Humans totally suck and are raping this planet – the end, we all know it, just not many of us are doing much about it. While I sit here using my Mac computer that is taking energy while I also have lights on and the radio playing I am contributing to the destruction of the planet while whining about it. Kernel Morgan reviews THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY that takes a look in a gentle but intelligent way at the largest occurring natural extinction event taking place…..humanity! THE SIXTH EXTINCTION is released from Bloomsbury Publishing Australia and is out now in all good bookstores. Enjoy Kernel Morgan’s thoughts….all the best….JK.
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION by Elizabeth Kolbert is an easy to read piece of narrative non-fiction documenting the effect that humans have had on other species from the prehistoric to modern times. It is no surprise to find out that Elizbeth Kolbert is a staff writer for THE NEW YORKER magazine, as this book has a similar floaty feel and sprawling introspection of Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THEIF. We are engaged with factual first person accounts of real life events and academic studies and swept away with the grandness of the scope and the poetry of the presentation.
By first impression on the bookstore shelf, including militaristic cover art and a provocative tagline “an unnatural history”, it would be reasonable to assume that THE SIXTH EXTINCTION was going to be a call-to-action environmental book like Rachel Carson’s THE SILENT SPRING or Al Gore’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Pay no attention to these aesthetic elements and read within for a pleasant surprise.
Kolbert has crafted a delicate novel-length piece of literary journalism that isn’t about being pessimistic, it is about understanding and accepting a truth that is about 200,000 years old: humans – their resourcefulness, inventiveness, and rapid reproduction – are an extinction event on this planet, just as powerful as an asteroid or an ice age in altering the environment.
This book is not alarming, it is reassuring as much as it is quietly philosophical. We follow the narrator around as she visits significant sites or recounts testimony of fossil discoveries and animal enclosures. The chapters are laid out in easily digestible chunks, basically in chronological order, building a case for the assertion that the evolution of homo-sapiens is the sole cause of the sixth extinction (an event we are currently in). Each chapter is like a complete essay, drawing conclusions about the voracity of the theory. It is peppered with graphs and diagrams, quotes from experts, and personal observations and thoughts from Kolbert.
What makes this book great is the openness of the final chapter. There is a revelation that the correlation between the expansion of the human species and the retraction of most other species is not specific to modernity and is not due to a lack of care by individual humans. We are not an all-bad lot. The book documents example after example of attempted human intervention. There are conservationists of habitats, people who help dwindling species adapt to modern hazards, zoos who maintain the last surviving members of species in captivity with breeding programs, and scientists cataloguing and preserving the DNA of animals on their very last legs.
Two theories are presented about the future of humans in this mass extinction. One is summed up in the quote “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches”, meaning humans will be undone by transforming their ecological landscape. And the other is that “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion”. The reader can decide which theory they think is likely. The future is an unknown.
The is a brilliant moment in the final chapter where Kolbert breaks the forth wall and makes the person holding the paperback in their hand reconsider whether all the damage in this world is done by some evil ‘other’ or if we are all complicit in some way. “If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself holding a book on your lap.” It is a haunting moment where you realise even our most non-aggressive and well-intentioned actions are essentially unnatural in the grand scheme of things. Everything we do and have ever done is changing the natural order of things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a penny-drop moment where you realise even the biggest hippies, academics, and intellectuals, do not exist outside the ecosystem.
Kolbert points out in her prologue that humans can double in population in a decade, can travel over water shifting organisms from one continent to another, and clear forests everywhere we go. I am reminded of the final paragraph of Richard Dawkin’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH: “It is no accident that we see green almost everywhere we look … Without green plants to outnumber us at least ten to one there would be no energy to power us.” Dawkins also said that without the system of predators and prey animals would have no nervous systems, no sensory capabilities, such as seeing. Kolbert goes a step beyond Dawkins and shows we are not just one of the animals, we are the ultimate animal, built upon the backs of all that came before us. We are the animal which has now stopped evolving but has the power to dictate the evolutionary pathways of all the other animals. We control the green. We control the air and the ocean.
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION can be used as a textbook and springboard into further reading into biology, evolution, and extinction. Georges Culvier and Charles Darwin are major reference material used in the text. There is twelve pages of Selected Biography, sixteen pages of footnotes, and an extensive index at the end. But this is also a compact little paperback that you can take on a plane or a train, and it is a rollicking good romp through the natural history of the earth under human influence, told without pretention or fear-mongering.