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.
Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered
Elizabeth Kolbert talks to Sasha Weiss about the species extinction that is apparently caused by humanity on the New Yorker's Out Loud podcast.
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.
“Powerful... Kolbert expertly traces the ‘twisting’ intellectual history of how we’ve come to understand the concept of extinction, and more recently, how we’ve come to recognize our role in it... An invaluable contribution to our understanding of present circumstances.”
—Al Gore, The New York Times Book Review
“Arresting... Ms. Kolbert shows in these pages that she can write with elegiac poetry about the vanishing creatures of this planet, but the real power of her book resides in the hard science and historical context she delivers here, documenting the mounting losses that human beings are leaving in their wake.”
—The New York Times
“Beautifully written. An excellent book.”
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
“Ms. Kolbert’s lively account is thought-provoking.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“What's exceptional about Kolbert's writing is the combination of scientific rigor and wry humor that keeps you turning the pages.”
“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.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“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.”
—The Seattle Times
“An epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller—only more terrifying because it is real. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction is destined to become one of the most important and defining books of our time.”
—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“Elizabeth Kolbert's cautionary tale, The Sixth Extinction, offers us a cogent overview of a harrowing biological challenge. The reporting is exceptional, the contextualizing exemplary. Kolbert stands at the forefront of what it means to be a socially responsible American writer today.”
—Barry Lopez, author of author of Arctic Dreams
“With her usual lucid and lovely prose, Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the sad and gripping facts of our moment on earth: that we’ve become a geological force, driving vast swaths of creation over the brink. A remarkable addition to the literature of our haunted epoch.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
“The sixth mass extinction is the biggest story on Earth, period, and Elizabeth Kolbert tells it with imagination, rigor, deep reporting, and a capacious curiosity about all the wondrous creatures and ecosystems that exist, or have existed, on our planet. The result is an important book full of love and loss.”
—David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo and Spillover
“I tore through Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction with a mix of awe and terror. Her long view of extinction excited my joy in life's diversity -- even as she made me aware how many species are currently at risk.”
—Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter
“Kolbert 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.”
—Publishers Weekly, (starred review)
“Rendered with rare, resolute, and resounding clarity, Kolbert’s compelling and enlightening report forthrightly addresses the most significant topic of our lives.”
—Booklist, (starred review)
“Throughout her extensive and passionately collected research, Kolbert offers a highly readable, enlightening report on the global and historical impact of humans... a highly significant eye-opener rich in facts and enjoyment.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“[Kolbert] grounds her stories in rigorous science and memorable characters past and present, building a case that a mass extinction is underway, whether we want to admit it or not.”
“[Kolbert] makes a page-turner out of even the most sober and scientifically demanding aspects of extinction. Combining a lucid, steady, understated style with some enviable reporting adventures… she produces a book that is both serious-minded and invites exclamation points into its margins.”
—New York Magazine
“The factoids Kolbert tosses off about nature’s incredible variety—a frog that carries eggs in its stomach and gives birth through its mouth, a wood stork that cools off by defecating on its own legs—makes it heartbreakingly clear, without any heavy-handed sermonizing from the author, just how much we lose when an animal goes extinct. In the same way, her intrepid reporting from far-off places—Panama, Iceland, Italy, Scotland, Peru, the Amazonian rain forest of Brazil, and the remote one tree Island, off the coast of Australia—gives us a sense of the earth’s vastness and beauty.”
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her series on global warming, The Climate of Man, from which the book was adapted, won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine writing award and a National Academies communications award. She is a two-time National Magazine Award winner. She is also a recipient of a Heinz Award and Guggenheim Fellowship. Kolbert lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.