Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Elizabeth Kolbert
Mark Tercek: Your great new book The Sixth Extinction argues that the mass extinction unfolding around us is likely to be humankind’s most lasting legacy. Yet it’s a topic that doesn’t get broad public attention. How can we raise more awareness of this important challenge?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Unfortunately, I think this topic is going to be getting more and more attention. Practically every month now, you read a report about how another group is threatened. For instance, there’s been a spate of news recently about how starfish on the west coast are disappearing. More and more species are going to vanish, including species whose disappearance will be difficult to overlook. Lots of people love to watch monarch butterflies in the spring, but if you were watching this past spring, it’s quite likely you didn’t see any. This is an issue that is not going away, and is only going to become more obvious and more urgent. The challenge for groups like The Nature Conservancy and for journalists like me to is to try to raise awareness before species disappear. You have to stay at it. You have to try to speak to people’s hearts and also to their minds.
Mark Tercek: Your research for the book took you around the world to cover a dozen species. Do you have a favorite?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I sort of fell in love with several of the species in the book. The Panamanian golden frog, which is now extinct in the wild, is a very beautiful animal (also very poisonous); it’s bright yellow with a pointy face and dark, soulful eyes. The Sumatran rhino, also on the brink of extinction, is a magnificent beast. I spent a lot of time with a Sumatran rhino named Suci who lives at the Cincinnati Zoo. She’s a remarkably affectionate creature, rather like an overgrown dog. The great auk, another species that I write about, became extinct more than 150 years ago, so obviously I never met one. But I did visit a stuffed one, in Reykjavik, and it was a very moving experience.
Mark Tercek: How optimistic—or not—are you about our ability to turn the tide on the mass extinction crisis?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Humans are incredibly resourceful. That’s why this crisis has arisen: people are changing the world a lot faster than many other species can adapt. There are no easy answers here, and I certainly don’t present any in the book. But if people devoted their collective intelligence to trying to deal with the problem, I think it is possible that the worst of the crisis could be averted. As it is, though, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction – maximizing our impacts as opposed to minimizing them.
Mark Tercek: There’s been a lot of talk lately of “de-extinction”—bringing back extinct species by recreating their genomes. What’s your take on this strategy?
Elizabeth Kolbert: One of the places I visit in the book is known as the Frozen Zoo. It’s out in San Diego, and basically it a collection of cell lines, many from endangered species, that are being preserved in liquid nitrogen. It’s entirely conceivable that those cell lines could eventually be used to recreate animals that have been lost. In this sense, “de-extinction” may well be possible. But the question you have to ask yourself is: why did that species go extinct in the first place? What would be the point of bringing back a species whose habitat had been destroyed? Where would it live? Would it be forever confined to a cage in a zoo? So I think a much better idea would be to devote our energies to preventing extinction in the first place.
Mark Tercek: You’ve written about another major environmental challenge—climate change—in Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Again, why do you think we’ve struggled to build public support and action around the issue?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Right now, fossil fuels are central to just about everything that we do, including reading and writing on the web! So addressing climate change is hard. It requires dramatic changes all across society. And there’s a lot of resistance to making the necessary changes, both from people who have a direct financial stake in the status quo and from people who have not yet been convinced that the changes are worth the effort.
Mark Tercek: From your perspective, what is the environmental movement doing well? What could we do better?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think the environmental movement has been unfairly criticized lately because it doesn’t have a lot of successes it can point to. But that’s like blaming the jobless for the country’s high unemployment rate! It’s not the environmental movement’s fault that the globe is still warming. That being said, I think the environmental movement needs to try to broaden its reach. It’s doing a good job of explaining the issues to those people who are listening, but not enough people are listening. How do you reach those people? That’s what we’re all working on.
Mark Tercek: What other environmental books should be on everyone’s reading list?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I’m a huge fan of David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo. I also think everyone should read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. Though it’s rarely read anymore (and some of the information is a bit dated), I also recommend Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. In my view, it’s her best book.
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is a two-time National Magazine Award winner, and has also received a Heinz Award and the National Academies communication award. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction.