The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a person susceptible to both anxiety and to pessimistic feelings about my species, I should probably be more selective about what I read.

At the end of the chapter about bats, I took a dusk walk through our New England neighborhood. I walked the paved sidewalks beside the green lawns, listening to the crickets and watching the bats against the darkening sky, and I wondered if these bats would survive the winter, or would they succumb to white-nose syndrome before spring as thousands and thousands of bats have already?

This thought pulled a depressing veil over an otherwise pleasant autumn walk, and I found myself wanting to find a way out of this mood and this reality. Then I spent a night of restless sleep dreaming of trying to find an escape route to save my family as we were being pursued by people wearing coveralls and police uniforms (though they were clearly neither peace officers nor home repair professionals).

I see the appeal of denial, of just shrugging my shoulders and buying a second car which I’ll idle at the street corner while my kids wait for the school bus without a thought for the long-term effects of the fossil fuels I’m burning or the manner in which they must be procured or what will happen to my vehicle when I decide I want a new one. It’s tiring to think of all of these things all of the time, especially when any of my personal choices amount to a fraction of a drop in an enormous bucket. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about them. And then I pick up a book that just reiterates all of these thoughts.

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert offers a travelogue not only of the modern world and the spaces in it where the accelerating process of extinction is most obvious but also of the history of life on earth. We visit the oceans of the ammonites and the overheated landscape of the Tyrannosaurus and the rocky islands that once served as rookeries for millions of great auks, and we see how each part of Earth’s ecosystem interacts with every other part of it. We see how, without intending to be, Homo sapiens is an invasive species, crowding out diversity and changing the landscape and the very atmosphere.

She offers thorough, thoughtful reporting of the research frequently lightened with just the kind of understated levity I adore; what she doesn’t offer is solutions. She writes convincingly of just how humans have initiated the demise of countless species—including, most likely, our own—but she offers no suggestions for how to make things better.

Admittedly, I would probably like the book less if she had gone that route; a happy ending would have felt saccharin. “Here’s how we effed everything up simply by existing, but if we follow these simple steps, we’re peachy again!” It would have felt fake, but maybe it would have staved off the nightmares.

I had an ecology professor during the mid-90’s who said, “The best thing you can do for the environment is to kill yourselves before you procreate.” He then went on to clarify that this wasn’t a prescription and to point out that he wasn’t following his own advice, but those words have stuck with me. They are so devoid of hope, and that’s kind of how I feel at the end of this book. Kolbert travels all over the world (presumably burning lots and lots of fossil fuels, incidentally) to bring back stories and images of some of the most extraordinary and most endangered areas of the planet, and although she calls her final chapter, “The Thing With Wings,” I don’t feel much hope—unless the conviction that life on Earth will continue and eventually recover from this current extinction event as it has from the previous five extinction events with or without my species can be considered “hope.”

It’s really a very good book, but I’ll have to reevaluate my selection criteria for “pleasure reading” before I choose my next book.

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The Sixth Extinction is the September 2015 SBC selection. If you’d like to join us in reading and discussing October’s book—Jane Smiley’s Some Luck—or any of our future varied selection of books, please visit our Goodreads group.

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