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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Elizabeth Kolbert
Picador, 2015
336 pp., $17.00

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Jonathan Hiskes


Planet of the Rats

Extinction in progress.

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There is no postscript offering solutions tacked on at the end of the book, because solutions require a discussion just as long and complicated as a diagnosis of this mass extinction. Our harm goes to the core of our economies and habits of being in the world—burning fuel, traveling, claiming land and water and skies for our purposes.

Interestingly, the book's only biblical allusion (the only one that caught my eye, at least) comes in its final words:

Right now … we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giants rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.

So much for the meek inheriting the earth in Matthew's gospel. That seems to raise the question: Is this the only way to view the universe? If we take seriously the warnings of geologists, biologists, archaeologists, and others, must we conclude with Kolbert that our race's "most enduring legacy" is widespread damage? The arc of history is long, and it bends toward giant rats?

I don't know if there's a "Christian way" to read this book that lets one dismiss its disturbing conclusions. I started out looking for ways to measure The Sixth Extinction against various eschatologies, theologies of the end of the world that might provide a more uplifting vision. But maybe that's the wrong place to start. Maybe the place to start is a theology of creation. The world is fundamentally good, in the words of Genesis, and people are meant to somehow steward creation, however we define that duty. Stewardship begins with trying to understand our fellow creatures and what our habits are doing to them.

Our discoveries may leave us bewildered and troubled, but they can still be acts of faithfulness. In that sense, Kolbert's book is a work of stewardship. Understanding may be thin comfort in an age of mass die-offs. But it's a place to start.

Jonathan Hiskes is a writer at Bastyr University in Seattle. His reporting has appeared online at The Guardian, Mother Jones, Grist, Sustainable Industries, and Comment.

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