Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is a walk down memory lane–that is, if you’re the planet. She takes the reader all over the globe, from Iceland to the Great Barrier Reef. Kolbert presents each chapter, in this journalist’s account of life departed, as a multi-facetted story, at the center of which is usually a quirky scientist. She gives us a sense of what it is like for these insatiable truth-seekers to be in the field (the Amazon jungle, One Tree Island, the Uplands of Scotland, etc.). The book is, at its core, a fascinating overview of the ground breaking research that continues to shape our understanding of who we are (evolutionarily speaking) and where we are going.
Each chapter in Kolbert’s work shares a somber theme: extinction. We learn about the ancient ammonites and the more recent mastodons. We come to understand the competing theories regarding the asteroid that dispatched the dinosaurs, the economics that doomed the great auk, and we get to participate as Edgardo Griffith tries to understand why amphibians are disappearing from the biosphere.
The title is a reference to the five great extinction events that have occurred in our planet’s history, and it suggests that the sixth extinction is being caused by humans and picking up steam. The book never gets preachy. It is always interesting. Kolbert presents a portfolio of extinctions, many of which are incontrovertibly human caused, and in the end, leaves it to us to draw our own conclusion about where the evidence leads.
I was fascinated by the details: episodes in the life of Charles Darwin, the graffiti contemporary scientists leave at their field stations, the dark humor they share about our eventual fate, and the overwhelming diversity, or strangeness, of the flora and fauna which we call life.
The Sixth Extinction provokes anxiety. I can’t remember a single mention of the word overpopulation in the text, but it kept occurring to me as I read: there are too many people. Too many people to live this haphazardly in such a finite biosphere.
Take the mathematics of extinction, for example. An extinction event does not necessarily have to be sudden and catastrophic. I learned that continual downward pressure, even gentle pressure, on a population will drive a species to extinction over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. What got my attention was that such an extinction would be geologically instantaneous, but “too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.”
It’d be easy to mistakenly believe that in the age when humans existed alongside the Neanderthal our population was too small, our technology too primitive to have much of an impact on the broader ecological system. But we’d make that mistake only if we studied a few generations. After many generations of contact, the Neanderthals were wiped out.
Looking at the event through the mathematics of continual downward pressure on the population, the Neanderthal was doomed upon our arrival. So were many other species.
The advantages evolution gave humans allowed our ancestors to create agriculture and, in the 1940s, fertilizer. That technology has allowed our population in the last seventy years, or so, to spike from about 2 billion to about 7 billion people.
If, by simply getting by, a few million humans could inadvertently wipe out multiple older, well-adapted species, what will be the effect of 7 billion humans living, in comparison to our ancestors, quite lavishly?
I kept thinking of my most recent story, Patriarch Run, as I read The Sixth Extinction. In my story, the villain or hero, depending on how you view the dilemma, is obsessed with the exponential growth of the human population. Certain that humans are causing the sixth great extinction, he seeks to wipe out his own species, to reduce its population to what it was during the stone age.
What I find interesting is the debate generated by the novel’s readers: many of them are horrified by the thought of killing so many innocent people; others see it as the lesser of two evils.
For those willing to look, great forces have been set in motion, which means there are some big changes coming down the ecological pike. I think I wrote my story for the same reason Kolbert wrote hers: I’d prefer it if we paid attention, if we asked the hard questions.