Dear Ms. Kolbert:

Your new book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is equal parts masterful and perplexing.

It’s a tour de force through the byways of species biology, full of fascinating scientists studying charismatic creatures that are passing or have passed into extinction. But your narration is weirdly dissociative—detached to the point that it might be diagnosable under DSM 5. You document the unfathomable holocaust of species we are unleashing on our planet with your usual New Yorker-caliber prose, but you seem unwilling to embrace and articulate the sheer scale of the tragedy you have detailed—or say aloud the moral implications of your reporting.

Writing about climate change in the 1980s turned your New Yorker predecessor Bill McKibben into a force of nature for climate action. That progression, I understand.

Yours, I don’t. I kept wanting you to tell me how you felt about it all. What did it feel like to be there in the dwindling rain forest, on the bleaching reef, in the cave of the bat pandemic, in the acidifying Mediterranean, learning directly from the world’s leading experts just how bad things are, extinction-wise? You tell the story in the first person and fill it with personalizing details about everything other than how it felt in your soul to spend months on end staring into the abyss of human-caused extinction: a future without Sumatran rhinos, spectacled bears, Hawai’in crows, or Orangutans. Orangutans! You tell us, in fact, that all our primate cousins are on a path to annihilation—a prospect so upsetting to me that I sat alone sobbing onto the pages as I read it. How did you cope with what you were learning?

Again and again, you tell us astonishing things, things that make my soul shudder: that Earth may now be in the process of losing two-thirds of its mammal species, half its birds, and similarly outsized shares of most other taxonomic groups; that during just the past three decades, amphibian species worldwide have been perishing faster than herpetologists can keep track of them (since my youngest son was born in 1994, dozens of frog species have died out entirely); that bats by the millions have vanished from the eastern United States just since 2007; that ocean acidification, climate change, and other insults are steadily eating at way the world’s coral reefs—they may have only 50 years left. In short, Ms. Kolbert, you have amply demonstrated that our world is dying, and that we are killing it.

  • Yet instead of penning a rallying cry, a Jeremiad, an End of Nature, Silent Spring, or Fate of the Earth for global extinction, you have written an existential shrug. It’s learned and informative and wry and sensitive. It is, in fact, incisively observant. You write, for example, about the likelihood that humans began causing extinction with our own cousins, the Neanderthals. You describe your visit to a scientist who is piecing together the Neanderthal genome, then provide just about the best one-sentence summation of human nature I have ever read. We are, you say, “the sort of creature that could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.” Elizabeth Kolbert, how does your brain generate such brilliant sentences?!

    But, also, Ms. Kolbert, how can you write an entire book about one of the greatest tragedies of all human existence, one that we are accelerating right now, and never once say we should mobilize to stop it?

    Your incredulous admirer,

    Alan Durning