Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Sixth Extinction

Book Review : The Sixth Extinction
Author : Elizabeth Kolbert
My Rating : 5 out 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History".

Environmental issues have been on our social psyche for many decades now. From global warming to deforestation, we associate the cause of all that to our modern lifestyle, which includes burning fossil fuels and the seemingly uncontrolled growth of population. That’s true, no doubt, but from the viewpoint of anthropology, the story is much deeper than that, as documented by this Pulitzer Prize winning book of 2015.

The reason for the incalculable change we have caused to Earth’s ecosystem, is just us. We being the weedy species that we have evolved to be. Period. Author Elizabeth Kolbert argues convincingly that modernity has only accelerated the impact. Even before the advent of modern lifestyle, we made irrevocable changes to this planet, and some would argue, damage is a more appropriate word than change.

Most of us know about the shrinking habitats for many species, and how the wildlife numbers are dwindling down. What is perhaps unlikely to be wide knowledge is, even the number of species is rapidly going down. Yes, species, entire species, are going extinct at an alarming rate. This rapid extinction began when humans started spreading out of Africa.

Species going extinct is part and parcel of the evolutionary process. When the reasons are not evolutionary, but an ecological disruption, mass extinctions can occur. Scientists estimate that there have been many such mass extinctions throughout the history of our planet. Out of those, five were truly horrific, and wiped out almost all species, save a few. The most well known of these is the asteroid impact that eliminated dinosaurs. What’s going on since last 200,000 years or so, is the sixth extinction, caused by us.

This is at once a morbid and sobering topic. If it wasn’t for the skillful writing by Elizabeth Kolbert, it would be just a boring accumulation of facts and stats. She has made a story out of this which keeps the reader completely engaged, and informed at the same time. She gives a nice primer on the history of theories as we go along. I was unaware how long it took us to even understand that mass extinctions have occurred, let alone figure out the reasons for it. The asteroid impact theory is only 3 decades old!

Another reason why it has become such an easy to read book is, she tries very hard not to be an alarmist, but remain completely factful. It’s a tragic story, some chapters like the demise of the Great Auk hit you very hard. At one point, their numbers were in millions, but it took us less than three centuries to hunt them to extinction. Many such flightless birds perished quickly on encountering humans. We eliminated many mammals, like Mastodons in North America, and perhaps the entire megafauna of Australia. The theory of the extinction of hominids like Neanderthals is depressing, as well as disturbing. On top of this, what we don’t kill via hunting, we kill by introducing viruses and predators against which the native species haven’t had a chance to evolve survival techniques. Make no mistake, this is not a happy book, but being a journalist, the author is adept at presenting in a way that will keep you turning pages.

Somewhere in the middle of the book is one of the most poignant observation I have read in a long time. She notes that for all the talk of our ancestors living in harmony with nature, the truth is, humans never ever lived that way. It may anger people who are proud of their heritage, but I think it’s true. Very true.

She also points out that, in spite of all that, we also show very altruistic behavior, and on an individual level, go to great lengths to lessen the speed of extinction. We have just barely started realizing the magnitude of our impact to this planet. So there is a long way to go, but there is a glimmer of hope.

It’s a superb book. I am giving it five stars but I was a tad surprised at the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, I haven’t read other books that were nominated, but at the end this book did feel a bit hurried. I would have also preferred some explanation of the scientific terms at the very beginning, and even more pictures. Those are minor quibbles. This book must be on your reading list.

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