Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This book is somehow both breezy and dark. It is a well-written trip through extreme locales to a disturbing conclusion: human activity is destroying species across the globe, producing a mass extinctions that may have happened only five times before in the past billion years. Kolbert quotes Silent Spring more than once and this book aims to have the same combination of lyrical writing and urgent message as that one. Kolbert succeeds in conveying the pang at the loss of species and the extreme lengths some zoos are going through to preserve them. Where this differs from Silent Spring is the nature of the action that should be taken. There are few clear steps that we can take beyond what is already being taken, so this book raises guilt but offers little absolution. That's the nature of the problem. The end moral is, in my view, philosophical. Humans are indeed special -- especially destructive and homogenizing, especially demonic as well as angelic. This isn't the whole story but it's an important component. I have a few philosophical quibbles about the importance of convergence and the possible silver lining to extinctions, but this book represents the current thought admirably, and I spent most of it thinking about how to absorb elements of Kolbert's engaging voice into my own writing.