The best nonfiction books read like fiction. The Sixth Extinction is the pre-apocalypse novel you wish was on the fiction shelf.
In Earth’s history, there are five major extinction events that we have observed. They have occurred relatively rarely in comparison to humans’ brief time-span on the planet. But every time, due to numerous factors but the major one being a massive change in the environment, a majority of Earth’s species died out.
The last extinction, the one we are all most familiar with, was most likely a giant asteroid hitting off the Yucatan peninsula. This bad boy wiped out the dominant life form on Earth: the dinosaurs. It paved the way for the dominance of mammals and here we are.
If you lived then as an observer, pointing to the asteroid as an extinction level event is quite easy. It changed the entire world’s climate in a matter of months. But generally, the book’s point is, if you’re living during an extinction, it’s hard to see it happening because it is spread out. On a cosmic scale it’s quick. For our lifetimes, it’s long.
The Sixth Extinction is happening right now. And the cause? Humanity. And it’s not just recent (although it’s speeding up), ever since we gained an intelligence level above other animals, we have been altering the landscape in incredibly divergent ways. Starting with: the disappearance of almost all mega-fauna. The giant land animals like mammoths and moas all died out in correlation with the arrival of human settlers. And it’s still happening.
Author Elizabeth Kolbert travels the world looking at dying species and the reasons why. She travels to Central America to see how hundreds of species of frogs are going extinct. To New York to witness bats disappearing by the millions because of a fungus specific to Europe. To the Great Barrier Reef to witness the coral bleaching and the effects that will have on the ecosystem. She goes on the journeys with equal dispensations of insight, wit, and a healthy dose of fatalistic optimism.
It’s hard not to read this book and feel incredibly sad. No scientist she interviewed gives Earth past the year 2100 to make the changes necessary to reverse climate change. Many of the ones she interviews say we’re screwed by 2050 if things keep going the way they are. Watching the news and our current fuel reliance, it’s hard to conclude otherwise.
This is a horror novel. And unlike other nonfiction books, it’s a terrifically good read. You’ll learn a lot in a short amount of time from an author who clearly knows how to craft a narrative and not just spout facts at you. This is a personal look at our effect as a species. Hopefully, we can turn it around soon.
4 out of 4 stars.