Human Influence on Extinctions in ‘The Sixth Extinction’

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is a non-fiction book written by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book highlights the view that humans have been at the center of all extinctions experienced around the globe. In the book, Kolbert chronicles previous extinctions of some species such as the great auk, a large flightless bird that lived in the Northern Hemisphere. Human beings tend to ignore the effect of their daily activities on both terrestrial and non-terrestrial animals. For instance, animals such as the Marianas flying fox have continuously been endangered because of reckless human activities. The destruction of coral reefs poses danger to survival of marine animals. Overall, Kolbert suggests that human beings must start caring about effects of their activities on other animals to avoid rapid extinctions witnessed currently. The current essay analyzes Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

The book is effectively written in lucid prose examining man-made climatic changes that have catalyzed what is currently referred to as the sixth mass extinction. Kolbert (2014) makes it clear that current man-made climatic changes threaten to eliminate 20 to 50% of all living things within a century. According to the book, extinction is a relatively new idea in the science community and many individuals have found it difficult to accept the fact that some species that had once lived on the earth have completely disappeared. Kolbert (2014) states that “Though it might be nice to imagine there was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did” (p. 235). This is an agreeable view because it is such assumptions that lead to continuous man-made environmental problems that threaten other living beings. The ignorance of the reality that extinction is a real activity happening around the entire globe is detrimental to the planetary ecology that everyone looks forward to enjoying. For instance, Kolbert effectively utilizes the example of the Panamanian golden frogs’ disappearance to highlight how human beings introduce destructive fungi into the environment, hence fanning extinction. The Chrytrid fungus that is not naturally found in Panama has been responsible for a gradual disappearance of the frogs. Kolbert (2014) asserts “Then the frogs around El Valle started to disappear. The problem, not yet perceived as a crisis, was first noticed to the west, near Panama’s border with Costa Rica” (p. 5) to highlight this problem. Other viruses, bacteria, and disease-carrying species of mosquitoes and ticks find themselves in regions where they do not occur naturally, hence accelerating disappearance of many animal species such as Neanderthals, mammoths, and mastodons.


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The use of both scientific analysis and personal narratives in the book to explain mass extinctions is a vital aspect in the delivery of content to the audience. It is worth understanding that Kolbert employs both scientific and personal narratives to explain the past and expected mass extinctions of animals and plants. For instance, Kolbert (2014) talks of the emergence of life on the earth 3.8 billion years ago and five massive extinctions that have been experienced since then. In tandem with scientific analysis, Kolbert (2014) informs that “On an ordinary day sixty five million years ago, an asteroid ten kilometers wide collided with the earth. Exploding on contact, it released energy” (p. 75). This collision led to the disappearance of about 75% of both plant and animal species such as dinosaurs at that time. Drawing of personal accounts from individuals such as Georges Cuvier, a French naturalist, is crucial for understanding of the concept of extinction. Cuvier examined mastodon bones even after most scientists had concluded that they belonged to living elephants or hippopotamus. Kolbert (2014) opines that Curvier revealed that “The bones do not exactly resemble those of an elephant” (27). This means they belonged to another species that had already become extinct without human knowledge. The book’s reliance on scientific analysis and personal narratives is significant in terms of simplifying the topic and explaining its practicality with changing environmental attitudes around the world.

Inclusion of plants, as well as marine animals and plants in the discussion of extinction is indicative of the complete nature of the book. Accordingly, Kolbert goes beyond extinction of different animal species to explain threats that are being posed to plants and marine living things. This completes the overall book in terms of its coverage of the topic. For instance, Kolbert explains that the continuous use of the world’s atmosphere as an open sewer for dumping gaseous wastes would increase global warming, hence disturbing the earth’s water cycle. In Kolbert’s (2014) opinion, “By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been sequestered for tens-in most cases hundreds-of millions of years” (p. 123). This indicates the high rate of atmospheric dumping around the globe. Warmer air holds moisture that is usually released in the form of heavy downpours and mudslides that affect the earth and different plant species. Coral reefs, which provide shelter and food to most marine species, are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, hence threatening the marine life in general. Kolbert (2014) justifies this view with the assertion “Coral cover in the Caribbean has in recent decades declined by close to eighty percent” (p. 141). The warmth and the acidity of oceans is threatening marine life, hence gradually eliminating crabs, fishes, and oysters that many people use as a part of their regular foods. In the book, Kolbert does not forget to mention the threat that has been posed to different plant species. Food crops such as corn, rice, and wheat are being threatened by changing weather patterns alternating between persistent dry spells and destructive floods. Most discussions about extinction of living things place a narrow focus on plants, but this book has gone to a broader extent of accommodating plants and marine life in the explanation.

