- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (February 11, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805092994
- ISBN-13: 978-0805092998
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1,406 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,646 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History First Edition Edition
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*Starred Review* It didn’t take long for Homo sapiens to begin “reassembling the biosphere,” observes Kolbert, a Heinz Award–winning 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. --Donna Seaman
[The Sixth Extinction] is a wonderful book, and it makes very clear that big, abrupt changes can happen; they're not outside the realm of possibility. They have happened before, they can happen again. ―President Barack Obama
“Fascinating.” ―USA Today
“[An] excellent new book...The Sixth Extinction is the kind of book that helps us recognize the actual planet we live upon.” ―New York Review of Books
“Surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining... Kolbert is a masterful, thought-provoking reporter.” ―The Boston Globe
“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.” ―Harper's
“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
“A fascinating and frightening excursion... Kolbert presents powerful cases to bring her point home.” ―The Washington Post
“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
“What's exceptional about Kolbert's writing is the combination of scientific rigor and wry humor that keeps you turning the pages.” ―National Geographic
“Beautifully written. An excellent book.” ―Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
“[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
“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
“[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.” ―Discover Magazine
“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)
“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.” ―Bookforum
“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)
“Solid [and] engaging.” ―Library Journal (starred review)
“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
“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
“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 Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
“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 Arctic Dreams
“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
“Elizabeth Kolbert writes with an aching beauty of the impact of our species on all the other forms of life known in this cold universe. The perspective is at once awe-inspiring, humbling and deeply necessary.” ―T.C. Boyle, author of San Miguel
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Top Customer Reviews
Sure you do. And if you're still a little wistful for those times, Elizabeth Kolbert's 2014 book, "The Sixth Extinction," is not going to be very satisfying. It may sound like a new cinema offering but it is far, far from it.
"The Sixth Extinction" is a series of personally crafted portraits of life in its many different forms in flux and, in some cases, ceasing to exist - even as we read the author's words. Drawing on her writing experience with "The New Yorker" Magazine, Kolbert blends knowledge, anecdote and eyewitness details to create a sense of authenticity so the reader feels like he or she is part of experience.
Those seeking more rigorous analysis and exposition should try Scientific American's collections such as the 2014 "Storm Warnings: Climate Change and Extreme Weather" (see my November 3, 2014 "Whistling in a Warm Wind" review on Amazon).
Through thirteen chapters the author presents pictures of various species in crisis, the probable reasons for their present state of emergency and the efforts undertaken to aid and preserve them.
Each chapter has a particular species focal point such as golden tree frogs in Panama, the American mastodon, graptolites in Scotland, coral colonies around Australia's Great Barrier Reef, declining biodiversity in the Amazon, Sumatran rhinos in U.S. zoos and new insights about relationship between Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens in Germany.
Interspersed in the initial chapters is the history of the development of various scientific approaches to understanding fossil remains, historical epochs, eras and periods, and the development of evolutionary theory, whether by catastrophe or gradual change (or "long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic").
While still anecdotal, the latter chapters weave some interesting fact-based information, for example:
- Earth has an estimated 50 million habitable acres, of which 27 million have been converted by people for multiple uses such as cities, housing, and pastureland. The remaining 23 million acres are roughly 60% for forests in which various species live and the remaining 40% are mountains, deserts, tundra, etc.
- The various species on Earth are composed of two to seven million for insects, ten thousand for birds and five thousand for mammals, including people.
- Amphibians are the most endangered group followed by reef corals, fresh water mollusks, sharks and rays, mammals and birds.
Along the way, other startling observations emerge: biodiversity is declining not only due to the "old causes" such as hunted to extinction for various reasons but also new ones such as global warming impact on life-sustaining ranges, the loss of habitat space, the inability to regenerate a species due to slower reproduction rate and the rapid vulnerability to new diseases (fungal, bacterial or viral). All of these causes are now achieving a dark and unexpected synergy.
