The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

 

Image of the book jacket coverElizabeth Kolbert’s journalistic style offers an exciting and thorough case study of humanity’s impact on life, and the likelihood that human behavior may extinguish all earthly life, including human life.

Not one to research in dusty museums, Kolbert meets the current extinction experts in the ecological hotspots that serve as their laboratories. She climbs the Andes, goes spelunking in the bat caves of New York and Vermont, snorkels off the Great Barrier Reef, trudges through the South American rain forests, and visits Gubbio, Italy where she explores the clay left by a dinosaurs-killing asteroid collision.

She speaks with the experts in each aspect of Earth’s changing ecology and examines the evidence left behind by Lyell, Darwin, Lamarck, and Cuvier.  She introduces the reader to a galaxy of fascinating critters, among the living and the extinct. In the process, she outlines the apparently irreconcilable theories of evolution and how with time they evolved into one substantial explanation of the origins and extinctions of the species.

When Kolbert assembles this myriad of puzzle pieces, they point to the term, Anthropocene. That is the name given to the geological epoch dominated by humans. People have secured this dubious honor because they have diverted the course of natural history toward an unnatural and moribund path.

Throughout human existence, our species has intentionally and accidentally annihilated countless species. Once abundant and successful, every Wooly Mammoth, Great Auk, and Passenger Pigeons, thanks to humanity’s relentless hunting are now extinct. Our unwitting transport of disease organisms and invasive species have eradicated vulnerable life forms distorting their native biological communities.

The ecological impact of humans will soon rival that of Earth’s collision with a six-mile wide asteroid that closed the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago. That “nuclear-winter-like” event exterminates seventy-five percent of all life forms, including every land organism larger than a cat.

The multipronged human attack on creation includes climate change, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction.

For those uncertain about climate change, the author offers solid evidence to support the notion that human activity accelerates natural cycles and in this current situation has endangered life itself on this planet. She introduces climate change’s evil twin, ocean acidification. The latter is easily measured and is found consistently in the waters of the world. Carbon dioxide’s role in the greenhouse effect and global warming is significant, but CO2 finds its way into the oceans—now thirty percent more acidic than in 1800—where it joins with water to form the carbonic acid that erodes coral reefs, drives out dissolved oxygen and otherwise alters living conditions for marine organisms.

Humans have replaced or fragmented the natural land communities of the world. Deforestation, agriculture, development have destroyed habitats and ruptured the communities that sustain life as we know it. When species disappear, it is like an ingredient goes missing. The resulting dynamic spins askew, affecting every other living thing, including present and most certainly future humans.

Those who hold life dear must realize that unless they respect and preserve all life forms, humans will lose the ultimate battle. They needn’t fear the Zombie Apocalypse or the Planet of the Apes. More likely, Earth’s next dominant species will be the rats.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert offers affirmers and deniers of climate change, an approachable, but a substantial body of evidence to support the case for climate change. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is not an opinion piece. It outlines the evidence affirming that the current rate of global warming is ten times faster than at the end of the last glaciation and all glaciations before it. The end-notes occupying the last quarter of the book offer a guide to the available data for all to examine.

Climate change deniers often cite that some scientists are not on board with the dangers of climate change and therefore we should ignore those who predict dire consequences. Kolbert clearly shows that scientists rarely agree on anything. Scientists are rivals who push their own explanations of natural phenomena. When so many scientists from every field from astronomy to zoology agree that climate change and the human role in it is the equivalent of an asteroid striking Earth, it is time to sit up, notice, and act. Humans may be helpless the next time a monster rock targets Earth, but humans can curb their own activities. It is time to raise voices to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency continues to protect the environment. The EPA can do more to keep today’s and tomorrow’s Americans safe from earthly threats as can the Defense Department. The future is in your hands.

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