“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” Book Review

Author: Elizabeth Kolbert

Available in: Hardcopy (Maybe consider used book?), ebook, audiobook.

When I decided to read this book, I had in mind a book with graphs and percentages to give out stunning information about how human activities have killed off many animals on earth and I was ready to feel guilty; but this book,with factual details woven into deftly written language, gives me a feeling that is quite indescribable: it’s like standing on a remote island in isolation to realize that whatever I had is probably gone or in the process of disappearing. 

Some part of the book was somewhat history heavy, talking about the discoveries scientists made leading up to the concept of “extinction”. In our current time, extinction doesn’t seem like a fancy term, even kids can talk about how the dinosaurs and their extinction, but up until the 18th century, people have not considered the fact that “what existed may have vanished into thin air”.

Two contradicting theories about extinction are uniformitarianism and Catastrophism. One believes that the changes on earth happen in a gradual manner as the results of numerous other previous changes; the other, as the name suggests, that extinctions are due to some major catastrophes. Uniformitarianism later lay the foundation of Darwin’s Evolutionary theory: extinction is due to its own incompatibility to the environment (natural selection). With countless evidence suggesting both ways, seems like humans are not yet able to portray those five previous tragic extinction events. 

With the reason for the first five extinctions still lingering, the earth has already entered the sixth one. Because humans have been there since the beginning, we now can pinpoint the cause of the sixth extinction: us. Changes started to happen even since our ancestors appeared on earth, but were accelerated in contemporary times.

Three out of the thirteen stories had taken over my mind after reading the book. 

The first story featured the Original penguin, the great auk. This is the part where I feel the greatest impression of the sixth extinction: these birds were literally killed to extinction by humans. There were plenty of them, but just because they are in such abundance, killing them did not alarm humans. Their flesh provides necessary nutrition for humans, their body fat was burned as fuel in the cold and their fur is also widely found in clothes or blankets to keep humans warm. Doesn’t this sound familiar? We are now not only over-exploiting the animals on this planet, other lives on earth (maybe not only lives, all kinds of resources) are also undergoing the same, cruel over-exploitation by humans.

The second one is about the coral reefs. Maybe the already-extinct bird is the past that we have no way to grasp, but the coral reefs, which are predicted to disappear in less than 50 years, will raise awareness from some of us. The dying corals are the result of ocean acidification, which are called the “evil twin” of climate change from emission. The earth has its own mechanism of keeping the land and ocean balanced, so the more we emit into the air, the more will be absorbed by the ocean in order to reach such equilibrium. And the emitted gases undergo the chemical reactions which increases the pH level of the ocean environment. Very little organism will be able to survive the acidic environment, thus, the bleakest picture of the ocean is yet to be seen by humans. 

The third story, at first when you hear it, you might be in awe of the nearly magical traits of nature; but the aftertaste will be the complete opposite of that. In the mountains, mostly short-lived plants have moved up to seek the optimal living condition (by seedling). This movement is mostly due to temperature change: the higher we get in mountains, the colder it is. Due to global warming, the overall temperature has increased, so the trees which live a shorter life-span will move the next generation up in order to obtain the desired living temperature. The intelligence of nature at first might seem fascinating, but after that, we inevitably have to face the question: “what about the trees that are not capable of such movement?” They are basically stuck in place when others are running away from a disaster. 

The scariest thing reading about our earth is not knowing the stats about how many years until a species will perish, but that the rate of us reading cannot keep up with the rate of regeneration of information. This book was published in 2014, only five years later, I found that some information is kind of outdated. Some may argue that five years is quite long, but this is comparable to some zeptoseconds on the cosmic calendar. It certainly feels like that species are perishing at an accelerating rate, even in 5 years. It frightens me to even imagine how the world is going to look like in the next five years. 

One other thing that the book talked about was the term “anthropocene”. According to “Welcome to Anthropocene” Website, anthropocene is defined as “Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” This website also has much cool information for anyone who is interested (http://www.anthropocene.info).

I also encourage people to check out the documentary series: ”Cosmos, Possible Worlds”. It has a lot of information regarding our earth and humans. Anthropocene is also covered in chapter 12 (but also here and there in the series).


Wenqian L.

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