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The Sixth Extinction
Cover of The Sixth Extinction
The Sixth Extinction
An Unnatural History

ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW'S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW'S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

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  • Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Kolbert

    Prologue

    Beginnings, it's said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name—nothing does—but it has the capacity to name things.

    As with any young species, this one's position is precarious. Its numbers are small, and its range restricted to a slice of eastern Africa. Slowly its population grows, but quite possibly then it contracts again—some would claim nearly fatally—to just a few thousand pairs.

    The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators, and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; farther inland, they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living on the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off.

    The end of this affair will turn out to be exemplary. As the species expands its range, it crosses paths with animals twice, ten, and even twenty times its size: huge cats, towering bears, turtles as big as elephants, sloths that stand fifteen feet tall. These species are more powerful and often fiercer. But they are slow to breed and are wiped out.

    Although a land animal, our species—ever inventive—crosses the sea. It reaches islands inhabited by evolution's outliers: birds that lay foot-long eggs, pig-sized hippos, giant skinks. Accustomed to isolation, these creatures are ill-equipped to deal with the newcomers or their fellow travelers (mostly rats). Many of them, too, succumb.

    The process continues, in fits and starts, for thousands of years, until the species, no longer so new, has spread to practically every corner of the globe. At this point, several things happen more or less at once that allow Homo sapiens, as it has come to call itself, to reproduce at an unprecedented rate. In a single century the population doubles; then it doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed. Humans do this deliberately, in order to feed themselves. Less deliberately, they shift organisms from one continent to another, reassembling the biosphere.

    Meanwhile, an even stranger and more radical transformation is under way. Having discovered subterranean reserves of energy, humans begin to change the composition of the atmosphere. This, in turn, alters the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. Some plants and animals adjust by moving. They climb mountains and migrate toward the poles. But a great many—at first hundreds, then thousands, and finally perhaps millions—find themselves marooned. Extinction rates soar, and the texture of life changes.

    No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they're put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach...

About the Author-
  • Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 25, 2013
    New Yorker staff writer Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe) accomplishes an amazing feat in her latest book, which superbly blends the depressing facts associated with rampant species extinctions and impending ecosystem collapse with stellar writing to produce a text that is accessible, witty, scientifically accurate, and impossible to put down. The eponymous extinction refers to the fact that the current rate of species loss is approaching that of the mass extinctions that ended five previous geologic epochs. Kolbert’s reporting takes her from the Andes to the Great Barrier Reef, and from a bare rock island off the coast of Iceland to a cave near Albany, N.Y. Throughout, she combines a historical perspective with the best modern science on offer, while bringing both scientists and species to life. As dire as our problems are today, Kolbert explains that they did not begin with the industrial revolution: “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.” Kolbert, however, offers some optimism based on the passion the concept of extinction evokes: “Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we’re willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows.”

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from February 15, 2014
    New Yorker staff writer Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, 2006, etc.) returns with a deft examination of the startling losses of the sixth mass extinction occurring at this moment and the sobering, underlying cause: humans. Although "background extinction" continuously occurs in varying slow rates among species, five major mass extinctions mark the past. Scientists theorize that all of these--from the extinction of the Ordovician period, which was caused by glaciation, to the end of the Cretaceous, caused by the impact of a celestial body on the Earth's surface--were the results of natural phenomena. Today, however, countless species are being wiped out due to human impact. Global warming, ocean acidification and the introduction of invasive species to new continents are only a few ways that we are perpetrating harsh new realities for those organisms unable to withstand radical change. Kolbert documents her travels across the globe, tracing the endangerment or demise of such species as the Panamanian golden frog, the Sumatran rhino and many more. The author skillfully highlights the historical figures key to the understanding of the planet's past and present turmoil, including Charles Darwin and Georges Cuvier, the first to theorize extinction as a concept. Throughout her extensive and passionately collected research, Kolbert offers a highly readable, enlightening report on the global and historical impact of humans, "one weedy species" that may offer valiant efforts to save endangered species but who are continually causing vast, severe change. Kolbert also weaves a relatable element into the at-times heavily scientific discussion, bringing the sites of past and present extinctions vividly to life with fascinating information that will linger with readers long after they close the book. A highly significant eye-opener rich in facts and enjoyment.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from February 15, 2014

    Evidence of a human-made mass extinction seems everywhere around us: long lists of endangered species, high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air and oceans, and biodiversity losses from deforestation of the tropics. New Yorker staff writer Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change) traveled all over the world to interview marine biologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists, forest ecologists, and paleontologists about their take on the Sixth Extinction (five other major extinctions have occurred in Earth's history). Tracing how extinction itself evolved as a scientific concept, Kolbert discusses the great animal extinctions of the past as well as the imminent loss of present-day animals such as the Sumatran rhino and the little brown bat. VERDICT The charm of this book (inasmuch as a book about extinction can have charm) lies in Kolbert's hands-on approach to her subject--searching for Panamanian frogs in the dark, hunting for graptolite fossils in Scotland, and observing coral spawning at Australia's Great Barrier Reef. This solid, engaging, multidisciplinary science title should appeal to a broad range of science enthusiasts, particularly those interested in environmental conservation.--Cynthia Lee Knight, formerly, Hunterdon Cty. Lib., Flemington, NJ

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from December 1, 2013
    It didn't take long for Homo sapiens to begin reassembling the biosphere, observes Kolbert, a Heinz Awardwinning New Yorker staff writer and author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006). By burning fossil fuels, we are rapidly changing the atmosphere, the oceans, and the climate, forcing potentially millions of species into extinction. Five watershed events in the deep past decimated life on earth, hence the designation Sixth Extinction for today's human-propelled crisis. To lay the groundwork for understanding this massive die-off, Kolbert crisply tells the stories of such earlier losses as the American mastodon and the great auk and provides an orienting overview of evolutionary and ecological science. She then chronicles her adventures in the field with biologists, botanists, and geologists investigating the threats against amphibians, bats, coral, and rhinos. Intrepid and astute, Kolbert combines vivid, informed, and awestruck descriptions of natural wonders, from rain forests to the Great Barrier Reef, and wryly amusing tales about such dicey situations as nearly grabbing onto a tree branch harboring a fist-sized tarantula, swimming among poisonous jellyfish, and venturing into a bat cave; each dispatch is laced with running explanations of urgent scientific inquiries and disquieting findings. Rendered with rare, resolute, and resounding clarity, Kolbert's compelling and enlightening report forthrightly addresses the most significant topic of our lives.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

  • USA Today "Fascinating."
  • New York Review of Books "[An] excellent new book...The Sixth Extinction is the kind of book that helps us recognize the actual planet we live upon."
  • The Boston Globe "Surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining... Kolbert is a masterful, thought-provoking reporter."
  • Harper's "Thorough and fascinating . . . Kolbert is an economical and deft explainer of the technical, and about as intrepid a reporter as they come . . . Her reporting is meticulous."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "Riveting... It is not possible to overstate the importance of Kolbert's book. Her prose is lucid, accessible and even entertaining as she reveals the dark theater playing out on our globe."
  • The Washington Post "A fascinating and frightening excursion... Kolbert presents powerful cases to bring her point home."
  • The Seattle Times "Your view of the world will be fundamentally changed... Kolbert is an astute observer, excellent explainer and superb synthesizer, and even manages to find humor in her subject matter."
  • National Geographic "What's exceptional about Kolbert's writing is the combination of scientific rigor and wry humor that keeps you turning the pages."
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