There are obvious differences between fiction and non-fiction, but the very best books in both genres have the same capacity to stop you in your tracks, to ask you if you really think what you’ve always thought you thought, if you even know what it is you’re talking about when you parrot some line you heard somewhere and accepted as cogent without really giving the matter anywhere near enough thought even to be entitled to an opinion. The books that have that kind of effect on me are generally works of fiction, but today I wish to write about a non-fiction book that, at least for me, has left me stunned…both by the author’s erudition and talent, but also by my own naiveté. The book is Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published earlier this year by Henry Holt and Co., and it really did take my breath away.
There have, it turns out—and here begins my descent into candor: how could I possibly not have known this?—there have been in the last half billion years, five so-called extinction events in which most kinds of living creatures on earth stopped existing entirely. It’s true that I somehow didn’t take Earth Science in high school—I vaguely recall having to choose between that and German—but, even so, these seem like big events for me to have passed by me so easily. I had, I think, vaguely heard of the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, which occurred about 252 million years ago and brought about the extinction of 96% of all sea creatures and about 70% of all land animals. (What triggered it, no one knows…but the smart money seems to be on some sort of massive volcanic activity.) The Cretaceous-Paleogene Event, I actually do remember reading about, possibly in the wake of seeing Jurassic Park when it came out in 1993—it occurred a mere sixty-six million years ago and, almost definitely brought about by what scientists delicately now call an “impact event” of some sort (probably a comet or an asteroid crashing into earth): this was the one that killed off the dinosaurs, or at least the ones that could fly and all land-based ones larger than modern-day cats. But the others? How could I never have heard of the Ordovician-Silurian Mass Extinction Event? (It’s not like it was a catastrophe on the scale of a tsunami or an earthquake that took the lives of thousands or tens of thousands: this was an event as a result of which sixty percent of all living creatures on earth died. The cause is unknown.) The other two—the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction Event and the Late Devonian—I also never heard of. Scientists are still arguing—and strenuously—about the details. Were these really separate events or all part of some ongoing, planet-life-long unfolding process of extinction and rebirth? Were they accidental—in the sense that they could also not have happened—or is the regular elimination of almost all living species part of what it means for life itself to evolve? Did the eventual appearance of human beings come about because of these events or despite them? And then the biggest question of all: are we done with all that…or do we need to consider the future of humanity in terms related to these events?
It would be easy not to care. The most recent extinction event took place, as noted, sixty-six million years ago, but the next-most-recent one occurred more than 130 million years before that. That feels like a very long time ago and suggests that, whatever the future brings, it will bring it along in such an unfathomably long time from now that it seems ridiculous to worry about it. (To put that thought in perspective, our own species, Homosapiens, has apparently been around for about 35,000 years, of which recorded history constitutes about the last ninth.) It all seems impossibly arcane…or rather that is how it probably would have seemed to me before I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, which I recommend to you all as truly challenging and very engaging. She’s also an excellent writer, which makes her book as much a pleasure to read as it is sobering—and beyond sobering—to contemplate.
Her thesis, all the more shocking for being put forward so clearly, is that we have something very real to worry about, that we are actually in the midst of a sixth extinction event, one she calls the “Anthropocene” because (as she meticulously and convincingly explains) it has been brought about solely by human activity. (The term itself was actually coined decades ago by the Dutch chemist, Paul Crutzen. But she makes it her own!) That alone makes this “sixth event” unique, obviously. But it also opens the door to wondering if we are bit players in a pageant so complex and so endlessly long that none of us could ever even begin to fathom the larger picture of what it means for us to live here on earth…or if we who have done this thing can now possibly also undo it.
Some of what Kolbert writes about, we mostly all know about, but, even so, what she has to say about issues like the shrinking down of the polar ice caps or the long-term effects of our willingness to dump more than 90 million tons of gaseous waste into the atmosphere daily is beyond shocking actually to read set out in plain language. Moreover, a lot of what she has to say was completely new to me. (To whet your appetite, you can read the transcript of a very interesting discussion she recently had with Washington Post writer Brad Plumer in which she explains what was hoping to accomplish by writing this book by clicking here if you are reading this electronically.) She writes anecdotally, drawing her readers in by allowing them to discover along with her what she’s learned about the world in the course of her research. Crucially, she distinguishes nicely between the kind of ongoing extinction and appearance of animal species that seems to constitute an ongoing, normal part of life on earth, and the kind of massive, entirely unprecedented extinction rate that is presently occurring among the earth’s fauna. And the book is also a complicated but very engaging travelogue as well in which the author takes her readers along on her trips to Greenland, New Guinea, Africa, Europe, and South America.
