Book Review: “The Sixth Extinction, Tenth Anniversary Edition” — Still Essential

By Ed Meek

Today, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book remains an important reminder of what is at stake — nothing less than the future of life on earth.

The Sixth Extinction, Tenth Anniversary Edition by Elizabeth Kolbert. Macmillan, 352 pages.

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, “3 billion breeding birds have been lost during the last fifty years across Canada and North America.”

Think of the earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies. Or the virus dies, or both die.” — Gore Vidal

If you missed The Sixth Extinction when it came out 10 years ago, now is a good time to read it. According to New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. The extinction before what is happening now is one we are familiar with. 65 million years ago the dinosaurs were destroyed when an asteroid struck the earth, which rendered the climate uninhabitable. Because of that impact, volcanos spread ash that blocked the sun; the resulting global freezing killed the plants that fed the herbivores and the dinosaurs that ate them. Prior to that, there were four other mass extinctions. Kolbert argues, along with much of the scientific community, that we are now living in an era called the Anthropocene. Humans have become the dominating force on the planet — no longer just one of its inhabitants — and that domination is rapidly altering and displacing other forms of life. Part of this global transformation is tied to the climate crisis — but not all of it.

Kolbert is an accomplished writer whose method is similar to Joan Didion’s. She patiently reports and observes as she gathers material to build an argument. She traveled around the world, exploring areas where scientists are recording the harm being done to animals and their fragile ecosystems. She went to the tropics of Peru, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, New Jersey, San Diego, Paris, and Scotland. Her conclusion is as disturbing today as it was 10 years ago, though perhaps now we are more receptive to her alarm: humans and the climate crisis are exerting a devastating effect on ecosystems, radically altering the habitats of animals and plant life, replacing forests and deserts with cattle ranches and housing developments. “Habitat and species loss leaves just 3% of the world’s ecosystems intact,” states a 2021 CNN report.

Critically endangered animals include species of elephants, rhinos, tigers, gorillas, and orangutans. The “merely” endangered list is much bigger. The creatures on these lists are our sentient partners on the earth, not disposable enemies. Orangutans are closest to humans, but more and more research is confirming that many animals are intelligent: dolphins communicate with each other, elephants mourn their dead and adopt strays, crows make their own tools, octopuses yearn to escape from aquariums. Other animals may not be rivals in terms of smarts, but they develop emotional connections with us — as dog and cat and horse owners will attest. Cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens all have been shown to have feelings; animal-rights activists Nussbaum and Grandin have argued for rights for animals, including a demand for more humane treatment and deaths. Doris Lessing once wrote that, in the future, humans  will wonder how we could possibly kill and eat animals.

Recently, a cadre of geologists met and proclaimed that we are not living in the Anthropocene yet. The assertion is somewhat pedantic: they point out that eras usually last thousands of years, and our environment has only been undergoing radical changes since the Industrial Revolution. But the dominance of humans and the catastrophic results of our burning fossil fuels are becoming harder and harder to ignore, as is the need, as announced by the UN, to change our behavior as quickly as possible to mitigate the damage that is already in the pipeline.

On the positive side, since The Sixth Extinction was published there has been some progress in recognizing the indispensable value of animals and plant life. We’ve seen the revival of eagles, condors, pelicans, bison, etc., because of the diligent work of animal rights groups. California has committed itself to “rewilding” 30 percent of lands and coastal waters. We’ve also made inroads to slow the progress of climate breakdown. According to the World in Data, for example, 30 percent of the world’s electricity now comes from green energy. A decade ago, The Sixth Extinction was both prescient and groundbreaking. Today, the volume remains an important reminder of what is at stake — nothing less than the future of life on earth. Kolbert underlines that paths we take now will map the world to come: “Right now, in the amazing moment that counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open, and which will close.”

Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).

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