Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Beginnings, it's said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name - nothing does - but it has the capacity to name things.

The Sixth Extinction tells the story of just that, of the coming major die-out of species due to humans. There have only been five such events in the history of life on the planet, so it's clearly a major deal. (I still fail to understand how some people *cough*cough*conservatives* can continue to deny that there's a problem at all). Kolbert also reveals that it is not only recently that us humans have altered the plant; there used to be megafauna on almost every part of the globe, and these large mammals were killed off by early humans. Since then, we've over-hunted many animals, and have transferred animals and plants and fungus from different continents to places where they never existed before. This also causes damage to many species which don't have the evolutionary tools to combat the invasive species.

I found The Sixth Extinction fascinating and provocative. Despite the fact that she isn't a scientist, Elizabeth Kolbert does a great job making things clear but not too simplistic. She offers analogies that make sense and shares the insights of the many scientists she talked to. Traveling all over the world, Kolbert traces the histories of different species that went extinct in the past and those are critically endangered for various reasons, all relating to humans.

The writing wasn't remarkable, but it certainly held my interest; Kolbert knows how to weave a good story. And since she travels to all sorts of fascinating places from the Great Barrier Reef to the Amazon to Iceland, the book is never boring in the slightest. She also intersperses personal observations and feelings, because a lot of things she did were rather frightening and new. This also makes the book more entertaining and compelling.

I did want a little more detail in some of the sections, but overall the book was absorbing in terms of its science. Kolbert writes with clarity and clear-headedness about the coming challenges that the globe will face, and while she's certainly not optimistic, there are some thoughts for future preservation. It was also quite heartening to see her talking to people who are aware of the problem and are trying to help. Yet it's also very sobering, as in the case of Amazonian frogs and Northeastern bats who are suffering from various fungi. There's not much that can be done.

It's also posited that it's not because humans are cruel and evil that species go extinct; it's because we're humans, and the qualities that make us so successful like altering our environment and using resources are the very properties that have always made us animal killers. It's all very gloomy and depressing, but as the author points out, that doesn't mean one can avoid reading about it because it's the truth. And it's a nasty thought that "if you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap." If you're reading this blog post, you're probably an unwitting part of the problem. Just like me, and just like everyone in the developed world.

Many people often point to the fact that there have been mass extinctions in the past, wiping out a myriad of species. They say that it occurs naturally, and that humans are not the reason for this latest problem. But that's clearly not true; many of the extinctions chronicled in this book are due to the fact that we humans reassemble the biosphere, taking species of animals, plants, and fungi from their natural home to other parts of the globe, with sometimes disastrous effects. And Kolbert also points out that many of the previous extinctions, drastic though they were, occurred over a much longer time period, a much longer scale, giving species time to adapt to their new environment and migrate to better areas. But this extinction is proceeding at a pace like never before, on the scale of a human lifetime. It's startlingly predicted that a huge percentage of species will be gone by 2050. Except for the most recent extinction, an asteroid that took out the dinosaurs and many other species, all of the other ones have occurred over at least thousands of years (still a geologic blink of an eye). Not so this time. Kolbert leaves us with the troubling thought that perhaps "homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but of its victims."

269 pages.

Rating: ****

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