Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Image: The Sixth Extinction cover, via Macmillan (source)

My initial goal for a review of The Sixth Extinction was an interview with the author, Elizabeth Kolbert.  I interviewed Melissa Harrison about her book, Clay, and readers of this blog enjoyed it very much.  The questions I would have asked of Elizabeth Kolbert were: (1) How did you decide on the book's title? (2) How did you prepare for the various research trips you undertook? (3) Did you purposefully select species and places or were the trips fortuitous? (4) Did you purchase carbon offsets for your travel? (5) What inspired the structure of the book?

The alternate approach was a conventional review. To prepare, I read reviews published in the New York Times (written by Al Gore!), the Boston Globe, the Seattle Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal. Most of these reviews were favorable and made similar observations about the book. Elizabeth Kolbert provides a fascinating overview of the development of extinction science. Animals become extinct with repeated human encounters either through direct action (hunting) or indirect activities (habitat loss via logging). We are in the midst of a sixth extinction period that is not only terrestrial and atmospheric (aka climate change/global warming) but also oceanic (aka ocean acidification).

Of the reviews I read, the WSJ review was the only one that explicitly challenged the arguments made by the author. The reviewer, Rupert Darwall, wrote that environmental focus has shifted from "the atmosphere to the oceans, to search there for the most likely candidates for extinction" and also raised the issue of scientific revolution, paradigm shifts, "and the contingent nature of scientific interpretation." These observations sparked a sixth interview question for me: What was your research methodology? What was your process for validation with the wealth of data and information available to you?

I enjoyed many aspects of this book of which I will share three. One, the organization was inspired. Each chapter, through the device of an extinct or threatened species, explored an extinction period or extinction-causing process.  The great auk of "The Original Penguin" illustrated an early instance of human-caused extinction and coincidentally occurred during Darwin's lifetime. Declines in reef biodiversity point to effects of ocean acidification.  Tree species "dropping out" of tropical forests underscore the significance of climate.  An extended quote here offers a better explanation than I can draft: "'In other kinds of human disturbances there were always spatial refuges. Climate affects everything.'"

The second aspect of the book I enjoyed was its lexicographical nature. Reading The Sixth Extinction was like reading a glossary of extinction science.  Are you familiar with the term hibernaculum?  I wasn't until I read "The New Pangaea" about bats and white-nose syndrome.  What of SAR aka species area relationship? I felt like I should have known this one having studied ecology.

Finally, the third feature of the book I was drawn to was its concluding message.  It is not exuberantly hopefully, but neither is it positively pessimistic.  Part of Elizabeth Kolbert's takeaway is not that humans are simply changing the biosphere, but that humans are changing the biosphere at an unprecedented rate. Furthermore, the rate of change is producing path dependent effects.  Here again I include an extended quote:
Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.  No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be out most enduring legacy.  The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust....
Elizabeth Kolbert is on Twitter as @ElizKolbert.  Her website is http://elizabethkolbert.com.

Thank you to Emily Kobel at Henry Holt for the advance reader's edition of The Sixth Extinction.

2 comments:

  1. Though it will likely leave me depressed, I definitely want to read this book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. local ecologistMarch 14, 2014

    Les, it is a fine book. You will enjoy it despite the somber message.

    ReplyDelete

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