The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

“We broke this world. We did this,” declares Noah, played by Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky’s recent film. The title character discerns that the God-ordained purpose of his family is to liberate plants and animals from the horrors of human beings. “Our family has been chosen for a great task,” he says to his son Shem. “We’ve been chosen to save the innocent, . . . the animals.” And in the film, for Noah, the salvation of the world involves the annihilation of the human beings: Noah’s children are three boys; the human species will come to end. Noah tells his family as the rain begins, “If we were to inherit the world again, it would only be to destroy it once more.” To his youngest son he says, “You, Japheth, will be the last man. . . . The creation will be left alone, safe and beautiful.”

In the film, Noah hears about this apocalypse from God, but we can read about it in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. To demonstrate how Homo sapiens has made a wreckage of the earth and sky, Kolbert introduces us to a chorus of scientists who show us evidence of the earth’s convulsions everywhere, from coral reefs near Australia to the population of bats in upstate New York. Her book is full of notes on the end of the world—at least the end of the world for human beings. The earth has survived mass extinctions before, and the earth will endure without us.

Kolbert contends that human beings have inaugurated the sixth in a series of planetary extinction events, the first being the global freezing phenomenon that marked the end of the Ordovician period 450 million years ago, and the most recent being the asteroid that ended the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago. The sixth extinction, she says, will end what the chemist Paul Crutzen has called “the Anthropocene,” this “human-dominated, geological epoch” during which human settlements have altered more than half of the earth’s surface and anthropogenic emissions have modified the atmosphere.