“The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt & Co., 2014)

Sixth Exinction
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Anyone who is in their right mind with a decent amount of common sense knows we’re doing a great job of messing up this planet, to the point where it may already be too far gone to turn things back to the way they were. One area we know we’ve made perhaps the most devastating impact, with overpopulation and pollution to name a couple causes, is with species extinction. This is the crux of The Sixth Extinction from Elizabeth Kolbert, bestselling author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe.

There have been a number of mass extinctions during the five billion year history of this planet The extinction of the dinosaurs is perhaps the most well known; another mass extinction before the dinosaurs almost ended all life on the planet. The reasons for these five previous mass extinctions run the full expected range from extreme conditions to natural disasters to meteors hitting the planet. But now Kolbert suggests, and has been corroborated by a number of scientists, that we are in the age of the sixth extinction where many unique species are being lost every year and it’s all our fault.

The Sixth Extinction is divided up into strong chapters that feel like entire books in themselves, each providing insight into a specific previous mass extinction, as well as some well known species that went extinct, such as the great auk and the American mastodon, and how. Kolbert also travels the world, meeting with scientists and discussing the current climate and where things lie with threats against coral along the Great Barrier Reef, bat populations in the United States that have recently been devastated due to a merciless fungus, as well as the declining honeybee populations to name a few..

The book never has a chance to slow down or get boring, because Kolbert keeps giving the reader facts and stories and perspectives that are both illuminating and shocking. It is a book that can be greedily read cover to cover in one night, or each chapter savored over a longer period of time. The one failing is perhaps there is little lesson or hope necessarily at the end for what can be done. Could this be because it is already a foregone conclusion that what happened to the dodo will happen to many more species if we don’t change our ways? Or perhaps simply learning and knowing what is discussed in the book and spreading the word about them will help change the mindset, for it is not until we as a planet work together to make a change that we will start making any great strides.

Originally written on June 27, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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Field Notes From a Catastrophe  Welcome to the Greenhouse

“Field Notes From a Catastrophe” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 2007)

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In Field Notes From a Catastrophe – dramatic title aside – Kolbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker, offers readers not a telling off story about how the human race is steadily destroying the planet, but an up to date factual guide to the reality of the world.  Kolbert simply offers the details and facts from first hand sources which can only be taken as truth and harsh reality.

Split into two parts, the first, “Nature,” offers four case studies into different parts of the worlds on the state of global warming and how it is affecting that particular area.  Starting in Alaska where a scientific group researching the effect of the melting ice in the Arctic are for the first time unable to find a large enough iceberg and able to travel further north than ever before; on to the real world rising temperatures and its effects on the planet; to the melting glaciers of Iceland where life is changing for both the people and the animal and plant life; to an apparent evolution of a species of butterfly and toad in the last fifty years.  “Nature” serves as a solid foundation on the current state of the world, segueing to the second part, “Man,” where the realities of our role in the current state of the world is fully revealed.  Again, with little opinion or evaluation on Kolbert’s part, just the statement of facts.

It is in these last six chapters of the book that the reader sees how the planet has been changed, what history tells us, how this is a unique period in the history of the planet, and how exactly we are to blame for it.  Juxtaposed with this are the steps that are being taken around the world to try to change this, as Kolbert returns time and time again to the United States and the Bush Administration’s blind eye to global warming, the greenhouse effect, and rising global temperatures.  And when the Under Secretary of State for Democratic and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky,  is asked to respond to these presidential decisions that seem to be made against the advice of the scientists and the will of the people, the repeated response – much like that on domestic and foreign policy – is: “We have a common goal and objective . . . Where we differ is on what approach we believe is and can be the most effective.”

Elizabeth Kolbert makes the reality clear and unquestionable.  The facts are there, the sources for the facts are also there to be checked and confirmed.  All that’s left is to accept blame and do something about it.  The question is: by the time the world gets around to reacting on a global scale, will it be too late?  There seems to be a focus in today’s day and age on the now, the current generation.  This idea is no more prevalent than in governments and administrations.  There’s little forethought or prediction on the part of our children and grandchildren; on the future generations who will be born into a world worse than ours and will have to fight harder to get by.  It makes me sad and long for 2009, when hopefully big changes will be made.

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Originally written on April 28th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.