Audiobook Review: The Sixth Extinction

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Well, that was sobering.

Many thanks to Audiobook Jukebox and Henry Holt and Company, LLC for sending the Literary Hoarders this eye-widening report of the state of our environment.  Let me tell you something that you should know right off the top… something that isn’t a spoiler if you’re considering Elizabeth Kolbert’s book… and that is…. the future is in our hands.  Right now.

Excerpt from the book’s description:

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

Too doom-and-gloom for you?  Too much?  Too dramatic?  Sorry to disappoint, but I’m afraid that the last word that can be used to describe Kolbert’s work is dramatic.  Anyone who picks up this meticulously researched account of our current state of ecological affairs must be prepared for an unflinching look at what’s truly happening.  And something IS happening.  The weather is changing.  Our oceans are changing.  The fate of the Panamanian golden frog is changing.  The Great Barrier Reef is changing.  While I was listening to this sombre account, all I could think of was the common phrase….. if you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.

Let me illustrate just one haunting example of what we’re doing to our precious planet.  Have you heard of ocean acidification?  In a nutshell, this process deals with the changing nutrients of the oceans’ waters.  It’s the ongoing decrease of the ocean’s natural PH levels, which is caused by an uptake of carbon dioxide.   As Kolbert reports, roughly one third of the CO2 that humans have pumped into the air thus far has been absorbed by our oceans.  This represents approximately 150 billion metric tons.  When CO2 dissolves in water, it forms an acid.  How do you like the sound of oceans with corrosive waters?

With this example, what we’re looking at is the fact that acidification, calcification and the change of ocean chemistry are doing great harm to marine organisms and their habitats.  If we don’t cut back our emissions, we could be looking at the elimination of a (rough estimate) third of the creatures in our oceans by the close of the century.  The future of everything from coral, to jumbo squid, to commercial fisheries are at stake.  We must think about how our impact on the environment is altering marine ecosystems.  We’re forcing nature’s hand to brew corrosive waters, and this section of Kolbert’s book sounded more like it fell in the horror genre instead of non-fiction.  I was so alarmed about our changing oceans that I started doing a little more research.  I certainly didn’t like what I saw.  The next time I hear about the dire need for humankind to reduce its CO2 emissions, I’m going to think beyond the classification of a simple “smog day.”

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  As Kolbert deftly speaks of everything from the plight of the Neanderthal to how certain species of bats are being threatened, you’re reminded that humans, as a collective, can be miserably short-sighted.  What struck me most about this book is that the very people who should pay close attention to the looming sixth extinction (yes, climate change deniers, I’m speaking to you), are those who are not likely to pick it up.  But The Sixth Extinction should be read.  Get a copy.  Decide what’s more important – the exhaustive research behind this book, or the need for everything to plod along as is.  What I liked most about The Sixth Extinction was its tone.  This book does not speak down to the reader, but rather entices people to take notice.  We have the power to impact the environment, and we have the power to help it.    

Let’s choose to hear Kolbert’s message.  Let’s do what we can, however small, to help.  Because if everyone does one small thing to help, then all of those small things have the power to combine into a massive effort.  It’s not too late.  But it could be soon, and that’s what’s so upsetting.  The U.N. reported recently that we’re dangerously close to a point in time where climate change will be irreversible:

But one of the central points of the IPCC report is that some of what we’ve wrought is already irreversible, and more of it soon will be. The world’s existing power plants are already slated to pump over 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — a figure that’s growing by billions of tons each year, speeding up the changes that are already underway. Governments’ efforts to do something are a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed.  

John Light, “The UN’s New Report on Global Warming Is the Most Terrifying Yet,”  August 26, 2014

If Elizabeth Kolbert’s work does what it intends, to enlighten, then there is hope.  Let’s think beyond our styrofoam cups and “follow the frog” on the products we buy (  Let’s watch our water use.  Let’s move forward with hybrid transportation.  Most importantly, let’s pay attention.  Reading this book is a great start.  If you choose the audiobook version, you’ll appreciate Anne Twomey’s narration very much.  She expertly reads Kolbert’s work with the seriousness that it deserves.

4 stars for The Sixth Extinction.  Let’s decide not to be the asteroid.

Literary Hoarders Elizabeth