Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction
Henry Holt and Co., 2014
When I was a much younger man, I imagined myself a biologist, the dream fueled mainly by my appreciation for Mrs. Rodgers, an extraordinary teacher I had at DeWitt Clinton, an all-boys maximum security facility that occasionally resembled a Bronx high school. Mrs. Rodgers turned our classroom into a living zoo, replete with a missing snake, and dared my fellow delinquents to mock her as she paraded around the room, bobbing and weaving to teach us how pigeons balanced themselves.
My dream ended abruptly when I failed introductory biology and analytical geometry at City College, distracted by my first interaction with bright, beautiful coeds and some wonderful folk music on the South County lawn. I fled for my life to the English Department.
So reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s extraordinary “The Sixth Extinction” reminded me of all the science I never got to study and learn, because I could surely have used some more as Kolbert offered up geology, herpetology, auks, and ammonites.
A staff writer for the New Yorker and recently appointed Class of 1946 Environmental-Fellow-in-Residence at Williams College, Kolbert takes us on an amazing journey, and it’s an admirable book. I admire it for several reasons. First, because in spite of my manifest failures as a student, I understood what she was saying. Second, because she had the skill and fortitude to finish such a complex and sad tale.
There’s nothing easy about “The Sixth Extinction.” The whole thing is a drag. Asteroids. Ice Ages. The extinctions beyond human control. With their accompanying large-scale losses of biodiversity. It seems there are several times in earth-history that all sorts of life disappeared from the scene.
But the worst of all, our version, the sixth extinction, as Kolbert emphasizes, “taking place right now, more or less in front of our eyes.” There are, of course, the dead dodos and auk-littered landscapes of our forefathers; but, for us, there’s the burning Amazon, the melting glaciers, and the dying coral reefs that is our reality. And all the living things that are not us dying and disappearing as we blink, enraptured by our smart phones.
Reading “The Sixth Extinction” is easier than I imagine writing it was, but it’s hard work. Just as facing any truth is difficult. So many of those who enjoy contemporary society, especially those who shape it, have embraced what seems to me a never-ending always-fierce capitalism: bigger, better, more, more, and more. Because when it comes down to it, do we really need all these different kinds of birds, not to mention the bugs? I mean you can’t walk in the New England woods without bringing home a small regiment of near-deadly ticks. And everyone knows someone with Lyme disease.
“The Sixth Extinction”is one wake-up call after another. Kolbert is always moving. Traveling through time and space. Like the climate scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Kolbert offers the science and lays out the case. If the gloomy history of the auk leaves you cold, there are the Panamanian golden frogs, or the nearby bats of New York and Vermont. You can accompany her to Australia or the Amazon. Sadly there is death and dying everywhere. If only we’re willing to look. Because, for better or worse, “The Sixth Extinction” is all about the witnessing.
While Kolbert gives us the dark truth, she introduces us to an extraordinarily resilient rag-tag army of those work so very hard to hold back the apocalypse. Keepers of the failing frogs, those who crouch their way through dark caverns to catalogue the tragic demise of the white-nose bats, and the woman who loves one of the last of the Sumatran rhinos.
Kolbert has a keen eye, and the people she meets along the way, come alive for us:
“The kind of affection and enthusiasm Miles Silman brings to tropical trees, Cohn-Haft saves for birds. At one point I asked him how many Amazonian bird species he could identify by their calls, and he gave me a quizzical look, as if he didn’t understand what I was getting at. When I restated the question, the answer turned out to be all of them. By the official count, there are something like thirteen hundred species of birds in the Amazon, but Cohn-Haft thinks there are actually a good many more, because people have relied too much on features like size and plumage and not paid enough attention to sound. Birds that might look more or less identical but produce different calls often turn out, he told me, to be genetically distinct. At the time of our trip, Cohn-Haft was getting ready to publish a paper identifying several new species he had discovered through rigorous listening.”
But our visit to the ever-diminishing rainforest offers up this chilling lesson: “If we assume, very conservatively, that there are two million species in the tropical rainforests, this means that something like five thousand species are being lost each year. This comes to roughly fourteen species a day, or one every hundred minutes.”
Lucky for us, Kolbert can keep the complicated conversational. Like the story of Myotis lucifugus, the little brown bats and their psychrophile-caused white noses:
“In March 2007, some wildlife biologists from Albany, New York, went to conduct a bat census at a cave just west of the city. This was a routine event, so routine that their supervisor, Al Hicks, stayed behind at the office. As soon as the biologists arrived at the cave, they pulled out their cell phones.
“They said, ‘Holy shit, there’s dead bats everywhere …’ ”
We humans can simultaneously delude ourselves into thinking it’s OK to slaughter whales, burn so much coal and oil and gas to raise temperatures higher than they’ve been in millions of years so that we can drive by ourselves 30 miles to buy an avocado picked by Mexican slave labor and some gluten-free cookies, yet a few hours later go online to send money to Greenpeace.
We are selfish and selfless all at the same time.
Elizabeth Kolbert, of course, knows all this. But she has offered it up one more time for us. To teach it to us one more time, in new ways.
But at the end of the day, the question is all too familiar. What will we do with this knowledge. These all too inconvenient truths.
As my time at DeWitt Clinton HS came to a close, I found myself picketing my local Woolworth’s on Fordham Road in support of the brave black students of the South who sat in to demand an end to segregated lunch counters. Years later, I demonstrate to demand an end to the War in Afghanistan.
I know a bit about the need for, and limits of, political action.
Sadly, we humans have slaughtered ourselves and others with ingenuity and frightening efficiency. I want to thank Elizabeth Kolbert for reminding us that today we have yet another opportunity to choose to save so very many species that surround us. Each moment we fail to act is yet another tragedy we can hardly appreciate.
It’s past time for a billion of us to take to the streets. ’Cause there are dead bats everywhere.
Maybe save the other species. Maybe save ours.