Two Sides of Being Hyper-Specific: On ‘The Sixth Extinction’
By Dan Bjork
Upon reading The Sixth Extinction and sitting down to write this, I had a very similar initial reaction as Adam: sheer amazement at human beings’ ability to compartmentalize.
We are so hyper-specific in our outrage. Never again will we allow Subway to put this specific yoga mat ingredient in their bread. Never again will we let that one venture capitalist jack up the price of that one life-saving drug by 4000 percent. And then back to caring about some issue that’s opposition does not have a lobby. The macro of it all gets washed away in all the noise.
For a book about the coming mass extinction of life on our planet, The Sixth Extinction is filled with people. And it’s not that we’re in danger; not yet, not imminently. Yet, for my count, it commits about as much page space to the people around this issue as it does to the animals. Right up front, we are given the history of our civilization’s coming to discover and then accept this as a process that happens. It’s a deft maneuver and a gentle way into such a (needlessly) controversial issue: look at how hard all of these brilliant men fought to discredit that extinction even existed; that a complete catalog of everything currently alive on this planet did not encompass a representative of everything that had ever lived on this planet. And from there we meet some specific animals on the brink, right along with the people fighting for them.
Eilzabeth Kolbert does a brilliant job of bringing dozens of people to life, often in the span of a few sentences. And, (selfishly) once I found myself writing about this, I went back to look and see if there was anything I could steal. Some method for springing a character to life in the span of 30 or so words. There wasn’t. At least there wasn’t so quicksilvery technique — I couldn’t even find a proper quote that would show how she does this.
But I think, maybe, the extinction does that for them. The tragic nature of their quest. Here’s this man leading a nighttime expedition into the rain forests of Costa Rica; here he is completely at ease during this arduous nighttime hike, finding all sorts of interesting species but none that he came out there to find. How many species exist solely in a single frog hotel in Costa Rica? On no more than the whims of funding and electricity and any number of minor catastrophes that would let the outside in. I think it’s no coincidence that one of the very last images of the book is of a woman who gives a certain species of rare crow a hand-job as part of her daily routine. On the thin hope that one day they might find a female who could use it.
Yet, as Adam noted as well, this left me with a feeling of optimism. We’ve brought on the sixth extinction — there’s no doubt about that — but life will endure. In some form or another. And that is reassuring, absolutely. But for me, I think it was more the slow trickle of people throughout the book who are pledging their existence to a hyper-specific skirmish inside all of this. Some of them will lose. Most, to be fair. But maybe it’s not the tragic nature of their specific fight that makes them instant wells of empathy, maybe it’s all of them, taken together. The sheer volume of people willing to fight a fight they will almost certainly lose. Waiting and ready for a return to the way things were. Waiting for a time when, for these species, normal outdoor life isn’t fatally poisonous. And it’s scary to think about what would need to happen to bring on such a return (cue this shared concern about our current post-apocalypse fetish). To think about all of the steps between here and there. The hope for me is that if this room of frogs makes it through, that the sort of people responsible for it would too. That, given the state of things, there are a lot more people out there like this than I’d imagined. And it seems that we’ve reached that critical point of it now being pure math: there are enough of these hyper-specific saviors out there, that if we make it through this next extinction, we’ll be taking some other number of other species, otherwise long since wiped out, with us. Someone will be successful, despite all odds.