THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt, 319 pp., $28.
Elizabeth Kolbert's revelatory new book, "The Sixth Extinction," about the rapid and radical changes man is wreaking on the Earth, is one of those works of explanatory journalism that achieves the highest and best use of the form. After you read it, your view of the world will be fundamentally changed.
Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has gone all over the world to walk with, talk with and debrief a cadre of eminent scientists who are tracking humanity's transformation of our global home. Kolbert builds an effective case that the pace of change is proceeding at a rate that imperils all species, including, eventually, Homo sapiens.
In a lucid and understated style, Kolbert documents the collapse of amphibian populations and of coral reefs. She writes about the mass die-off of millions of bats in the Northeast, most likely done in by a fungus transported around the world by globalization's component parts, travel and trade.
She walks in the Peruvian rain forest with researchers tracing the effect of global warming as they track plants that may move upslope at rates of up to 100 feet a year in search of a higher, cooler climate zone.
She tells stories of imminent extinction, such as Suci, the Sumatran rhino in the Cincinnati Zoo that can't ovulate unless she senses there is an eligible male around. In Suci's case, "the nearest eligible male is 10,000 miles away."
As "The Sixth Extinction" unfolds, a clear pattern emerges. Mass extinctions have occurred in the past (there have been five, most recently in the late Cretaceous). But the current rate of species die-off, caused by man's exploration and exploitation of the globe, is occurring at an unprecedented rate in geologic time. Kolbert writes that the extinction rate among amphibians could be more than 45,000 times higher than the "background" rate (expected extinctions in normal times). Furthermore, "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 towards oblivion," she writes.
Man's restlessness, his intellect and his appetites are to blame: his propensity to hunt, causing the elimination of most large mammals. His urge to explore. His will to exploit -- the mass clearing of forests, the CO2 emissions that are changing the climate itself. These attributes, which have driven our biological success as a species, also have altered the climate and drastically reduced the range of animal species on earth.
Kolbert does not chide or condemn. She chronicles man's indifference (and at times, cruelty) to other life on the planet, but the most disturbing aspect of "The Sixth Extinction" is that most of us are complicit in these die-offs by heedless living -- driving cars, farming cleared land, buying goods that require overseas shipping. And failing to contain a burgeoning human population.
In one of the most intriguing chapters, "The Madness Gene," she compares our own species, Homo sapiens, with its close cousin, the Neanderthals.
In many respects, Neanderthals were similar to us. But they lacked key attributes, including the ability to figure out how to cross large bodies of water. One eminent student of Neanderthals, Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo, speculates that we may possess a sort of Faustian gene that drives us to ignore consequences and even danger in our restless explorations and exploitations.
"There is also, I like to think, or say, some madness there," he tells Kolbert. "...How many people must have sailed out and vanished in the Pacific before you found Easter Island? ... And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For the immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop."
We succeeded in eliminating the Neanderthals and are currently on the road to extinguishing our first cousins, the great apes.
Kolbert is an astute observer, excellent explainer and superb synthesizer, and she even manages to find humor in her subject matter. But "The Sixth Extinction" is an alarming book. The last chapter, "The Thing With Feathers," suggests hope, but it is mostly about an endangered Hawaiian crow.
Still -- read it. This book gives no easy or even hopeful answers, but it does present some heroes, such as the scientist Tom Lovejoy, a tireless researcher and advocate who has greatly slowed the logging of the Amazon. Maybe this book will put other people of intelligence, heart and will on the same road.