Those who have enjoyed [Kolbert's] previous works like Field Notes From a Catastrophe will not be disappointed by her powerful new book ... This is the world we’ve made. And in her timely, meticulously researched and well-written book, Kolbert combines scientific analysis and personal narratives to explain it to us. The result is a clear and comprehensive history of earth’s previous mass extinctions — and the species we’ve lost — and an engaging description of the extraordinarily complex nature of life. Most important, Kolbert delivers a compelling call to action ... vividly presents the science and history of the current crisis. [Kolbert's] extensive travels in researching this book, and her insightful treatment of both the history and the science all combine to make The Sixth Extinction an invaluable contribution to our understanding of present circumstances, just as the paradigm shift she calls for is sorely needed ... makes an irrefutable case that what we are doing to cause a sixth mass extinction is clearly wrong. And she makes it clear that doing what is right means accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world.
... both a highly intelligent expression of this genre and also supremely well executed and entertaining ... Kolbert’s perspective is both awe-inspiring and fearsome, but utterly engrossing, as you’d expect from a book whose premise is 'we’re all doomed' ... Addressing the imminent next catastrophe with a certain grim relish, Kolbert spells out the results of her investigations ... Kolbert’s indictment of humanity is remorseless, and compelling ... Readers will be unable to evade the conclusion that we do indeed find ourselves on the brink of a great catastrophe, one in which the agent involved is not an inanimate object or a geophysical force but a sentient creature: ourselves. Homo sapiens may have enjoyed brilliant success on Earth but we have done so at the expense of virtually every other species.
[Kolbert's] writing here is the very model of explanatory journalism, making highly complex theories and hypotheses accessible to even the most science-challenged of readers, while providing a wonderfully tactile sense of endangered (or already departed) species and their shrinking habitats. She writes as a popularizer — or interpreter — of material that has been excavated by an army of scientists over the years and, in many cases, mapped by earlier writers ... Ms. Kolbert is nimble at using dramatic scenes to make sense of larger ideas ... by the end of this book, she’s left us with a harrowing appreciation of the ways in which human beings have been altering the planet ... 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.
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.
Traversing four continents and animating scientists both living and long dead, Kolbert's narrative can be mesmerizing and awe-inspiring. It's also a bit terrifying. As evidence of our role in the current mass extinction event mounts, Kolbert illuminates this scientific mystery with a mix of history and field reporting. She weaves together the story of biological calamity, from the concept's first articulation in revolutionary France to the front lines of numerous extinctions today. Tellingly, these stories traverse land and sea, from remote Oceania to the author's own backyard ... It's not exactly a whodunit, although the Homo sapiens we find behind the trigger of our current mass extinction event is unfamiliar. Sort of like the portrait you get of someone by only looking at their trash. It's not how we like to see ourselves, but maybe this mirror is more honest ... Kolbert draws out the humor and the heroism of the great lengths some conservationists take to preserve endangered species; can we both praise and pity the scientists who administer ultrasounds elbow-deep in a Sumatran rhino's rectum, or manually coax DNA from captive Hawaiian crows? But she does not spend much time expounding on whether they represent a real way out of the existential crisis we've created for wildlife around the world ... Kolbert is reluctant to offer the promise of an escape. The real revelation of The Sixth Extinction is much darker ... Maybe we have always been out of harmony with nature. In this context we start to see humanity as an aberration.
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—make 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 gives us a sense of the earth’s vastness and beauty. We get a sense of its danger, too, when Kolbert lets us in on her anxiety about entering caves, climbing cliffs, or diving into oceans alongside the scientists she shadows ... Climate-change deniers might use Kolbert’s careful rendition of previous ebbs and flows in the temperature of the earth’s air and water to prove that what’s happening now is perfectly natural and has nothing to do with human activity...But it all occurred so slowly—about twenty times over the course of some two million years—that plants and animals were able to adjust by massive migrations to regions where the environment was more tolerable, or via the selection of more adaptive traits over the course of a few generations ... Kolbert doesn’t offer much to look forward to.
When I first read The Sixth Extinction, I thought there was a chapter missing. It might have been called 'Why We Should Care' ... Caring and not caring don’t alter the gross systemic changes that are forcing extinctions—the rapid pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its absorption by the oceans. Caring and not caring are merely indiscernible emotional effluents emitted by the dominant species on this planet. How much we care or don’t care about the well-being of other species is overwhelmed—utterly engulfed—by how much we care about ourselves. There’s a really good reason for not writing that chapter ... Kolbert is right. Whether you care or not is immaterial. The question is this: Have we arrived at this point because of something inherent in our nature? Or has something peculiar in our circumstances brought us here, something we can still hope to alter? ... the kind of book that helps us recognize the actual planet we live upon, apart from the planet of our daily walking dreams.
