Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, is a great book about a tragic subject. As its title suggests, The Sixth Extinction is about the ongoing mass extinction event. Whereas other extinction events have been caused by passive environmental changes or sudden catastrophes like asteroid collisions, the sixth extinction’s cause is pretty clear-it’s us.
Kolbert devotes individual chapters to issues that are accelerating the extinction rate. These include ocean acidification, the rapidly increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, deforestation, global warming, and overexploitation. Kolbert also examines several species that are going extinct because of these changes, including golden frogs in Panama, trees in the Amazon, bats in New England, and corals in Australia. Kolbert is quick to point out that humans have been altering the environment for a long time; she has convincing evidence that the extinction of many of the mega fauna from the last ice age, along with Neanderthals, was caused by humans. What’s changed in the last one hundred years or so is the rate of extinction, not its actual occurrence.
The Sixth Extinction is incredibly well written and researched. It’s easy to see why it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2014, as it explains all of its concepts in a very straightforward manner. It’s intended for a general audience and it’s the best book on its subject I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever. The Sixth Extinction is equally profound and depressing, although it also has occasional moments of dark humor. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental issues.