (like the famous poisonous toad in Australia or a certain snail on Hawaii) or by accident via ships and planes (like a snake on Guam or the Japanese bark fungus that has killed off the American chestnut).
What I didn't know and learned here, for example, was that almost all grass in the US is NOT native. Like one third(!) of all plants (dandelions for example) or earthworms, it arrived from Europe. It's called the Columbus Exchange. (There are no American earthworms whatsoever, in fact, since they all died out during the last ice age.) Basically, humans are running plate tectonics backwards, breaking the evolutionary chain by bringing American species to Africa, African ones to Europe, European ones to Antarctica and so on. This "going back to what it was like when there was still the super-continent Pangea" is dangerous however as it means the elimination of species variety.

Moreover, through the author's travels we meet a number of paleontologists, geologists, ecologists and biologists explaining these phenomena and what they mean (now and in the future).

Thus, she gives a 360° view on the subject, even including etymological and historical details that were fascinating to read about (like where the word "science" came from, who coined it and when - since it had a direct influence on the research itself). Or what contribution the different naturalists and explorers (such as James Cook, too) made that still influence our understanding of nature today.

Monocultures, ocean acidification, poaching, CO2-outputs, ... there is more than enough proof for the devastating effects we humans have already had in addition to natural factors and this book provides a very nice summary / overview with enough examples from around the world.

The writing style is fluent and coherent and the combination of the topics to give a holistic view before the tragic conclusion was suspenseful (yes, although it is non-fiction) and very well done. By the way, she also mentions efforts that give hope seeing as how far we've come and what we've done already to protect certain species and get them back from the brink. We could at least prevent ultimate disaster if only we got our collective butt in gear and actively changed the world (for the better this time).

Naturally, this is more than a science book. It's also a cautionary tale. It's bringing context to what we've done to the world so far and what we'll probably continue doing to it and what the outcome will likely be. It therefore already also provides the answer for an alternative.
The easily accessible writing might thus be the perfect way of conveying accurate scientific details even to laymen (who are usually rather reluctant to pick up such a book). A very important book that I wish more people would read.
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Reading Progress

June 4, 2014 – Shelved
June 4, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
March 12, 2019 – Started Reading
March 12, 2019 –
50.0% "That‘s more like it! This books is sooo much better than the one I read yesterday. We‘re also following the author on a voyage to fossil sites to get an idea of what different epochs must have been like and to retrospectively witness mass extinctions, but there is a much more coherent narrative and far superior writing style here. The author combines paleontology with geology, etymology, biology and history."
March 12, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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Trish P.S.: This didn't really belong in the review but I was struck but by what we know as of today as compared to when Kolbert wrote this book with regards to "species on the brink" (that are now completely gone). It made me cry.

message 2: by Sandra (new) - added it

Sandra It sounds amazing, it's already on my tbr, but given how I cried through last chance to see this one might require several stiff drinks to read.

message 3: by Sandra (new) - added it

Sandra (Detour, have you read Ursula Vernon's Toad Words I know it's nonfiction month, but it's a short story, it's fast!)

Trish Oh, you're evil. Same excuse as Brad always uses. Back, you fould temptress! ;)

And yes, you might need a stiff drink or twelve - I cried during Last Chance to See as well (the books as well as Stephen Fry's series).

Bradley Glad you appreciated this book! :) :) And yeah, definitely superior to that last.

Trish I liked everything about it (the narrator too - I read both versions again).

message 7: by Dannii (new)

Dannii Elle Great review, Trish. I feel like I need to dedicate a month to all the non-fiction books I am have amassed and never read, over the years, too!

message 8: by Maya (new) - added it

Maya This sounds like a great (if depressing) summary. added to my list!
(How do you manage to read and review so fast o.o )

Trish It's not a feel-good book, for sure, but it's time we as a species took responsibility. And the more people know, the more we have a chance to do what is right.

@Maya: Well, for starters: audiobooks. I commute by car, that is roughly 2.5 hours in the car every day. Plus lunch breaks and whatever time I manage in the evenings.
Moreover, especially the last 2 weeks I had the opportunity to listen some more during work and had the last two afternoons off even.
As for writing reviews, that comes easily to me and I often can move on to the next book better (or even only) once I've written it. It's part of me processing what I've read.

message 10: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen Great review!

Trish Carmen wrote: "Great review!"

Thanks! :)

message 12: by Maya (new) - added it

Maya You're right about it being time, but mostly we still put economic/human interest first. I work in conservation and it's difficult to convince poor populations to abandon a possibility of economic wealth, because the protection of some animals in their local forest is more important. For them, the forest needs to go and make room for appartment buildings or plantations. I think most people in conservation are very pessimistic about the future state of the environment ...

About the reading speed: wow, that's very time-efficient. I'm unable to concentrate on books while at work xD I can relate to reviews as a way of processing books, but unfortunately negative reviews come more easily to me than positive ones, which is demotivating ... so, your output is quite impressive!

