Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Copyright 2015 (released January 6)
Picador - Nonfiction/History/Science
336 pp., including extensive bibliography

I read Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe in 2010 and didn't realize she'd published a new book till a former blogger friend mentioned it. I ordered it that day without bothering to read about it, but with a good idea about the gist, since Field Notes from a Catastrophe was about climate change.

The beginning of The Sixth Extinction was, I thought, a bit wobbly. A book about past mass extinctions as well as the one humans are currently creating, I expected the chapters to be tied into each other a little better. Instead, each of the first few chapters felt like entirely separate entities. It turned out there's a reason for that bumpy start. Apparently, those first few chapters (I don't know how many) were originally published as individual articles.

However, eventually Kolbert hit her stride and The Sixth Extinction began to feel like it had a purpose, leading up to but not overly strident about the concept that humans have not only altered the earth by driving the climate change that is likely to lead to a mass extinction in the ocean in about 35 years but also about how we've already been causing extinctions of flora and fauna for almost our entire existence. I found it startling, although I don't suppose I should. In today's world, you blink and another animal goes extinct or is added to the endangered list.

Still, the book was surprising in many ways. I've been reading about climate change for a long time and the science is solid but I've never read anything at all about ocean warming. This, it appears, is the concept that ought to induce panic. It's not the melting icecaps, which are causing rising oceans and killing off animals that require the icy regions' strength in order to survive, nor even the warming that's causing storms to grow stronger. Instead, it's the acidification of the water that is a fearful thing. Once it reaches a certain level . . . massive die-off, gloom, doom. Really, the potential loss of all that seafood alone ought to be enough to frighten us to action.

The only downfall to this book is that it can get a little too scientific, at times, at least for some of us. I'm not well-versed in biology; I don't know a family from a genus from a hole in the head, but the author liked using the Latin names of flora and fauna and occasionally went a little deeper into the science than I'd have liked. I can read between the lines but I felt a little stupid, I suppose.

Highly recommended. Another frankly terrifying but exceptional book by Elizabeth Kolbert, excellent as a follow-up to Field Notes from a Catastrophe, although not as in-your-face blunt and a little more technical. The few lines about the likelihood of life as we know it ending in the near future were uttered by scientists, not the author herself.

Side notes: I have an unfortunate tendency to read the comments below articles about things like climate change and I must admit that I don't understand how anyone can possibly fall for the concept that climate change is a hoax, a misconception that's especially prevalent in the U.S. The science backing up the fact that climate change is human-driven (and that we are actually in a cooling period, yet still managing to warm things up in a damaging way) is extensive and has been around for a lot longer than the political division over it (before the petroleum industry began heavily lobbying and buying off U.S. Congressmen, in other words).

Kolbert even talks about how long ago the first person discovered that we were causing climate change. 100 years, people. At one point, a Russian scientist recommended burning fossil fuels to deliberately change the climate, making more of Russia livable and screwing up life for North Americans. All Russia had to do was wait, though, as the dependence upon fossil fuels grew and we made the change without malice.

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