Elizabeth Kolbert decided that one 2006 book on global environmental calamity was not enough. “Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Man, Nature, and Climate Change)” was based on her articles in the New Yorker that won a National Magazine Award. She succeeded brilliantly in her desire “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming.” Now her second book (The Sixth Extinction), on mass biological extinction, is available and also is excellent. Why did she decide to write this second book?
If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It’s also a fascinating one….I try to convey both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horrors of it. My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live. (Prologue)
As with the climate change book, Kolbert traveled the world to report on cutting-edge research from many scientists. One of them warns that acidifying the oceans “is likely to leave a legacy of the Anthropocene as one of the most notable, if not cataclysmic events in the history of our planet.” (Chapter VI.) Another transformative process is how humans are shifting species all over the planet. An expert she interviews calls this a “mass invasion event” that is “without precedent” in the planet’s history. (Chapter X.) [Florida is especially vulnerable to both of these particular threats.]
This kind of book usually ends with a list of the measures necessary to address the enormous problems described in the preceding pages. Not this time. In fact, Kolbert deliberately decided that the book was NOT a call to action.
I very carefully avoided saying what it was. What I’ve laid out requires action commensurate with the problem. We’re talking really huge global-scale change, and I did not feel that I had the prescription for that kind of action, so I’m going to leave it to the reader.
It is a very large task, as she says, merely to “bring this before people.” But deciding not to make any attempt at problem-solving is unfortunate. If someone as intelligent and well-informed as Kolbert feels unable to say what actions should be taken, what about the rest of us? Universal silence?
If you are looking for possible answers to giant sustainability challenges, let me recommend two books. The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by James Gustave Speth, proposes “transformational changes” and advises that “solutions exist, abundantly.” ”Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,” by Rebecca Solnit, proposes a “new vision of how change happens.” She advises that “Hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.“