Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryI may have mentioned that 2013 was a steamroller of a year, and that Hibernation 2014 was basically me burying my head in the sands of sewing until I felt like I could look at the world again. After about nine months of denial, I thought I might be ready to test the waters of environmental catastrophe again–and I was right!

Have no fear. We are still mostly sewing here. But also, I read a book about one of the Ends of the World, and I survived, and I think I can even write about it.  So I will.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing, it is beautifully written, compelling, meticulously researched, well structured, and absolutely terrifying.

The Sixth Extinction (which is happening now–you can be forgiven for not knowing that, since it is so abysmally reported on) is the tale of the many and varied ways humans are causing this latest mass extinction event. They’re all here: prehistorical and modern-day overhunting; transmission of invasive species; habitat fragmentation; climate change; ocean acidification. In keeping with the evidence, though very much against the preferences of human psychology, the book ends on a despairing note. While humans do expend a great deal of energy in identifying and saving particular endangered species when they are particularly beautiful or otherwise beloved, that is in no way up to the scale of what’s required, and it is very difficult to see how this could be turned around.

From page 214: “‘As a brief aside,’ he went on, ‘I read this news story the other day. A place called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has set up this Web site. People can take a photo of any and all organisms in Vermont and get them registered on this site. If I had read that a few years ago, I would have laughed. I would have said, “You’re going to have people sending in a picture of a pine tree?” And now, after what’s happened with the little browns [bats], I just wish they had done it earlier.” (This after a chapter describing the collapse of bat populations from White Nose Syndrome, and bat researchers revisiting former caves where bats numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now not able to find any, walking through the empty caverns on a carpet of bat carcasses.)

I wish everyone would read this, or at least become more informed about it; not because there’s anything we can do by becoming more informed (there almost certainly isn’t:  many, and likely most, species will simply cease to exist). But because an event of this significance and caused by us deserves to be marked and mourned while it is happening. A biotic Holocaust is underway all around us, every day, species and families of species being shoved into gas ovens as fast as we can manage it; and outside, we celebrate sporting victories and royal babies and new gizmos to buy. I can think of no more severe condemnation of human nature.

That's a toad, eh?
That’s a toad, eh? Look at those itty bitty fingers!

Frances and I like to catch baby toads in the spring. They are itty-bitty, and they hatch en masse, so if you go to the right place at the right time of year, you will find dozens or hundreds of housefly-sized frogs springing all over the place like rubbery crickets. They’re adorable, and fairly easy to catch, and most children are entranced at the sight of these tiny little froggy things. You can have one perched on a fingernail.

According to The Sixth Extinction, this may not last. Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals globally, right now, due to chytrid fungus, spread from the use of the African Clawed Frog as an early pregnancy test, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality issues, climate change, etc. Over thirty per cent of amphibian species are at risk of extinction today, and the extinction rate for amphibians right now is 211 times the background rate as a conservative estimate. These are animals that have survived every mass extinction event since before the dinosaurs, but they may not survive us.

When I’m not sewing, or embroidering, or reading (or working or cleaning the house or making dinner or whatever), sometimes I do papercrafting. Not scrapbooking, per se, but it could be altered books or altered photos or painting  or calligraphy or some kind of multimedia project. When I was feeling particularly down about environmental issues last year (occupational hazard when you work in the environmental field), I made this.


At the time I thought I was exaggerating.

But apparently not.

And now maybe we need even more happy sewing talk than before.

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8 thoughts on “Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

  1. What adorable toads. I think that philosophy cannot keep up with the pace of technology and we do not have enough time to think about stewardship and how to best use the resources we have. There seems to be nothing but knee-jerk reactions out there in the general media. I think the panic that surrounds potential pandemics like Ebola/SARS/H1N1 indicates that we sense that we are heading towards extinction but instead of becoming thoughtful and figuring out how we should manage antibiotics, air travel, allocation of health resources globally, natural resource depletion, private profit vs public good, etc while we still have the luxury of doing so, it’s easier for CNN to simply shout that the sky is falling and then, as you say, flip our attention to the Kardashians. I do believe that civilizations generally work like a pendulum and hopefully things will swing back to something more sensible when our children reach adulthood.

  2. My only experience with this book is hearing an interview with the author on NPR last year. It was devastating. I ordered it from the library but didn’t feel capable of reading it when it showed up. I’m someone who likes to change their own habits to (hopefully) align better with the health of the environment, and what I heard Kolbert presenting in the interview was something so massive and dire that I can’t imagine what sort of action on my part would make any difference. Do you have any thoughts on how to re-focus feelings of hopelessness into something even slightly more useful?

    1. Yes. I can totally see that.

      Umm … well, there are two parts to the answer. The first is, no, there’s nothing an individual person can do on their own to change this. A lot of it is already in the pipe, for one thing, and for another, the changes that are affecting species extinction are not individual actions or decisions, they’re societal/systemic. The second is, any individual can participate in movements and organizations that try to change those systemic and societal decisions.

      Assuming you’re already doing the obvious things like reusable shopping bags and better lightbulbs and that you follow laws designed to protect against invasive species and pathogens (like not moving plants and foods across borders etc.), what’s left is being part of something bigger. At the very least, voting for candidates with good policies and supporting those policies even when they mean tax hikes or some inconvenience or change. If you don’t have time to participate in groups organizing on things like climate change or ocean acidification (and IMO those are the two biggest threats to species right now), donating a small amount of money on a regular basis to them so that they can campaign more effectively can help.

      Where I live, there is a business called Bullfrog Power that sells basically carbon credits for household electricity and natural gas use. You buy a certain amount of renewable energy off the grid that equals whatever you use in your house. There may be renewable energy co-ops near where you live that could use support or involvement. There are also divestment campaigns getting off the ground in a lot of areas, pressuring large investors to get out of fossil fuels. They are having a lot of success, so that might be an option, too. Goodness knows we’re not getting anywhere as long as all the money is in coal and oil. There’s lots of ways to participate at the larger level, directly or financially or peripherally, and IMO those are where we most need to work right now.

      1. Thanks, Andrea. I may need to print out your response and put it on my fridge. 🙂 This is reaffirming a feeling I’ve had for awhile, that I’d like to start diverting some of my sewing time and funds to environmental issues I care about.

        I probably just haven’t dug deep enough into your blog archives, but I’d love to hear more about the work you do.

      2. You’re very welcome. 🙂 And sewing for a cause sounds wonderful. I haven’t been able to figure it out yet, but if you get any good ideas, let me know!

        I try to keep stuff that’s directly work-related off the blog, as I’d hate for it to come back and bite a project in the butt, but I’d be happy to discuss with you by email.

  3. Great post – I try to balance being informed with staying sane. Some days it works – some days not so much. I’m fortunate to work in organic foods so I do tend to have access to more information on proactive responses to environmental issues; at the same time if you look at the big picture it’s pretty overwhelming and hard to stay out of the pit of despair.

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