The Sixth Extinction. A Book Review. Kind of.

California Condor at Pinnacles National Park June 2019
California Condor at Pinnacles National Park June 2019

‘If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so.’

So says Elizabeth Kolbert in the prologue of The Sixth Mass Extinction. But I have a confession to make: when I first began listening to the audiobook edition of the book, I fumbled for the disc while driving and began by listening to the last disc rather than the first. I was surprised it jumped right into things rather than the typical introductions from the publisher but the opening words were of Neanderthals and that seemed to make sense to me for a starting point on mass extinction.

When the narrator jumped into ‘ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows’ I was a little confused but it became more clear that I was listening to concluding words as they continued. I was embarrassed I didn’t catch on sooner but this is one of the quirks of listening to a book rather than reading it. The final chapter of the book revealed and reiterated all the points I had missed having not listening to the first seven discs. After sighing, I started again from the beginning.

Another confession: I enjoy morbid material and was excited to read – or listen to – learning about mass extinction. After all, it was in the news what seemed like every day through spring and summer whether it was about unprecedented numbers of whales washing ashore, the demise of the Monarch butterflies, or reports of the billions of birds that have died in the last 50 years so it seemed like a good time to learn more about the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene, though a term not fully embraced by all scientists, is considered by some the epoch in which we live, and is the subject of Kolbert’s book. The word itself implies a human-centric era and the key takeaway of The Sixth Extinction is that humans are the cause of the current mass extinction. Our actions have acidified the oceans, slashed and burned rainforests, and polluted the air we breathe – or, in other words, humans have caused climate change. Most species, perhaps even our own, can’t evolve fast enough to cope with the changes humans have executed on our ecosystem.

During the time I was listening to Kolbert’s book, I visited two places two weeks apart from one another for the first time: the Oakland Zoo and Pinnacles National Park. Visiting a zoo is always full of mixed feelings. Despite having lived in the Bay Area off and on for over a decade, I had never made it to the Oakland Zoo. It seemed like many of the people there were tourists from outside of the state & it was amusing to me that the zoo itself altered my perspective of the whole city. Somehow zoos seem to help define what a city is. This one seemed to fit Oakland pretty well. There were bits of information about climate change attached to signs on the cages but absolutely no recycling (not to mention composting) bins to be found. Some areas of the zoo looked well developed and expensive to maintain and others run down. It was nowhere near as fancy as San Francisco but probably more bourgeois than most places.

I felt more comfortable visiting a zoo while reading The Sixth Extinction. The animals may not be where they ought to be but at least they are alive – for now. Today zoos function like an archive of living specimens that may soon only exist in natural history museums in sculpted poses. There are half a dozen American Bison at the Oakland Zoo and looking at their features that resemble livestock cattle reminded me of the bison brush with extinction. By the end of the 19th century, there were less than 1000 living bison (down from 30 million over 150 years), who were then bred with livestock cattle as a conservation effort. I also saw two caged condors, which made me excited about my upcoming camping trip to Pinnacles National Park. 

More than anything else, I was excited to visit the park with the hope of spotting a California Condor. I remember learning of the near extinction of the condor while I was in elementary school in the 80s. They seemed so mystical to me as a child. Today, there are 312 condors living in the wild and about 100 of them call the California coast their home. Pinnacles National Park manages 40 of them. Condors look like big vultures and there were many turkey vultures in the park, too. There were also plenty of wild turkeys. Most of the condors that I spotted were soaring high in the sky so the only way to distinguish them from vultures was the white markings under their wings. From far away, I wouldn’t have known there might be an endangered species flying among the vultures. 

At one point I looked through a viewfinder in the park and saw seven condors in a single tree. There were three more soaring in circles near the tree so in a single moment I could see a quarter of their total population in the park. The 40 that call the park their home account for about 13% of the living wild population of condors. While reading The Sixth Extinction and seeing two caged condors at the Oakland zoo the previous week, seeing ten of the total 312 in a single moment seemed significant. Just a few feet from the viewfinder as I tried to appreciate the moment, a rattlesnake only a foot long had been killed. It was lying dead on a narrow road. I assume a car had hit it. When I first saw it, it was clear that it had very recently died. Within twenty minutes or so, enough cars had driven over it that it was ‘as flat as a pancake’ as my parents used to say, though in fact it was much flatter than a pancake. And within the hour the snake skin was black and smashed into the road to the point that it was hard to distinguish snake from street. Condors are carrion scavengers and I couldn’t help but think how hard it must be to find food in their home park when a fresh snake disappears in minutes. 

Other thoughts on this note started to fill my mind. Condors almost went extinct because of lead poisoning from the bullets in their food supply. From the condor perspective, if they have a perspective, I thought of the irony that their downfall was an abundance of food. If it were not for lead poisoning, the man-made dead meat would have been beneficial to the birds. But I guess we’re in a mass extinction because we kill everything and everything we do kills everything. 

If there is any hope, it’s that bison and condors are in better shape today than they were 100 years ago because of human intervention (setting aside the fact that humans are to blame for their demise). Bison conservation efforts still face challenges but their numbers are increasing. The Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park each reported the birth of condor chicks in 2019. It’s still sad we can count them on one hand but unlike other species highlighted in Kolbert’s book, the condor doesn’t need a handjob and the bison doesn’t need an ultrasound. One species that Kolbert shares the history of is the Great Auk, a flightless bird that stood almost three feet tall and went extinct in the 19th century because of overhunting. Kolbert uses the great auk to make a point about where we are today: ‘to argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.’ 

Condors and bison may be protected in designated parks or preserved in cages at zoos but for many other species without human protection, it looks more grim. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates 30-50% of the planet’s species may be extinct by 2050. In Falter, Bill McKibben cites numbers that show wildlife account for only 3% of living vertebrates while humans make up 30% and livestock an overwhelming 67%. We need to do more than just protect the species that are recognized as endangered. People change the world and people need to change if the mass extinction crisis is to end. 

For the record, the final chapters and conclusion of the book were better the second time I listened to them.

Andrew Murphy of Mill Valley Public Library