Book review: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert


The Sixth Extinction
Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury)

In this engrossing book, one idea stands as a marker. As author Elizabeth Kolbert points out, all that we are, all that we have done, from printing presses to pyramids, from St Paul's to iPods will eventually become a rock strata the thickness of a cigarette paper.

Slow grinding gears shape our world, ruthlessly filtering out the life not fit to survive the changes.

And although our fate may be that of the mammoth, the auk or the dodo, we have had such a profound effect on our planet that the next big extinction event may well be of our own making. Indeed, it is happening now.

Our paper thin strata will be a stain.

This is the Sixth Extinction. The previous five cataclysmic events were brought about by such a variety of reasons that investigations into correlation have come to nothing.

Asteroids, climate change, sea acidification - the natural churn and turmoil of a dynamic planet has almost succeeded in shrugging off life, but never quite managed the task.

This is different. This is the "anthropocene", the informal term that marks the extent of human impact on the Earth's ecosystems.

And, whether we choose to be or not, we are horrible. We plunder and destroy, we shift organisms from one continent to another, we poison the seas and condemn the skies, we dam rivers and raze forests, we breed and breed and breed.

All in a timeframe too rapid for evolution to handle. This is not Lord Of The Rings, trees can only migrate up a mountain to cooler climbs one generation at a time.

According to paleobiologist John Alroy, this amounts to "a geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it".

Kolbert's book should be shot through with doom. But it is not. It is upbeat and fascinating. It is compelling in its subject matter, scale and adventure.

In each of its 13 chapters Kolbert goes to the frontline of extinction, and finds an emblematic species under threat. From this standpoint, up a hill or in a cave, she explores the history of the ideas, the evolution of extinction itself from religious sacrilege to a reality occurring in our own back yards.

She meets the geologists, botanists and biologists who are monitoring the extinction and fighting the tide.

Kolbert writes: "In the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meant to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed."

In a perverse way - and counter-factually, her message is one of joy.