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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Co. New York, NY. 2014. 319 pp.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has received glowing reviews since its release in February.

Her writing, is lucid, inviting, eclectic, engaging and in some instances downright, if only vicariously, exhausting for us armchair travelers as we tag along with her as she treks around the globe, hunting for examples of the story of mass extinctions. Generally biological time on earth has been divided into five great extinctions. The rise of homo sapiens, and our impact on the rest of the world is considered by Kolbert (and most field biologists) to have set the sixth great extinction in motion.

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertKolbert makes an amazing number of stunning and mind-bogglingly depressing observations. Reviewers have marveled at her “objectivity” in presenting facts like this: “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate.” For facts as nightmarish as hers, a “hair on fire” approach would certainly not be out of order. Still, I can imagine two reasons for it: One is to let the facts speak for themselves, which to people like me, they do, elegantly and inarguably. The other, and probably equally potent, is that expressing any kind of emotion would give the idiot deniers of human-caused mass extinctions (much less climate change) the lead to dismiss out-of-hand as mere hysterical overreaction what is the frightening reality of what they are being presented with.

The one literary trick she uses I wish she would tone down is a New Yorker trademark in science writing, the interjection of information on personality and physical descriptions of the scientists which are generally novel but unenlightening. For example, one of people she interviews has differently colored eyes. I may be easily distracted, but I retained that factoid rather than the scientific discoveries those eyes had made.

Still this is a timely and important book whose major takeaway is precisely this:

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”

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