The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

During the Fall of 2014 I was asked to join a group of graduate students and faculty on my campus called the Environmental Initiative. Every month, we get together, have dinner and a lively discussion about a range of topics that influence the environment. Being a part of this group of individuals has added to my knowledge about how mankind’s impact on the environment has played a role in several industries from economics, chemistry, biology, and history. These may be incredible variable disciplines, but they can all be intertwined with respect to environmental changes. Because of my interaction in this group, when I stumbled across Kolbert’s book review in the Washington Post I just had to read it.

Kolbert’s nonfiction novel The Sixth Extinction was recently published, and I waited until it came out in paperback to have a read. The book is rather well done and laid out in a fairly simplistic way to read. Each chapter discusses a different topic, area of the Earth that Kolbert traveled to, and animals or plant species that have been impacted by a change in the environment.

One of the greatest aspects of the book that I really enjoyed was Kolbert’s way of describing the science behind each of the extinction events or changes that have occurred in the fossil record or are currently happening. Sometimes scientists get frustrated with the way that non-scientists discuss scientific processes. The manner in which Kolbert discusses how pH can affect ocean life and plant forms and how the pH changes occur is one example of Kolbert’s style to effectively convey scientific processes while not “dumbing” them down for the average reader.

Another aspect that I really enjoyed from this book was the level of complexity that extinction events have on Earth. When one thinks about, as an example, the extinction even that killed the dinosaurs, one has to also think about the repercussions of their demise. Herbivores eat specific types of foliage, and when those herbivores die out then those forests are left to grow wild. The larger and more foliage a forest then is has a greater tendency to catch on fire and be decimated. What then replaces that forest are plants that are resistant to fires. This is an example of the natural progression that one extinction event can have on the Earth’s landscape, one in which that I never really thought about previously.

Lastly, I really enjoyed Kolbert’s willingness to travel across the Earth to see for herself the different areas that have been impacted. Her chapters were rich in information, but it was her actually going to the sites that she investigates in person that added a level of perspective that is not found in textbooks. One can learn a lot from textbooks and scientific papers (many of which Kolbert sites throughout the work) but to have a personal connection by traveling and seeing the fossils firsthand is something that I give Kolbert credit for and adds substantially to this work.

There were very few things that I didn’t particularly like about this book. And before I get into them, I need to preface this part in that this is not a piece of fiction. One cannot judge the caliber and denseness of this book compared to that of a work of fiction. This book IS dense and is NOT a quick read. One learns a lot from it, but it’s not one of those “throw-away” pieces. Now, in saying this, while I enjoyed the lay out of the book and it made sense, it really was unfortunate that each chapter stood on its own. This made for a difficult time in reading in that one had to read a whole chapter at a time, because if you put it down you’d either forget about the topic of discussion or some of the details, all of which are very important. On the other hand, I don’t really have an alternative for how Kolbert should have laid the novel out. But, I read this book while experiments ran or on the bus to and from work and one really needs a quiet place to read it. Also, and this is just a personal preference, Kolbert interjected a few times some unnecessary personal commentary. For example, she visited a fossil site and went to the gift shop and asked the woman working at the shop if she could get a tour. The woman responded that she was too busy, and Kolbert placed in the book something to the extent of “we were the only two on the site that I could see.” Snarky comments such as these really detract from the non-fictional, evidence-based arguments that this book was based on. The comments like these were unnecessary, superfluous, and rather just stupid. Was the woman paid to give you a tour? No. What was the manner in which you asked for a tour? Nice or deserving? Again, adding personal commentary about your experiences in site visitations was unnecessary, Kolbert, and could definitely have been left out of the published version.

Obviously, I really enjoyed reading the dense, but highly enlightening novel The Sixth Extinction. If you have the time and mental desire to broaden your horizons and learn about how humans have impacted this Earth, read it. Even if you do just read each paragraphs topic sentence you will learn a lot, and that’s sure saying something.

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