Author(s): Elizabeth Kolbert
Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth.
Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species - including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino - some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.
The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy and Elizabeth Kolbert's book urgently compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Kolbert is one of my favourite science writers and her latest book doesn’t disappoint - it’s fascinating right from the gripping first page. There are no prizes for guessing what’s causing the latest wave of mass extinction of the title - us. The effect we’re having on the natural environment is similar in scope to oh, say, a meteor strike, glaciation, or some other equally devastating force of nature. The book traces homo sapiens’ extraordinary ability to adapt to its environment but also shows how its success as a species has come at the expense of a host of other living organisms, and, if trends continue, will continue to do so. It’s an interesting romp through the science of extinction for the general reader, and is exhaustively reported. Kolbert maintains an objective eye on history and an entertaining tone, as you’d expect from a New Yorker staff writer and former New York Times reporter. In fact, the book grew from an article Kolbert wrote for the New Yorker on the catastrophic loss of native frogs in Panama. Why should we care about a Panamanian frog? Well, aside from the tragedy of it, you wouldn’t, unless you were a frog. But Kolbert is great at explaining how the sudden loss of species - or a tiny change in temperature or ocean acidity - can have a powerful domino effect on the rest of our environment. She travelled to many of the locations she cites in the book, from South America to Iceland, so the prose has a nice ‘travelogue’ feel to it, and her observations on the places she visits and the quirks of scientific history are an entertaining counterpoint to her estimate that we stand to lose up to half of all plants and animals on earth by the end of this century. Kolbert is a brilliant science communicator, and this is yet another of her enthralling, informative, and frankly devastating reads on the state of the environment. - Naomi
A major book about the future of the world, blending natural history, field reporting and the history of ideas and into a powerful account of the mass extinction happening today
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 A More Perfect Heaven Elizabeth Kolbert's cautionary tale, The Sixth Extinction, offers us a cogent overview of a harrowing biological challenge. The reporting is exceptional, the contextualising exemplary. Kolbert stands at the forefront of what it means to be a socially responsible American writer today Barry Lopez, 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 The End of Nature and Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet The sixth mass extinction is the biggest story on Earth, period, and Elizabeth Kolbert tells it with imagination, rigour, 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 Spillover
Elizabeth Kolbert was a New York Times reporter for fourteen years until she became a staff writer at the New Yorker in 1999. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: A Frontline Report on Climate Change. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and children.