sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertElizabeth Kolbert’s Pullitzer-Prize winning The Sixth Extinction is a brilliantly presented story of the fascinating story of worldwide extinction events and the ineluctably depressing news that humanity is the cause of the latest and perhaps most destructive of them.

Kolbert writes about past extinction events, geological epochs, climate change and conservation efforts with easily comprehensible, but not dumbed down, prose. It’s an enviable example of translating technical information and data into a compelling narrative. Unfortunately, it’s also a devastating indictment of the human species.

Don’t worry; this isn’t a screed against burning fossil fuels, or a plea to change to LED lightbulbs. But do worry because Kolbert lays out convincing evidence that mankind has, for the last, oh, 10 or 20 millennia, been causing irreversible damage to ecosystems. I walked away from this book feeling gutted specifically because Kolbert does not offer any false hope. Even in the last chapter, supposedly offering a glimmer of hope, the sad truth seems to be that our very existence is a death sentence for far too many organisms. It’s not just that we’re causing changes to the climate and oceans at unheard of rates, but our seemingly more innocent activities – traveling, fishing, farming – put pressures onto ecosystems that evolution simply can’t keep up with.

I came to this book after seeing a list of top facts learned from books in 2015. The Sixth Extinction is filled with fascinating facts from biology, geology, the history of science, and ecology. I loved reading Kolbert’s beautiful descriptions of how corals reproduce and how earlier generations pieced together the story of the fossil record. Those stories could not compete however with the equally well-expressed narrative of mankind’s destructive power and its increasingly dire consequences.

We’re too late to save 20% to 50% of “all living species on Earth” according to the research. And if we are to have any hope for saving the rest, action needs to be taken immediately. The Sixth Extinction is a horrifying clarion call to finally take serious and decisive efforts to protect the ecosystems that our own species ultimately depends upon.

Happy Earth Day.
* In her chapter on the white-nose syndrome currently killing millions upon millions of bats in North America, Kolbert notes that the fungus responsible for the disease was given the species name Geomyces destructans meaning “destroying”. I couldn’t help but think that would make a more fitting epithet for our own species as I read further.