Kolbert is presenting the current conditions as potential for a Sixth Major Extinction of the planet's species. In the prior roughly 500 million years there have been upwards of 25 periods of species extinction, of which five are considered to have been major ones due to breadth and probably rate of surrounding change. Nearly all of these were due to factors beyond the control of the inhabitants at the time: changes in chemical balances, glaciations and global warming due to Earth orbit wobbles, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impact leading to global cooling that killed off many of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
What makes the concern for the next big extinction is that it may be triggered by us - very, very rapidly. At a speed of change far beyond anything that has happened before - be it global warming by burning millions of years of fossil fuels, by eliminating living space on land or in sea for other species, or by sheer carelessness.
Shall we support initiatives for mitigating factors that we can affect such as global warming?
Or shall we fiddle while home burns?
You would think that perhaps humanity's greatest contemporaneous threat would result in too many great books to feasibly read. E.g., consider all the great books published around 2009 honoring 150 years since Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species". I read seven in that period. Yet with climate change we too often suffer through the amateurish (Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change by Guzman, Andrew T. ), the overwrought (Storms of My Grandchildren; The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Chinese Edition) ), and here a book that insufficiently covers the very topic referenced in the title - "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History".
Here's what Elizabeth Kolbert does well:
' Defines mass extinctions relative to the background extinction rate.
' Succinctly explains past mass extinction rates to help us better appreciate individual studies that are now being published regarding current findings.
' Provides some good examples of current extinctions that also illustrate why these are harbingers to far worse in the near future.
' Good explanation of the lack of diversity at more northern climes and therefore those regions' disproportionate vulnerability.
' Excellent reporting on migration rates and varying results, including altitude limitations on migration to chase colder climates.
' Kolbert provides a decent explanation on why a warmer world might ultimately result in more biodiversity; but in the short term given current `cold adaptation' of extant life on earth, mass extinction is inevitable in a `business as usual' scenario.
' Kolbert is an excellent writer and good reporter on the events she reports.
Here's where Ms. Kolbert fails:
' Vastly insufficient coverage validating we are currently in a mass extinction event with the exception of her coverage of ocean acidification.
I bookmark ScienceDaily articles that report especially impactful scientific climate change findings. I counted fourteen recent peer-reviewed articles preceding publication of this first edition by a couple of years. Not nearly enough of these findings were covered. That where the very title of the book references our already being in a mass extinction event.
' Failed to more expansively report and illustrate why a small change in climate can have a devastating impact to whole regions . Such illustrations should help people understand that we can't possibly predict all the catastrophic changes that will comes from a fast changing climate; i.e., the "law" of unintended consequences. Such reports would help better align the public's urgency on climate change to the urgency expressed by scientists and scientific organizations.
' Failed to adequately footnote and refer to scientists and studies that she references. For example, on page 166 of the paperback version, Ms. Kolbert refers to a 2004 study on a "species-area" experiment. Both extreme scenarios, the `best case' and `worst case', predict catastrophic extinctions by 2050. Not only is this study not end-noted, the author only refers to the year of the experiments; failing to report the authors' names, the articles they published, and where these articles were published . Inadequately providing citations is always a loss of one star with me.
I learned a lot reading this book. I enjoyed Ms. Kolbert's writing. I wouldn't remove any material from the book. But ultimately, the mostly anecdotal reports of current extinctions are insufficient for a book that promises to report on the current mass extinction event.
1] For example, mountain pine beetles in the Rocky Mountains are killing off millions of acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pines. This is the result of a "minor change" of a 2.7º F warmer region over the past couple of decades. A change that has resulted in an enormous increase in pine beetle procreation rates due to much higher winter survival rates and two reproductive cycles per Spring/Summer/Fall rather than the historical one cycle per year given the shorter winters. The net effect is pine trees dying from up to 60 times higher beetle infestation rates. Mitton and Ferrenberg, "Mountain Pine Beetle Develops an Unprecedented Summer Generation in Response to Climate Warming", The American Naturalist Vol. 179, No. 5, May 2012. doi: 10.1086/665007.
2] I think Elizabeth Kolbert was referencing Thomas, Chris D. & et al., "Extinction risk from climate change", Nature 427, 145-148 (8 January 2004) doi:10.1038/nature02121.