I’m holding a polished ammonite fossil—an extinct marine animal with a spiral, snail-like shell. Just as Robin Williams’ eerily-whispered advice to students in the movie The Dead Poets Society—“Carpe Diem, boys”–this fossil seems to whisper an ominous warning: “You homo sapiens may have seized the day, indeed, the whole planet, but do not think that your species can go on seizing without paying a price.” Clearly my thoughts, reflecting on Elizabeth’s Kolbert ‘s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, are troubled.
Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is a well-established environmental journalist. Her first book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006), focused specifically on how people are damaging the earth’s ecosystems and changing climate and weather patterns. In The Sixth Extinction, she turns her attention to mounting evidence that the “weedy species” of homo sapiens is pushing many flora and fauna species toward extinction, too.
In a 13-chapter survey of the “Anthropocene Epoch” (an informal term for the current geologic era signifying the centrality of humans in shaping ecosystems), Kolbert takes us on a journey both wondrous and dismal, as we follow her through millions of years of history.
We travel to Panama’s rainforest to explore the possible extinction of the Panamanian Golden Frog. She takes us to the basement of the Museum of Natural History in Paris to view the first discovered mastodon bones. From here, we go to Iceland to see the last breeding grounds and preserved remains of the Great Auk (a flightless bird hunted to extinction in the 19th century), and then to scrape away at eroded cliffs outside of Rome, rural New Jersey, and southern Scotland to look for geologic evidence that a meteor impact caused a mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Era.
Next, Kolbert takes us swimming in the waters of an acidic bay near Naples, and then it’s onto One Tree Island, a remote research outpost run by the University of Sydney to study the ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef. The next stop is South America to explore global warming in the mountain forests of Peru and the fragmentation of rainforest in Brazil. After this, we go caving for brown bats with scientists in Albany, New York, to witness the devastating effects of White Nose Disease. We next proceed to the Cincinnati Zoo to witness an unsuccessful attempt to artificially inseminate one of the last remaining Sumatran rhinos. We travel to Europe once more to trace the rise and fall of Neanderthal and Denisovan hominids, and, finally, we return to the United States to visit the “Frozen Zoo” of the San Diego Zoo, a lab where cells of extinct animals like the dodo are frozen.
It’s a lengthy and at times overwhelming journey that Kolbert asks us to take. In places, even with her clear, journalistic voice leading the way, the amount of data and evidence the reader is asked to process is daunting. Readers receive a crash course in geology, paleontology, and western history of science as Kolbert considers the influences and competing theories of Linnaeus, Cuvier, Lyell, Darwin, and many contemporary scientists whose ideas have shaped what we accept as the history of the world and of its continued evolutionary processes, processes that Kolbert argues are largely socially constructed in the Anthropocene geologic era.
Kolbert presents a strongly documented report with alarming projections, such as, “it is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion” by the end of this century (17).
Kolbert reminds us that homo sapiens have “succeeded extravagantly at the expense of other species” (204), and in so doing, at least in terms of a timeline of human existence, we’ve tipped the environmental scales to trigger a mass extinction event, the sixth in earth’s history. Kolbert presents a compelling case for linking the loss of ecosystems and species globally to human construction, consumption, and chemical pollution. She argues, “there’s a dark synergy between [rainforest] fragmentation and global warming, just as there is between global warming and ocean acidification, and between global warming and invasive species, and between invasive species and fragmentation” (189).
While we are introduced to dedicated people going to extraordinary lengths to save species like the Panamanian Golden Frog and the Sumatran rhino from extinction, Kolbert is clear that her intent is not to focus on the herculean efforts of a very few as the best hope for halting the Anthropocene’s evolutionary march. Rather, her project is to put the endangerment and extinction of species happening now in context with the larger, longer history of life on earth and to emphasize that whether we intend to or not, “people change the world” (266). Finally, Kolbert suggests that rather than seizing the day, we need to consider how we should live through it with others.