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Posted on 29 Apr 2014 in Non-Fiction |

ELIZABETH KOLBERT The Sixth Extinction: An unnatural history. Reviewed by Bec Crew

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6thextinctionThis book details what  may be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

There is nothing more terrifying than the irreversible. Whether it’s an old family photo lost in a move, the death of a loved one, or the trust you can’t repair from the lie you can’t take back. No matter how comfortable our lives become, we can never escape the fear of losing that which we cannot replace no matter how much we miss it when it’s gone.

Which is why extinction should be a bigger issue than it is in privileged societies such as ours. If a species of tiny frog or snail or blood-sucking sandfly disappears from the face of the Earth, it should mean something to more of us than just the team of conservationists fighting tirelessly to save it. But extinction, and mass extinction all the more, is a tough sell. Why would anyone want to spend days, or weeks, reading about all the species we can’t afford to lose, but probably will, if things are left to continue the way they are?

This is a question American journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert likely contemplated when she sat down to write her latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An unnatural history. She’s well-placed to address it though, having already tackled that other, equally looming, environmental truth – global climate change – in her second and best-known book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, nature, and climate change (2006). Once again packaging a challenging topic in a way that not only educates but entertains, Kolbert sums up her strategy for The Sixth Extinction beautifully in the opening pages:

If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It’s also a fascinating one. In the pages that follow, I try to convey both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it. My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.

The proposed ‘sixth extinction’ is the continuation of what’s come to be known as ‘the Big Five’ – a series of events that occurred in the past 540 million years, each believed to have had a catastrophic effect on the diversity of life on Earth. And we are now heading towards, or perhaps are already in the middle of, the sixth such catastrophic loss of diversity in our planet’s history. Some say it’s the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The Sixth Extinction is divided into 13 chapters, opening with stories of the species made iconic through their disappearance, such as the colossal mastodon, hunted to extinction 10 000 years ago in North and Central America, and the distinguished great auk, wiped out less than 200 years ago thanks to an insatiable demand in Europe for pillows stuffed with its thick white down. The second half of the book takes place in the present day, and deals in particular with the imperilled Amazon rainforest and the fast-warming Andes mountain range. Things are brought about as close to home as they can get here, too, featuring the fate of our Great Barrier Reef, and the die-off happening in Kolbert’s own back yard, and most likely in yours and mine.

It’s the personal approach that makes Kolbert’s writing so compelling, and it’s a topic that benefits enormously from her commitment to fieldwork. In the first chapter we join her as she makes her way to an idyllic little town in central Panama called El Valle de Anton, that just last decade was littered with striking Panamanian golden frogs, their bright yellow skin harbouring a toxin that could kill a mouse 500 times over. Kolbert describes how their numbers once inspired a creek not far from El Valle to be nicknamed the Thousand Frog Stream:

A person walking along it would see so many golden frogs sunning themselves on the banks that, as one herpetologist who made the trip many times put it to me, ‘It was insane – absolutely insane.’

But now they’re disappearing, and Kolbert paints a moving picture of how scores of ‘little corpses’ began to appear around the town and beyond, bloated and belly-up, on the rocks. Now classified as critically endangered, the Panamanian golden frog’s rapid decline has prompted an urgent conservation effort in Panama, and Kolbert gives us a rare glimpse into how a team of passionate scientists is working to bring it back from the brink. If Kolbert hasn’t convinced you in the opening pages of The Sixth Extinction that this is a journey worth taking with her, you’ll be well and truly hooked the moment she introduces you to Edgardo Griffith, a local biologist who has devoted his entire adult life to the struggling amphibians of El Valle.

This is just one of many stories featured in a book that interweaves the wretchedness of our neglect and mistreatment of so many of the world’s plant and animal species with the extraordinary dedication and ingenuity of the men and women who are working to save them. Both aspects will likely stay with you long after you close the final pages.

Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction: An unnnatural history Bloomsbury 2014 PB 320pp $29.99

Bec Crew is the author of Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals (NewSouth Books) and blogs for Scientific American and Australian Geographic.

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