Bloomsbury £20. Order for £16 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert - book review: 'The choice is clear: adapt our thinking or die'
Tuesday 11 March 2014
We are in the disconcerting position of living simultaneously in both geological and historical time. They are usually thought to be incompatible, a decade being a long period in history, but 100,000 years no time at all in the history of the earth. Elizabeth Kolbert quotes an expert on the loss of the megafauna – mammoths, giant sloths, sabre-toothed tigers, etc – around 10,000 years ago: "a geologically instantaneous catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it".
But we now know that geological change can happen quickly: the world warmed by around 6 degrees C (11 degrees F) around 11,600 years ago, over a period of perhaps less than a decade. Now, with our CO2 emissions, our intensive farming and fishing, our prodigious output of nitrogenous fertilizers, our encroachments on the natural environment, we are a geological agent to rival any other. Welcome to the latest geological era: the Anthropocene.
As ready to don diving gear as to tap at her keyboard, Kolbert is one of our finest environmental writers, specializing in vivid despatches from the frontline. She follows her Field Notes from a Catastrophe (global warming, in case you hadn't heard the news) with a survey of the latest mega round of extinctions. The last mass extinction – the 65-million-year-ago event that did for the dinosaurs and made the word safe for furry little mammals (like us) – is the most famous, but this Sixth Extinction looks like being the fastest on record.
We are driving species to extinction in many ways: by incessantly transporting living things around the world in, leading to disease and uncontrollable predation; by reducing natural habitat; by poaching and senseless killing; and by climate change.
The tragedy is that although science now has unprecedented techniques for reading and understanding the deep past and predicting the future, the lay public largely disbelieves or ignores all historical scientific evidence. But the rise of the historical sciences is one of the triumphs of the age. Humans' superiority over other animals derives from the capacity to remember, learn and foresee. But unless we accept the vast extension of these powers that our science and technology confers, we too will join the Sixth Extinction: the one we unwittingly engineered.
Kolbert has not only grasped the enormity of what we are unleashing, but can present it in a way that even the average human with a short historical attention span can grasp. Read this book.
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Universities aren't working us hard enough, say undergraduates
- 2 Lego letter from the 1970s still offers a powerful message to parents 40 years later
- 3 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 4 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 5 Grayson Perry: London needs affordable housing because 'rich people don't create culture'
Strictly Come Dancing results: Steve Backshall and Ola Jordan sent home
Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
Beyonce '7/11' music video: Star bounces on bed and films daughter Blue Ivy in lo-fi homage to viral video
Why are the words 'mongol', 'mongoloid' and 'mongy' still bandied about as insults?
Tom DeLonge compares streaming music to killing elephants
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'
Exclusive: UK approved £7m Israeli arms sales in six months before Gaza conflict