While climate change and global warming have been debated for decades, Kolbert here examines our impact on the planet and makes a connection between the Earth’s next cataclysm and humankind ... By delving into the lives of plants and animals that no longer exist or that we cannot see and experience, Kolbert engages the reader in a conversation about current environmental threats we all face. Her easy, matter-of-fact narrative navigates a large volume of complex studies and discovery so fluidly that readers whose memory of the Ordovician-Silurian and Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinctions may be a little rusty will not get lost in a sea of scientific details. The book also contains ample graphs and illustrations, which provide further explanation for the reader. Even though the book can make readers feel as if they are walking through an endless gray cloud, with the end of the world looming on the next page, Kolbert’s clever narrative takes the edge off through hints of humor and reminders of nature’s beauty. Readers smile as Kolbert recounts her dream of frogs smoking cigarettes, and when she gazes into the star-studded sky over the Barrier Reef, readers are reminded of what an extraordinary world this is ... offers no solutions. Instead, it impresses upon the reader the enormity of the problem. The book lays the landscape of the future before us, and in the end, it leaves the question of what kind of world we want to leave behind.
... remarkable ... Kolbert is a witty, deft writer with an eye for vivid colour. She takes us from sun-blistered desert islands on the Great Barrier Reef to the sopping Peruvian jungle, where she joins her guides chewing coca leaves to sustain her Andean trudge. But her most urgent warning is about the condition of our oceans ... Hers is a deadly message, delivered in elegant prose, and we can’t afford to ignore it.
... a tour de horizon of the Anthropocene Age’s destructive maw, and it is a fascinating and frightening excursion ... Kolbert is not nostalgic ... a bold and at times desperate attempt to awaken us to this responsibility.
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.
... Kolbert evokes Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962)...Like Carson, Ms. Kolbert intends to raise an alarm ... The scientists she talks to as she goes about her project are inclined to sweeping claims. While the effect is still alarmist, the book is much less rhetorically overwrought than Carson's cri de coeur and provides insights into the ways in which many scientists view the world ... What raises her book far above Silent Spring, especially for those who share neither author's ecological fervor, is Ms. Kolbert's use of key incidents in the study of natural history to illustrate how accepted scientific knowledge can be radically disrupted. At a time, like our own, of apocalyptic assertions and predictive hubris, it is tonic to be reminded of such paradigm shifts and of the contingent nature of scientific interpretation ... Ms. Kolbert's lively account is thought-provoking, whether or not you agree with its premise.
Elizabeth Kolbert can be a very funny writer. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining tour through a half-billion years of the ups and precipitous downs of life on Earth (especially the downs) is Kolbert’s uncanny ability to induce smiles, snorts, and outright laughter as one reads about mass extinction, including humanity’s possible demise. It occurred to me at one point that if we do go the way of the ammonites and the mastodon, one of the human traits to disappear forever would be the capacity to crack wise in the face of oblivion ... Kolbert is a masterful, thought-provoking reporter. Her 2006 Field Notes from a Catastrophe is among the most important books on climate change, and she brings the same precision and intelligence to bear here. And yet there’s something missing that nags at me, a reticence about what happens to human beings in the Anthropocene — and the kind of radical change required if we’re to save ourselves ... What really matters, she argues, is that the sixth extinction will determine the course of life on Earth for all time. That perspective shift, reminiscent of a certain deep-green environmentalism, may not be antihuman, exactly, but its effect might well be inhumane. Because ecological destruction will cause — and is causing right now — incalculable human suffering. And I’m not ready to give up on another human capacity — for compassion, love of neighbor, solidarity. The urge to save each other may offer the only hope of limiting the damage we’re inflicting on everything else.
... Kolbert offers well-composed snapshots of history, theory and observation that will fascinate, enlighten and appall many readers ... There are useful, indeed exemplary, discussions of ocean acidification starting from readily observable natural effects off the Italian coast, of the fate of coral from the Great Barrier Reef, of the extent to which tropical forests in Peru can adapt to rapid change, of habitat fragmentation in the Amazon basin and beyond, and of the consequences of the mass global transference of species from one place to another. It is all pretty grim.
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 ... Throughout, she combines a historical perspective with the best modern science on offer, while bringing both scientists and species to life ... 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.'