Trish The true problem is instant gratification. Conservation IS about humans and our economy, but in the future and not right now. Most people don't get that killing off the planet our children and grandchildren will live on is bad. They don't care. Moreover, what climate change does to us economically could be seen where I live in 2018 when fruit and vegetable prices skyrocketed because of the drought (though the apples were form 2017 so it was once again just greed) and rivers ran dry which also impacted the shipping industry, gas prices etc.

the interesting thing is that many farmers in South America have been persuaded to help with butterfly populations and other projects instead of cutting off yet more rain forest - if only it provides a source of income.

And I love a good rant just like the next person. *lol* I don't have too many really bad books but check out my 1-star reviews if you enjoy that. :D

As for pessimism: I get it. Most of the time I'm right there with anyone wanting to slowly and painfully kill off climate change deniers and arrogant suits in colled down offices who just don't give a fuck about what happens in 50 years because they will be dead by then.

message 14: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen The true problem is instant gratification. Conservation IS about humans and our economy, but in the future and not right now. Most people don't get that killing off the planet our children and grandchildren will live on is bad. They don't care.

Yes, I totally agree with you, Trish. People SAY they want to save the environment, but they are completely unwilling to give up even the tiniest comfort. It's ridiculous. They want to save the world but don't want to change anything about their lifestyle.

Bradley There's also the problem of effective use of our resources, usually stemming from our conception on the problem. When we finally realize that most big problems can be solved by the appropriate pressure through economics, I think most things will follow the right direction pretty quick.

No one wants to lose what they have. And I'm NOT talking the money related to a Carbon Tax.

I'm talking about the cost to keep your AC working right after your father dies from the heat and all the hospitals just closed because the stink of rot was encouraging everyone else to stay away.

Trish We haven't had disasters bad enough yet - at least not in the Western world. The problem is that once we do, it'll be too late.

message 17: by Maya (last edited Mar 14, 2019 08:55PM) (new) - added it

Maya Yes, there won't be an apocalyptic disaster bringing us all to reason, so we can unite as a species. We are just going to slowly turn this place into an oven and create an hostile environment for ourselves. Ultimately, the planet will survive the next centuries, the question is how many of us will be left on it.
At least, in the west the general public has a certain degree of awareness, which will make a certain number of politicians act accordingly. In most other parts of the world the issue isn't present in people's minds at all (for different reasons as lack of education or the government actively controlling information flow), so unless you have an individually environmentalist politician, short-term economic gain will be the only focus.
Economic preasures would work, but everybody would have to be on the same page for that, right? Signing a binding agreement ... I don't see that happening any time soon ;)
(Where I live people die from heatstroke every year - the public responds by using even more AC. I think ACs sold out in Europe this year because of the uncharacteristically hot summer? So people always put short-term comfort over a long-term stable environment. )
Sorry for the ranting!

message 18: by Trish (last edited Mar 15, 2019 05:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trish The thing is, I don't see the politicians ACTUALLY doing something. It's all smoke and mirrors, sadly. They are also unable to strike a balance between what people need to survive in this human world (i.e. food, access to meds, education for their kids, general safety) and what the planet needs because most people aren't brave enough.
Look at Germany: we finally had them where they accepted to kill off the coal industry - until that lobby once again reared its ugly head on behalf of a rich investor, threatening (openly!) to lay off people just out of spite of they don't agree to their terms and NOT stop the coal.
And as much as it pains me to say: I agree with Trump about the Paris Agreement. Don't get me wrong, we need something like this. But what we had/have doesn't work because the biggest pollutors get money (incredible sums) without having to change anything (yet). China and India, for example, simply promised to change their industry standards until 2025/2030 but who knows if they'll do it. Meanwhile, we're paying for whatever they use the money for and that is just ridiculous.

And I have to admit to having an AC, too. We don't always use it because at least the lower floor of the house (old, build from stone in 18xx) keeps quite cool, but the upper one isn't finished enitrely so the right kind of insulation is still missing and I can't sleep in 35°C at night so this past summer we, too, used it to cool the upper floor down to a level when we could sleep as our bosses would not accept us not coming into work due to heat-induced sleep deprivation. *lol*
However, I detest when people try to cool the office down to only 20°C when you have 40°C outside. Also because it isn't healthy for the human body either.

And problem about the ranting - I wish more people would be aware!

message 19: by Maya (new) - added it

Maya And yet, the Paris agreement is the best we've managed to do so far. I don't see anything more binding being signed anytime soon.
The Chinese believe it is their right to pollute as much as necessary until they reach first world status (which arguably they have already), because after all we were allowed to do it back in the day, so they should be too. Unfortunately, the planet doesn't care whether "it's unfair" or not. We can only hope that they will see reason ... but since at the moment they are preparing for war rather than anything else ... i don't see things ending well in asia right now.
It's super frustrating.
Well, at least we can try and spread the word ... and vote with our wallets by buying sustainable products.
Thanks again for the review!

Trish Maya wrote: "And yet, the Paris agreement is the best we've managed to do so far. I don't see anything more binding being signed anytime soon. "

Or ever. That's my (pessimistic) point. *lol*

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