Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

Sixth Extinction

This may be the most important book you read all year.

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, provides a 500 million year context for what is coming to be called the Anthropocene geological era, an era marked by changes so momentous as to be nearly unprecedented in the earth’s history. Ponder that last sentence for a moment. In the entire history of the planet, changes now being wrought have almost no parallel. People are changing the world in a way that is almost unprecedented, changes that go beyond climate change, including ocean acidification, deforestation, overfishing, mysterious plagues, and sweeping ecological upheavals. Species that have survived for millions of years, or hundreds of millions of years, may vanish in our lifetimes, in the geological blink of an eye.

Kolbert traces the history of life on earth as captured in fossil records, as well as the history of the science that deciphered it. Two hundred years ago, it was almost inconceivable that a species could vanish. Monstrous bones found in the New World were attributed to great beasts that must still roam somewhere. Today, the brutal truth of extinction at a pace thousands of times faster than through most of the earth’s history is all too apparent.

Citing heartbreaking examples of human ignorance and greed Kolbert recounts the extermination of the the Moa in New Zealand, and Great Auks  in the North Atlantic. This pattern isn’t new. Humans are implicated in the disappearance of  great ground sloths, mammoths and mastodons on the North American continent 10,000 years ago. What is new is the pace of the devastation. Against this bleak backdrop, Kolbert also profiles the heroic efforts of scientists to preserve in captivity species driven to extinction in the wild, Sisyphean projects perhaps launched for no reason other than that to do nothing would be unconscionable. Kolbert is a gifted writer, and has condensed into one accessible volume a wealth of information that we should have as citizens of the modern world.

I suppose that many people can’t face the horror of loss on such a global scale, preferring to avert their eyes and shelter in willful ignorance. Others respond to the magnitude of destruction with despondency, crushed with despair that nothing can apparently be done. These reactions are understandable, but as earth stewards we must do better. Stewardship means having the courage to look unflinchingly at destruction and loss, but it also means having hope that through our efforts we can make a horrific situation a little less horrific. Stewardship means having faith that care for the earth is a sacred trust, and making that faith the basis for action.

Read this book. For goodness sake, read this book. And after you’ve read this book, let it motivate you to make the world a richer place. Ms. Kolbert focuses on the science – what we know and how we know it. She doesn’t focus on what to do about it, but leaves that question for us. It seems to me that helping each other understand and act on what it means to care for the earth is exactly the mission of LDS Earth Stewardship.

p.s. If you’re interested in launching an LDS Earth Stewardship book discussion group to read this or other books, please let me know.

  • Philip Carlson says:

    I would like to.
    I’d also like to explore the relationship between science and the gospel. Especially the restored gospel, which I believe should have a more accepting of science than denominations that lack modern revelation.

  • Josh says:

    Great review! CNN actually put out an article today that deals with this same issue: http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/30/business/wild-life-decline-wwf/index.html?hpt=hp_c4

    It’s unfortunate, but it seems like the best way to make people take this issue seriously is to put it in terms of economic welfare; not only are we destroying countless species at an alarming rate, but we’re shooting ourselves in the financial foot as well.