The reviews have been excellent. (I can particularly recommend the reviews by Al Gore that appeared in the New York Times and by Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, that appeared in the Washington Post. If you’re reading this electronically, click here for the Gore review and here for Michael Roth’s.) The book is informative and well written, but the overriding emotion that readers will bring away from the book is one of grave responsibility: Kolbert cites the work of entomologist E. O. Wilson to the effect that in two centuries we have reduced biological diversity on our planet to the lowest level since the Cretaceous Period scores of millions of years ago. If readers don’t fully understand the ramifications of that thought and its implications for the future of the human race, they certainly will by the time they’re done reading.
I’m occasionally asked if I don’t find all this kind of geological speculation disconcerting given the fact that I’ve basically devoted my entire adult life to preaching the eternal value of a book that imagines the entire creation of the world and all its species to have taken place in six days. I can understand why it might seem that I should. But the reality is that I don’t find it unsettling at all. Just the opposite, actually—I find in encouraging to think that the relentless search for truth in all matters that characterizes human culture at its finest continues in our day to animate some of our finest thinkers by leading them to consider and reconsider the most basic questions of all: where we come from, how we got here, what we can learn from the past, where we could conceivably be going in the future, and what role humanity is destined—not doomed—to play in the pursuit of its own ultimate destiny. Ancient books use the tools of the ancients—primarily mythological theorizing, which our own forebears had the innovative idea of suffusing with the deepest faith in the reality of a Creator God, and lyrical spirituality—to explore these ideas and they succeeded admirably in creating a body of texts that have endured not for centuries but for millennia as testimony to human literary creativity. Medieval books focused the works of those ancients through their own perceptive prisms to grant them currency in a new age by allowing them to morph forward into ever more sophisticated iterations of their earlier versions. Moderns, and particularly our greatest scientists, are doing the same thing—responding to the questions people were struggling to answer thousands of years ago by creating new disciplines—in this specific case, particularly paleontology and osteoarcheology—-to provide new answers to ancient riddles.
I don’t find that irritating or upsetting. If anything, I find it challenging to see the task being passed to us, the task of taking these fabulously interesting theories about the history of the planet and suffusing them with our ongoing, ineradicable faith in God the Creator. As I never seem to tire of observing both on and off the bimah, every true statement by definition must be congruent with every other true statement. As a result, it hardly behooves us to ignore people who, possessed of remarkable insight into the nature of things, invite us to view the universe in a brand-new way.
At Shelter Rock, we have undertaken a “Green Initiative” to promote ecological awareness and activism in our community. Nothing that is or will be proposed is going to speak directly to the disappearance of the great auk, the last remaining one of which was strangled by egg-hunters in Iceland in 1844, or the decline of the great coral reefs that Kolbert writes about so passionately. And yet…once you start thinking in global terms or start imagining the history of the planet in terms of geological eons, you really can only proceed down one of two roads. You can find anything we do to be of such infinitesimal insignificance so as to make any effort on behalf of the world and its fauna or flora sound and feel ridiculous. Or you can decide to do…something. You won’t change the world. You won’t even affect it all that much. You certainly won’t bring back the auk. But you’ll have made yourself into a player, into someone who, not content to go down with the ship without at least attempting to survive, did what he or she could to avert the Sixth Extinction that Elizabeth Kolbert says is already well underway…but which could also—somehow, possibly—be reversed by the very same people responsible for bringing it about in the first place.
There’s a famous midrash that features imagines God taking Adam on the tour of the garden and showing him all the trees and plant life. “I’ve made all this for you,” God soothingly tells the first human, before getting to the real point. “Take care not to wreck it,” God continues, “because there simply won’t be anyone to repair it if you do.” There’s a certain naïve charm to that midrash…but behind the charm there is a monitory tone that we would be wrong to pass by too quickly. What Elizabeth Kolbert would make of such a text, I don’t know…but I can guess. “You made this mess,” I can imagine her saying. “And you can at least try to clean it up.”