The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert - book review: 'The choice is clear: adapt our thinking or die'


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.