- The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Co., New York, NY, U.S.A., 2014. 336 pp. Trade. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9299-8.
By the end of this century somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of all species alive today will be gone. Nothing like this has happened since the dinosaurs disappeared some 66 million years ago. Many writers and scientists have raised warnings—Peter Matthiessen in Wildlife in America, E.O. Wilson in The Future of Life and Paul Shepard in Nature and Madness are notable examples—but the story needs to be retold because losses continue and above all because this time the asteroid is us.
In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the evidence. Kolbert, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has done exemplary reporting on climate change, marshals facts from a multitude of sources and disciplines. She avoids generalities and abstractions and focuses, instead, on visits to bat caves, underwater CO2 vents, and other places where forces driving mass extinction can be easily observed. This part of the book is masterful and so well written that it is something of a page-turner, in spite of the extraordinarily grim subject matter. Her description of the apocalypse that overwhelmed the dinosaurs is nothing less than spectacular—the best I have ever read of that fantastical event. At the same time she maintains a certain emotional distance. Up to a point, this is reassuring. No need to freak out; her presentation seems to say we’re over here, and the event under examination is still somewhere over there.
This stance works for a while, but I doubt that anyone can consider mass extinction for long without emotion—denial and numbness included. Also questions intrude, urgent ones, such as: What am I to do? What is anyone to do? Is it too late? Scientists are not obliged to address questions like these, but popularizers can be. Kolbert avoids the questions and yet they become more and more pressing as the book proceeds, especially after she notes that some scientists think that we may be facing our own extinction. Most of us are adept at distancing ourselves from the extinction of other species, but our own is another matter.
With these concerns hovering over the narrative, Kolbert examines a few efforts to save endangered species. Among the projects are an attempt to artificially impregnate a Sumatran rhinoceros and the establishment of the Frozen Zoo, a cryogenics facility where samples of an extinct Hawaiian bird are stored in liquid nitrogen in the hope that someday the bird can be reconstituted. Kolbert’s descriptions are amusing and respectful, but at the same time she makes it clear that the projects are likely to fail. Even project leaders acknowledge that what they are doing is probably too little, too late.
Then why continue? Kolbert does not explore this question. The reader is left to wonder if participants persevere out of professional inertia. Are they like soldiers in The Iliad, battling under the sway of malignant and capricious gods? Could the scientists be bearing witness? Is The Sixth Extinction an act of witness? Is that our best option, too—to bear witness?
Despair is understandable. Anyone who thinks seriously about what is happening is almost certain to experience it. The Sixth Extinction is not a study of the psychology of extinction awareness and not a how-to book about saving the biosphere. [End Page 92] Kolbert aims to bring scientific findings to a mass audience and yet, by observing the conventions of hard science—when as a popularizer she does not need to and, at times, should not—and by emphasizing projects that seem very likely to fail, Kolbert conveys despair. She mentions only in passing hopeful attempts to avoid the worst, such as marine and nature reserves and legislation to protect wildlife. She says nothing about the work of organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club or radical environmentalism. These omissions, but above all her failure to address despair, lend it unnecessary strength. We cannot afford unexamined despair any more than...