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A long, long time ago (OK, 66 million years, to be exact), an asteroid collided with Earth, wiping out three-quarters of plant and animal life, most notably the dinosaurs.

That was the last mass extinction. The next might come at our own hands, says Elizabeth Kolbert--and sooner than we think.

The New Yorker staff writer’s new book, The Sixth Extinction, examines the history of planetary extermination and what we can do to thwart the next big disaster. If this sounds grim, fear not: Kolbert is a lively, funny and remarkably lucid guide, and at times her environmental treatise even reads like a Michael Crichton thriller.

Moving from the Andes to the Great Barrier Reef to a German cave where the first Neanderthal bones were found (side note: Did you know that most of us are 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal?!), Kolbert explores organisms that have either gone the way of the dodo or are threatening to do so.

She also interweaves the story of how humans have come to understand extinction, from the days of Darwin through current arguments about which species will outlive us. (One scientist she interviewed predicts the rise of giant rats.)

Cocktail-party fodder aside, her argument is sobering: From deforestation to ocean acidification, we are vastly altering the state of the planet. And even if this doesn’t bring about a mass extinction, there’s going to be major collateral damage.

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