The Sixth Extinction

If it weren’t for the wonderful writing of Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction would’ve been a much harder read. As it is it was difficult at times, but her sense of humor, ability to be a bit of a cynic, and overall style kept me reading more times than I can count. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this book so much as that I’m very glad I read it and am still pondering much of what she wrote.

Kolbert devotes each chapter to a different eco system or animal and talks about how things are changing for them. She begins with things that are already extinct and then moves on to various species who’re struggling to survive, going back to the species we’ve lost towards the end. And the through line of all of the species and their struggles is the arrival of humans. In addition she points out that our activity is now making it difficult if not impossible for animals to move to avoid the rising temperatures or the changes in their native habitat. We’ve built roads, we’ve cut down their forests, and more, so that they have fewer options than they did before we arrived and these events occurred.

History is long, but what’s happening right now is moving incredibly quickly compared to past extinction events and after finishing the book I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to change or slow down the effects of our actions.

One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers—roads, clear-cuts, cities—that prevent them from doing so. (p 189)

One of the many unintended consequences of the Anthropocene has been the pruning of our own family tree. Having cut down our sister species—the Neanderthals and the Denisovans—many generations ago, we’re now working on our first and second cousins. (p 254)

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 our 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 and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth. (p 268)