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Book Club Kits: The Sixth Extinction

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary


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.

Discussion Questions

1. The hallmark of evolutionary biology is adaptability. Is the main challenge facing our era the speed with which we are forcing things to adapt? Explain.

2. Describe the causes and effects of ocean acidification.

3. Which of Kolbert's examples seems most compelling/troubling to you, and why?

4. If humans have a place in the natural balance, should we expect the planet itself and other organisms to adapt and evolve in response to our impact?

5. How has "the new Pangea," as Kolbert calls it, accelerated certain threats to various species' future around the globe?

6. "The Thing with Feathers" (chapter XIII) alludes to Emily Dickinson's poem

"Hope is the thing with feathers" (Poem 314). After reading Kolbert's book, where do you see some hopeful possibilities?

7. Has reading this book changed your views about climate change in any way? How so?

8. What specific steps might you take to counteract the trends that Kolbert describes in her book?

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 Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.