Exploring the Devastating Realities of The Sixth Extinction: A Review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction is a term coined by Elizabeth Kolbert in her book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” It refers to the ongoing mass extinction event that is currently taking place on Earth. Unlike previous extinction events, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, the Sixth Extinction is primarily caused by human activities. In her book, Kolbert explores the various ways in which humans are altering the planet’s ecosystem and driving countless species to extinction.

The Anthropocene Era

The Anthropocene Era is a proposed geological epoch that marks the period in which human activities have had a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The term “Anthropocene” comes from the Greek words “anthropos,” meaning human, and “kainos,” meaning new. It reflects the idea that humans have become a dominant force shaping the planet’s environment.

Humans have altered the planet’s ecosystem in numerous ways. Deforestation, for example, has led to the destruction of vast areas of forests, resulting in the loss of habitat for countless species. Pollution, particularly from industrial activities and the burning of fossil fuels, has contaminated air, water, and soil, causing harm to both wildlife and humans. Urbanization has also played a significant role in transforming natural landscapes into concrete jungles, further reducing habitat availability for many species.

The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction refers to the ongoing mass extinction event that is currently happening on Earth. It is estimated that species are disappearing at a rate 1,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate. This means that species are going extinct at a much faster rate than they can evolve or adapt to changing conditions.

There have been numerous examples of extinct and endangered species as a result of the Sixth Extinction. The passenger pigeon, once one of the most abundant bird species in North America, was driven to extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. The dodo, a flightless bird native to Mauritius, became extinct in the 17th century due to hunting and the introduction of invasive species. Today, iconic species such as the African elephant and the Sumatran orangutan are critically endangered due to habitat loss and poaching.

The Role of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the major factors contributing to the Sixth Extinction. Rising temperatures, caused by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, are disrupting ecosystems and pushing many species to their limits. For example, coral reefs, which are home to a quarter of all marine species, are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. As ocean temperatures rise, corals experience bleaching events, which can lead to their death and the loss of entire reef ecosystems.

Ocean acidification is another consequence of climate change that is affecting marine life. As carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans, it reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid, making the water more acidic. This acidification can have detrimental effects on shell-forming organisms such as oysters and coral reefs.

Habitat Destruction

Habitat destruction is another major driver of the Sixth Extinction. As human populations continue to grow, more land is needed for agriculture, infrastructure, and urban development. This has led to widespread deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats.

Deforestation has had devastating effects on many species. The Amazon rainforest, for example, is home to an estimated 10% of all known species on Earth. However, large areas of the Amazon are being cleared for cattle ranching, soybean production, and logging. This destruction of habitat threatens countless species with extinction.

Urbanization is also a significant contributor to habitat destruction. As cities expand, they encroach upon natural areas, fragmenting habitats and displacing wildlife. This can lead to increased competition for resources and reduced genetic diversity within populations.

Invasive Species

Invasive species are non-native species that are introduced to an ecosystem and have a negative impact on native species and ecosystems. They can outcompete native species for resources, disrupt food chains, and alter the structure and function of ecosystems.

One example of an invasive species is the cane toad in Australia. Originally introduced to control agricultural pests, the cane toad has since become a major problem. It has no natural predators in Australia and has rapidly spread across the country, outcompeting native species for food and habitat.

Another example is the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes region of North America. Native to Eastern Europe, the zebra mussel was accidentally introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1980s through ballast water from ships. Since then, it has spread throughout the region, clogging water intake pipes, displacing native mussels, and altering the ecosystem.


Overfishing is another significant threat to marine life and a contributing factor to the Sixth Extinction. As global demand for seafood continues to rise, fishing fleets are depleting fish populations faster than they can reproduce. This has led to the collapse of many fisheries and the decline of numerous marine species.

One example of an overfished species is the Atlantic cod. Once abundant in the waters off the coast of North America and Europe, cod populations have declined dramatically due to overfishing. This has had cascading effects on the ecosystem, as cod are a keystone species that play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine food webs.

The Importance of Biodiversity

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth, including all species of plants, animals, and microorganisms, as well as the ecosystems in which they live. Biodiversity is essential for human survival as it provides us with numerous ecosystem services.

For example, pollinators such as bees and butterflies play a crucial role in the reproduction of flowering plants. Without them, many crops and wild plants would not be able to reproduce, leading to a decline in food production and a loss of biodiversity.

Biodiversity also plays a vital role in water purification. Wetlands, for example, act as natural filters, removing pollutants from water and improving its quality. Without healthy wetland ecosystems, water sources would become contaminated, posing a threat to both humans and wildlife.

What Can We Do?

To stop the Sixth Extinction, individuals and governments must take action to reduce their impact on the planet. One of the most significant steps we can take is to reduce our carbon emissions. This can be done by transitioning to renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and reducing our consumption of fossil fuels.

Protecting habitats is also crucial for preserving biodiversity. This can be achieved through the establishment of protected areas, such as national parks and nature reserves. Additionally, sustainable land-use practices, such as agroforestry and organic farming, can help minimize habitat destruction and promote biodiversity conservation.

Conservation efforts have shown that it is possible to reverse the decline of species and ecosystems. For example, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has had a positive impact on the ecosystem by controlling deer populations and allowing vegetation to recover.

The Sixth Extinction is an urgent crisis that requires immediate action. The loss of biodiversity not only threatens countless species with extinction but also jeopardizes the health and well-being of humans. It is essential that individuals and governments take steps to protect and preserve our planet’s ecosystems and species.

By reducing our carbon emissions, protecting habitats, and promoting sustainable practices, we can help mitigate the impacts of climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species, and overfishing. It is up to all of us to make a difference and ensure a future where biodiversity thrives and the Sixth Extinction is halted.

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