Review: "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert

  • Posted on: 26 March 2017
  • By: TedG

Several of us met at the Rivers Eatery on March 2 to discuss The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Generally we liked the book but at times felt it was somewhat a downer. Art felt it was somewhat depressing. Mark agreed it was depressing in part, but felt it was very informative and very good writing. Larry said he really liked it, and he mentioned that the Field Museum in Chicago is now recognizing the concept of a 6th extinction. Mark talked about all the different beetles going extinct and many maintaining full biomes in individual trees. Raye discussed the ecological changes caused in the Great Lakes due to shipping. All of us had our ways to relate to this book.

While somewhat depressing, I think we all recognized that Elizabeth Kolbert is an excellent science writer and did a great job discussing the history of extinction and development of human understanding  of the concept of extinction. She explores the whole concept of humans learning to accept the idea that species had existed previously and gone extinct, and this understanding was key to development of the whole concept of evolution and natural selection. Kolbert does a great job documenting how the understanding of human impacts on extinctions of organisms has greatly expanded in recent decades from human impact on megafauna at the end of the Ice Age to devastation of Amazon rainforests in recent times. She ties recent extinction risk with impact of climate changes and likeliness of future impacts.

Our overall rating for The Sixth Extinction was a 4.4 for both Readability and Interest (on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being Excellent). Everyone said they would read something else written by Kolbert.

We continued to discuss ecological and environmental changes we have observed. Mark discussed the mistaken concept that technology will solve all the environmental problems. Larry discussed the Oregon Trail and idea that in the past when we did not like our neighbors, we just moved away, but with climate change we really can’t just move away. Raye talked about growing up in Cable/Grand View area when there were only scattered houses in rural areas, and now new houses are appearing everywhere. Mark talked about “100-year” rainstorms occurring now at five-year intervals. Irv discussed a possible mine that may be developed at the edge of the Boundary Waters area.

A possible disappointment with the book was that Kolbert does not provide an extensive ending of recommendations. She apparently does not want to give a prescription but hopes with the book to develop and to encourage others to become more concerned and become part of the solutions.

A good summary of her book and ideas are on a YouTube video,