Thoughts on The Sixth Extinction

‘A shell in the pit,’ said I, ‘if the worst comes to worst will kill them all.’
So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food.
‘We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.’
H G Wells, The War of the Worlds

Are you having one of those days where life is stressing you out? Are the neighbours painting your fence a nasty colour? Have Sainsbury’s stopped stocking your favourite cheese? Like you, I used to feel like my life was the most gargantuan melodrama in the universe. Then I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and realised how significantly insignificant we really are.

The book d210302etails the intriguing paleontological history of our planet and the five great extinctions of its time. At various points in history, events have occurred that wiped out large proportions of the earth’s inhabitants. Although not all proven, theories for these include glacial periods, bacterial plagues and massive comets; all rather prominent disasters in the eyes of the poor creatures who were unfortunate enough to be there, like the dinosaurs. So what are they calling the Sixth Extinction? It must be something awfully disruptive to be grouped with comets and plagues..

Yes. You’ve guessed it. Humanity is shitting everything up.

Human activity has caused the extinction of between 20,000 to 2,000,000 species in the last century alone. The book delves further into this, explaining the surprising science behind coral bleaching, attempts to understand Amazonian ecology, and an incredibly sad record of the killing of the last pair of Great Auks in Iceland:

‘On catching sight of the humans, the birds tried to run, but they were too slow. Within minutes, the Icelanders had captured the auks and strangled them. The egg, they saw, had been cracked, presumably in the course of the chase, so they left it.’


Kolbert’s views are, although truthful and necessary, extremely mournful. I expect she has spent so much time watching the damage caused by humanity that she has lost hope that we might yet change it, and I don’t blame her for that. However, there is a glimmer of hope that we may be able to reverse some of the destruction caused by our insatiable greed and senselessness (this is in the last chapter, right before she reminds us that one day everything we’ve ever created will be a layer of sediment). To be honest, I couldn’t allow myself to read this book without giving myself hope, because I don’t know how I’d get out of bed in the morning.

I went to a party in Norway in January and met somebody who worked for a large oil company. After swigging on my Cointreau and Fanta, I asked him for his honest opinion on humanity’s dependence on oil, and he told me that the vast majority of fossil fuels are used in industry and motoring. He made it quite clear that until the big businesses and conglomerates switch to renewable energy sources, we have no chance of reversing the damage. It’s up to them to set the example and make a difference, but unfortunately it’s quite tricky convincing those at the top to think longer term. If you please, Mr Moneypocket, you don’t need three Mercedes…

I highly recommend The Sixth Extinction for anyone interested in humanity’s complex relationship with the ecosystem. Aside from its rich descriptions and field notes from across the globe, it includes a fascinating and rather amusing account of the first paleontologists, and their outlandish theories on evolution and the origin of species.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is published by Bloomsbury.


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