Accordingly, the comparison made between the past and current rates and causes of extinction is vital in the understanding of the role of human beings in facilitating disappearance of both animals and plants. In the book, Kolbert (2014) emphasizes that “humans do this deliberately, in order to feed themselves” (p. 2), hence explaining the direct role of people in the promotion of unnecessary extinctions. Through her wider travels and experiences, she draws relationships between the past and current rates of extinction. Edward O. Wilson points out that the rate of unnatural extinctions within the tropics is 10,000 times more than naturally propelled extinctions. This would cut down biological diversity to the lowest levels. Again, Kolbert effectively backs up this argument by reiterating that natural forces such as giant asteroids are not to blame for these occurrences. The book brings out a clear view of factors that together enhance extinction. For instance, it talks of the increasing human population over the past few years, development of powerful new technologies, and emergence of the hegemonic ideology that emphasizes short-term thinking without paying attention to long-term effects of different actions. Kolbert (2014) highlights these effects by stating that “In a single century, the population doubles, then it doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed” (p. 2). The comparison of the past lifestyle with the modern lifestyle and its contribution to the extinction of animals and plants is vital in the suggestion of preventive measures that would secure every living thing. In tandem with this comparison, Kolbert also talks of the Sumatran Rhino whose numbers have declined because of habitat fragmentation in Southeast Asia. Their population has shrunk since the 1900s to accommodate the increasing population and technological advancements in forests that accommodated them.

Lastly, the book is strengthened by Kolbert’s conclusive remarks that point to the hope of the humanity responding to current dangers of extinction. Human beings have been slow to appreciate the fact they are the primary cause of animal and plant extinctions. However, Kolbert is an objective author and believes that humans are going to realize their problem and react in the quickest manner possible. Kolbert (2014) opines that “when the world changes faster than the species can adapt, many fall out” (p. 266). This implies that humans have the task of responding to mass extinctions, as well as the problem of global warming in the swiftest manner possible to avoid further crises. Her argument is motivating and has the capacity of leading to urgent actions among human beings. The anomalies she identifies in the entire book are too glaring to ignore around the world. The best thing is that it communicates to all audiences around the globe because everyone has a personal and communal relationship with the environment. The challenge to human beings is to ensure that they secure other living things, which make their lives interesting on this planet. The point that Kolbert drives home relating to the role of human beings in curbing environmental pollution is quite convincing and realistic because there is no shortcut to the current problem the world faces. Kolbert (2014) brings this out clearly, using Paul Ehrlich’s, statement “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches” (p. 268). This warning must be taken into account carefully to avoid further mass extinctions that would leave the humanity with noting to live on.

In conclusion, Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is clear and effective in the presentation of factors that have been contributing to the extinction of different animal and plant species around the globe. It is high time humans understand that extinction is a real happening that emerges from their daily interactions with the environment. The lucid prose used in the book sets out the real history, illustrating animals that have completely disappeared from the earth’s surface. For instance, Kolbert talks about the great auk as one of the animals that have just disappeared. Utilization of scientific and personal accounts of other famous naturalists, botanists, and ecologists such as Cuvier makes the entire explanation more realistic and understandable for humans. Human beings are obliged to learn from history and make timely adjustments that would prevent environmental pollution that keeps endangering other animal species and plants. The book is interesting and direct to the point, hence appealing to every audience concerned about the need for environmental protection.

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