A Painful Truth: Review of ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolbert – Review


People often roll their eyes when they’re told apocalyptic scenarios about our environment. This is understandable. In the information age, dire predictions are so common that they’re dull and suspicious, since tragedy and disaster have passed into the domain of clickbait. Parsing truth from hysteria can be tricky. That’s where talented nonfiction writers can come in handy. The Sixth Extinction is a sobering book that reminds us just how urgent the situation on our planet is.

Kolbert looks at past and present extinction events to help us understand our changing world. We now take it for granted that the Earth is in a constant state of flux, but the idea of extinction—something every five-year-old in England will now be familiar with—is actually relatively new, and was shockingly controversial when first unearthed. Its discovery, denial, and acceptance into the pantheon of accepted scientific theories is made especially poignant here, paralleling the current struggle for the acceptance of man-made global warming in the face of staunch denial, and despite the weight of evidence.

Instead of focusing solely on the global repercussions of humanity, smaller stories are woven together to form a larger picture of our past, present, and future. By making each global extinction understandable there’s urgency without alarmism.

Moving between travelogue to analysis about the impact of the Anthropocene, we are forced to confront our impact on the world. The changes we’re making aren’t solely through pollution; our travel spreads fungus and is shifting the ecological balance of every remote region on the planet.

An example of the cheerful facts presented may be appropriate: the oceans are in trouble. This will not be news to anyone who reads this. An ocean so polluted as to be literally acidic, though? This sounds like something out a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so nightmarish a scenario that it could be rejected as over-the-top if seen as an offhand detail in works of dystopian sci-fi. Could humanity really have that much of an impact on our planet? Well, yes. The evidence points to that being one of our more lasting legacies.

As we read, the planet’s fauna and flora destroy and rebuild, destroy and rebuild, are destroyed and rebuild, etc. and Kolbert is level-headed in emphasizing that, eventually, life adapts. That is on a multi-million timescale, though, and if things don’t change the species we share this planet with are facing annihilation. George Carlin’s words: “The planet is fine. The people [and species] are fucked.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Image result for The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

‘Those years (of equality) were just an anomaly, historically speaking,’ the Commander said. ‘Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.’

The Handmaid’s Tale is a stylistically beautiful, worryingly plausible novel about a world in which the United States government has been overthrown by civil war, and a totalitarian Christian theocracy has been installed in its place. This isn’t the futuristic nightmare of 1984 or the Hunger Games, however, wherein technological advances and inequalities make oppression simple. This is a fictional world which demonstrates how it easy it would be to lose the progress of the last few centuries made, in regards to gender and race.

Before reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I had seen Margaret Atwood’s comments denying she was a science-fiction writer. Oryx & Crake fit snugly in the genre, and so I viewed her attempts at distance from with a degree of scepticism. I thought of her as another writer attempting to escape from the label of sci-fi for the same reason Vonnegut described: “I have been a sore headed occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’ […], and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is not science-fiction. This isn’t because it has literary qualities; if that was a qualifier, Gene Wolfe would have escaped the drawer along with her. It’s because it takes place in a dystopia, yes, but not one undone by technological advances and scientific arrogance like the world of Oryx and Crake (which was incidentally why the book grated on me occasionally), or even where technology is used to particularly insidious means in the style of 1984. Atwood predicts no new force which wrenches our freedom from us. It is a regression to the values of the old world, a desire for simple, comforting roles of gender enforced by those who are most powerful, which erodes hard won rights.

There are a number of direct parallels across many modern states for the subjugation that women undergo here, but Atwood also draws heavily from the history of Antebellum slavery on topics such as literacy and Biblical justification for cruelty. She’s done her research on how oppression and slavery can manifest and maintain power in societies, and as such this dystopia is hauntingly believable.