University of Vermont

Environmental Sciences

Elizabeth Kolbert Lecture and '6X Howl' Explore Extinction

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer to speak Sept 14

Elizabeth Kolbert
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert's book The Sixth Extinction is this year's UVM Summer Reads selection. She speaks at UVM Sept. 14. (Photo: Nicholas Whitman)

Since life emerged from the ooze, there have been five major extinction events on Earth, huge die-offs of the planet’s diversity of plants and animals. Now the sixth extinction is under way — an event unprecedented since the demise of the dinosaurs, sixty-five-million years ago. But this time the cataclysm is not an asteroid impact.

‘“It’s us,” says New Yorker magazine writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

As part of the university’s summer reading program for first-year students, Kolbert will deliver a lecture on Wednesday, September 14, exploring the meaning and history of this human-driven extinction — drawing on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

The lecture will begin 5 p.m., at UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel, followed by a book signing.

At approximately 6:30 p.m., after the lecture, an associated event, 6X HOWL, a multi-media art reception will take place at UVM’s Billings Library and Student Center, 48 University Place.

Both events are free and open to the public. Tickets are no longer available for the lecture, but overflow seating with live viewing is available at Mann Auditorium at 208 Colchester Avenue.

Elizabeth Kolbert

When humans emerged in eastern Africa some two hundred thousand years ago, slow and comparatively weak, our position in the world was “precarious,” writes Kolbert. Today, Homo sapiens are a dominant global force, and an engine of a new and massive wave of extinctions in our planet’s history.

In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert, a winner of the National Magazine Award and the New Yorker’s staff writer on environmental topics, goes into the field with scientists who are digging deep into the history and causes of extinction. She concludes that the human position in the world may again become precarious as thousands of species blink out.

To make her case, Kolbert tells the story of her travels with geologists, biologists and botanists from the Andes to the Great Barrier reef — learning of species on the brink of extinction or already gone, including the Panamanian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Kolbert brings into sight the often-overlooked disappearances occurring around the globe — and interweaves a historical account of the emergence of extinction as concept, from its nineteenth-century description by French naturalist Georges Cuvier to today’s conservation biologists.

“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed,” Kolbert writes. “No other creature has ever managed this and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”

UVM Summer Reads

All UVM first-year students were required to read The Sixth Extinction over the summer for the Summer Reading Program, an incoming student’s introduction to the academic life of the university. Each year, a selected book is integrated into foundation courses from each academic college.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s UVM lecture is sponsored by President Tom Sullivan, the Department of Student Life and the UVM Honors College.

6X Howl

Following Kolbert’s talk, 6X HOWL an interactive multi-media reception and "decompression space" will take place at Billings Library.  

The event will include “live art and poetry, extinct and endangered species exhibits, food and refreshments, a participatory extinction compost, and other ways of socializing, making community, and envisioning generative examples of how we could learn to live with and respond appropriately to mass extinction,” notes UVM environmental studies professor and event organizer Adrian Ivakhiv. “Bring an open mind, a compassionate heart, and any messages you may have for future dwellers of this changing planet.”

Participating artists and curators include Ariel Burgess, Kelly Clark/Keefe, Brian Collier, Cameron Davis, Adrian Ivakhiv, Al Larsen, Alexis Lathem with Art Herttua and Ray Carroll, Stella Marrs, Amelia Marzec, Harlan Morehouse, Ingrid Nelson, Amy Seidl, and Rebecca Weisman. 

6X HOWL is a project of BASTA! (Bridging the Arts, Sciences, and Theory for the Anthropocene), a Burlington-based network of artists, scholars, and activists, with support from the UVM Humanities Center, the UVM Environmental Program, the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Zadock Thompson Zoological Collections.