Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction. An Unnatural History (2014)

Kolbert’s book explores the somewhat unsettling phenomenon of extinction. Extinction is not uncommon in history, since most of the species that have existed are extinct. This is normally an extremely slow process, but very occasionally it speeds up, and we have what is called a «mass extinction». This has happened five times in the course of Earth’s ancient history, and on these occasions the planet has undergone “a change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted.”

The main point of this book is that a sixth extinction is going on right before our eyes, but this time it has “a novel cause: not an asteroid or a volcanic eruption, but ‘one weedy species’ (…), the human beings» (p.266).

Kolbert is not a researcher, but a journalist with the New Yorker, with a special concern for ecocritical and environmental issues, and her approach is storytelling. Although the book includes an impressive number of facts, detailed explanations and references, it is both accessible and fascinating to non-experts. The sources are interviews, observations and extensive reading, but also Kolbert’s own experiences. As a journalist, she actually travels to the places and situations in which extinction is a reality: In the jungle of Panama hunting golden frogs, in the mountains of Peru overlooking rain forests or in museums or research stations in various parts of the world. The style of the book is not strictly academic, but the prose varies from almost poetic descriptions of animals or views, to detailed outlines of the mastodont’s teeth.

In 13 chapters on almost emblematic events, Kolbert explores extinction through the life of various species. However, Kolbert’s real topic is the pattern in which all these individual organisms participate. What she has tried to do, she claims, is to “trace an extinction event – call it the Holocene, or the Anthpropocene extinction […] and to place it in the broader context of life’s history” (p. 265). In short, this history reveals that life on earth is extremely resilient, but not infinitely so.

Kolbert starts out by introducing the reader to the history of mass extinction. The idea that animals or other species can become extinct is actually fairly new in western intellectual history. Aristotle didn’t mention it, and Carl Linnaeus, who developed the current system of binomial nomenclature, Systema Naturae, in the mid-18th century (1758), included no extinct species. Kolbert dates the concept of extinction to Enlightenment France, more or less initiated by the accidental discovery of the remains of enormous mastodonts in North America during the Civil War. The concept was first launched by the French “naturalist” Cuvier. It was not an idea easily accepted by researchers, and this in itself is interesting for the NaChiLit project. It is also a history of resistance to alterations in the dominant view of nature.

A question that is raised several times in the course of the book is whether human beings may be said to have a special status “outside nature” or not. In the Prologue, the author presents a “species” – homo sapiens – that from the beginning seemed to have no special advantages, other than the capacity to adapt and invent – and therefore to spread all over the globe. The changes humans have been responsible for on earth are only partly deliberate, and the consequences often unforeseen. On the other hand, as people start to realize what is going on, their normal response has been to discount or explain away everything that does not fit into the familiar (or desired) framework. Here Kolbert refers to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution.

Viewing the human being as an animal or a species that is part of the ecological system, Kolbert declares that the life of the planet has never before been altered by only one creature. This puts human beings in a privileged position. But Kolbert also raises the possibility that the conduct that may lead humans to ”saw off the limb on which it perches” may be part of “humanity” itself – of our nature as human beings.

For the NaChiLit project, both the theme of the book and the discussions of different positions and debates concerning extinction are highly relevant. Obviously, the book is also relevant because it elaborates on what it takes to change people’s attitude to the environment and environmental change, and perhaps also to foster ecocitizens.

Marianne Røskeland 01.11.2016