The Sixth Extinction
by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, £20)
On five occasions in the geological past, most of the species on our planet went abruptly extinct for reasons that are still poorly understood. There are now strong indications of an impending sixth mass extinction, but this time the culprit seems all too clear. Global warming, deforestation, pollution, ocean acidification from rising carbon dioxide levels, and inadvertent long-distance transport of invasive organisms and pathogens—all are primarily or entirely our doing, and all are proving disastrous to life’s diversity.
New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert might have had an enviable National Geographic-style itinerary for researching this survey—the Great Barrier Reef, Brazilian Amazonia, Peru, Panama—but what she saw, and has recorded without melodrama or sentimentality in this important book, is often heartbreaking and deeply alarming. It is a warning that applies even, perhaps especially, to some of the most remote and astonishing places on earth. Yet it has always been thus: early humans were “overkilling” 40,000 years ago, when they still coexisted with the more restrained Neanderthals. “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert writes, “it’s not clear that he ever really did.” Wreaking ecological havoc seems to be a peculiarly human kind of madness. This book can’t offer solutions, much less a cure. But its purpose is instead to issue a wake-up call, even if for many species it already comes too late.