Sunday, 27 August 2017

“The Sixth Extinction - an Unnatural History” - a Book Review

by Larry Powell

If the rest of the living world were to take we homo sapiens to court for ecocide, this book provides copious evidence to find us “guilty as charged.” As a matter of fact, you’d be hard-pressed not to find clues of human culpability in just about every extinction which has occurred since modern man began walking Earth. And that, after all, in geologic time, was just moments ago. 

As we speak, fungi incapable of being spread worldwide by any way other than human activity, are killing millions of bats and frogs. For example, where there once were millions, only a handful of Panamanian Golden Frogs now cling to life in a building which must be sanitized regularly with bleach to keep the fungus at bay. And amphibians as a whole are perhaps the most endangered class of animal on the planet today.

Prolonged, relentless and cruel hunting methods by humans wiped out every last trace of the Great Auk, a bird born with the misfortune of being flightless, in the 19th century. 

Even our distant cousins, the Neanderthals, with whom modern man is known to have interbred, disappeared as our own populations were on the rise. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

Even the large mammals of the last ice age - the wooly mammoths and mastadons were hunted by humans and disappeared several thousand years ago as the range and numbers of the hunters grew.

Sea life, too, is in grave danger, from ocean acidification and warming. Massive amounts of manmade greenhouse gases in the air (esp. C02) are being absorbed into the waters. This is especially dangerous for animals like oysters and clams because this process produces carbonic acid, which can literally dissolve their shells. Even the world’s coral reefs, the largest living structures on Earth, are not immune. One chilling passage in the book states, “If current emission trends continue, within the next 50 years or so, ‘all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve.’”

Like five previous extinctions millions/billions of years ago which, for different reasons, wiped out countless life forms (most famously, the dinosaurs), this so-called “Sixth Extinction” seems poised to do the same, only, in our lifetime, as we speak.

And we are showing our closest living relatives no more respect or consideration than the Great Auk. The primates, including the orangutans, are facing imminent eradication in the wild, as our lust for cooking oil and hand cream wipes out their jungle homes, to make way for palm oil plantations.

And it’s not just the scale of change documented in the book that’s alarming. The speed of that change is breathtaking, as well. 

Even since "The Sixth Extinction" was published a scant three years ago, grave threats to the survival of other species have emerged.

Fears have grown that heroic human efforts to save the vaquita, a small porpoise that lives only in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, will not be enough. Its numbers are down to a dangerous few, thanks to illegal fishing with gill-nets.

Rare right whales are being found dead in record numbers off Atlantic Canada. It is likely they're being run over by large ships or gotten entangled in fishing gear.

And, evidence of the harm modern farm pesticides are doing to the world’s pollinators is being revealed with increasing frequency.

I believe “The Sixth Extinction” and its author, Elizabeth Kolbert, richly deserve their pulitzer prize. It is a painstakingly researched and carefully-crafted cautionary tale for the 21st century. 

It ought to be taken very seriously. 

It is published by Picador for $18.50 in Canada.

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