Science fiction and fantasy
The Sixth Extinction
by Elizabeth Kolbert
However, this is far more than an extended Red List. The author delves into the history of science, and explores how long it took scientists to understand concepts such as extinction and periodic mass extinctions. There's an examination of the work of naturalist Georges Cuvier and geologist Charles Lyell. They were prominent in piecing together what the fossil record can tell us, and later on Walter and Luiz Alvarez refined this. But it took a few wrong turns, some ridicule, and a lot of evidence gathering for modern theories about the timeline and causes of mass extinctions to emerge and gain acceptance. The book looks at why the scientific community can be reluctant to accept new ideas, and how it can take a mass of evidence before minds change.
The chapters on ocean acidification and coral reefs are particularly chilling. They explain how global warming will affect sea life, particularly the creatures known as calcifiers (such as coral, shellfish, and others). Rather than doing this by speculative projections the author looks at evidence from a volcanic vent where the sea acidity is naturally high. It illustrates the delicate balance a lot of organisms depend on for survival.
Most chapters begin with an anecdote from a trip, often to somewhere exotic. The writing style is very engaging. Whether it's the people involved in conservation and science or the creatures themselves, Kolbert makes them very relatable. Vivid descriptions are coupled with illustrations, so that The Sixth Extinction is in one sense easy to read. In another sense it's extremely hard, given that this is the depressing account of the end of innumerable forms of life. The author finishes by looking to a very bleak future of cryogenic arks, reduced biodiversity, and the possibility that humanity may engineer its own destruction. The author has described a few of the great lengths some conservationists have gone to in order to preserve certain species, and some might see that as an excuse for hope. However, Kolbert refuses to end on an upbeat note. That pessimism goes against the conventions of most popular science books, but perhaps it's the only appropriate tone to take considering the scale of what is happening.
12th May 2014
If you like this, try:Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery
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The New North: The World In 2050 by Laurence C. Smith
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The Emerald Planet by David Beerling
Plants are often overlooked when it comes to the story of evolution. David Beerling sets this right in this account of how they have affected the history of our planet.
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: library copy
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