Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Sixth Extinction’ Is The Saddest Story In All The Land

the sixth extinction

What if I told you that a nonfiction book, published in 2014, was the saddest story ever told? More tragic than Travis shooting Old Yeller, that faithful dog of childhood fiction? More gut-wrenching than Searchlight’s heart bursting within 100 yards of the finish line in the ever-traumatizing Stone Fox?

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is that book. When I relayed its subject matter to friends, they wished I hadn’t. But it was just too much for me to bear alone–I couldn’t stop talking about. Its information is overwhelming, exhausting, and important.

The Sixth Extinction, as its title suggests, brings to the public the scientific concept of a sixth extinction. Scientists believe that we may be in the midst of a mass extinction event, an event so dramatic that it has only happened five previous times in five hundred million years, since the primordial ooze wiggled out of oceans and onto dry land.

To paraphrase Kolbert: extinction rates are soaring, and the texture of life is changing (2).

We are only learning now about the Big Five previous extinction events, and “the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize they are causing another one (2).” Kolbert weaves a narrative from the present, where amphibians are dying off in alarming numbers, to the past, as scientists and researchers study previous mass die-offs and hypothesize what to expect for this one.

How bleak is this book?

Kolbert enters a cave of bats so full of dead bat carcasses that it is impossible to not step on them, crushing them as she walks with other researchers.

She visits herpetologists in Panama, frantically building artificial environments for frogs once plentiful, but now extinct, in the wild. References to Noah, and the ark, are plentiful.

She recalls humanity’s total annihilation of the once abundant great auk.

She talks with scientists who hypothesize that coral reefs will become “ecologically extinct,” eroding as early as 2050 (130).

She visits Suci, a Sumatran rhino, and looks at our failed attempts to save the species (feeding them hay when they needed fresh greens, and killing them in our attempts to capture them for breeding purposes).

She looks back at Homo Sapiens possible part in destruction of Neanderthals.

The information is staggering. I haven’t even touched on everything she covers. The Sixth Extinction won the 2015 General Nonfiction Pulitzer, and it is easy to see why. Kolbert manages to take a huge subject, exploring past extinctions over a time period so vast it is almost impossible to comprehend, and makes it digestible. Comprehending a mass die-off of species in the numbers she is describing is difficult, but through striking visuals and comparisons, Kobert conveys the almost unbelievable facts. She includes pictures of her travels and discoveries. And amidst all this devastating information, she isn’t afraid to crack a joke here and there.

Although she does try to end the book on a lighter note (after visiting frozen zoos, where scientists are trying to preserve species in liquid nitrogen after their extinction), she doesn’t intend to soften the blows. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert brings information scientists understand to the layperson. She makes their urgency and their concern real for the average suburbanite, who may be disconnected from frogs and bats and the great wilds of the earth. Prepare for tragedy, prepare to be heartbroken, and read this book.

The Sixth Extinction on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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