Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Sixth Extinction I

I'm slowly making my way through The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, and will break my comments up into two parts. The title refers to the fact that there have been five major mass extinctions over the last half-billion years and that we are in the early stages of a sixth, which is entirely man-made. The text jumps around between early scientific inquiries into the Earth's history and present studies. The chapters I've read so far cover current frog extinctions in Panama related to the spread of a fungus by humans, the disappearance of the American mastodon about thirteen thousand years ago, which presumably was caused by Native Americans, the hunting to extinction of the great auk in the nineteenth century, the asteroid that caused the fifth extinction and the acidification of the oceans resulting from the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most of this material will be familiar to anyone who has attempted to maintain a basic level of scientific literacy, but, unfortunately, that group is in a minority and books like this are a necessary public service.

Although Kolbert is a clear writer with a precise literary style, I am not finding the book engaging. This is because she follows contemporary journalistic practices that eschew linear exposition and bold theorizing in favor of anecdotal reportage sprinkled with hard facts. She efficiently describes the appearance, offices, musical choices and speech habits of scientists and the exotic locations where they conduct their research, but to me this is merely a contrived technique taught to journalists that is meant to draw the reader into a story. I find that it makes the writing disjointed – it is harder to connect the main ideas, if there are any. I prefer to read scientists like E.O. Wilson who tell you what they think and why they think it instead of beating around the bush like this. At times Kolbert seems more interested in literary travel writing than in science. And if scientists are interesting people, you would never know it from reading this book.

Even so, Kolbert does manage to pack a lot of information into the book, which she has researched thoroughly. In fact, this extinction language is far more appropriate than the global warming language that has captivated the media, because global warming is really just one aspect of the ongoing environmental disaster caused by humans, and the enormity of the situation is better captured in the context of the major biological events that have occurred on the planet since the Cambrian period. Extinction language captures the full impact of human destructiveness, and this kind of long-term thinking underlies some of the positions that I have taken on this blog: as a species our self-conceptions are often radically at odds with the reality of what we are collectively doing at this moment.

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