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The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History

Purva Variyar reviews Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction.

Book Details

By Elizabeth Kolbert
Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover, 323 pages, Price: Rs. 399

We are, metaphorically speaking, right at this very moment, caught up in a storm. A storm so deadly and rare, it has hit life on our planet only five times before, when over 90 per cent of all life forms on planet Earth vanished. The ongoing storm, the sixth one, has been triggered and fed by the stubborn, dominating primate known as Homo sapiens.

Elizabeth Kolbert explains the scientific nitty gritties of this fascinating, albeit terrifying, storm in The Sixth Extinction in a meticulous and light-hearted discourse, while maintaining the seriousness of the subject matter.

Through each of the 13 chapters, she takes us through lost worlds of the earliest lifeforms. Kolbert describes her extensive research that carried her across continents, meeting with experts and scientists tackling the web of environment destruction wrought by humans. In each chapter, she tracks one notable species, either extinct, or that is facing impending extinction, and traces the probable causes.

She does lay down in unsettling details some episodes from human history that saw humans stepping out of Africa in all directions to push virtually all mega-fauna to extinction. Examples include the American mastadon, Madagascar’s elephant birds, North Atlantic’s Great Auks, New Zealand’s moas and even our own cousins, the Neanderthals. Today too, all extant mega-fauna is either critically endangered or vulnerable. Amphibians and smaller mammals too are facing mass die-offs. With them go several dependent species, in a deadly cascade effect.

We also cause indirect impacts through geologic-scale changes by our transformation of possibly one-third of the planet’s land surface, including the damming or diversion of rivers, burning fossil fuels and deforestation severe enough to add over 400 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Every year, we are adding another nine or more billion tons and you get an idea of the sheer scale of the Anthropocene impact.

The chapter ‘The Madness Gene’ touches on whether or not there is a genetic basis for our ‘madness’. What, in other words, motivates our extreme curiosity, domination and urge to control planetary processes irrespective of the damage we cause?

The last comparable mass extinction was witnessed around 65 million years ago, that resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs.

The author sums up the context in which she felt compelled to document the stark reality of the human impact on planet Earth succinctly when she says: “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”

Reviewed by Purva Variyar

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, October  2015.

 
 
 

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