Tracing Truth: The Full Interview

Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co., 2014), Elizabeth Kolbert writes that there’s a major mass extinction afoot, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Only this time, humans are the cause. During her four-day residency as the 2016-17 recipient of the Sam Rose ’58 and Julie Walters Prize at Dickinson College for Global Environmental Activism, Kolbert discussed her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on that topic—a project that took her to rainforests, oceans, bat caves, coral reefs, tundra and labs around the world to observe top scientists in the field.

MB: When most of us think about extinction in the modern world, we think about isolated incidents—the honeybee in one part of the world, a great ape in another. But mass extinction is something different. Can you explain?
EK: Yes, mass extinction is simply, it's sort of what it sounds like—a lot of species across a lot of different groups are going extinct at the same time, and the implication of the sixth extinction is that there have been five of these events, five major mass extinctions—and, somewhat oxymoronically, there are also minor mass extinctions—in the fossil record. And I think that the whole point of the book was to try to get people to realize that even if you can see one extinction, or a couple of extinctions, going on in the course of a human lifetime—that’s actually very unusual. Extinction rates in the geological record are very, very low, and as we have become nearer to them, we think that, ‘Oh, it’s normal to see things go extinct,’ or ‘It’s not such a big deal.’ But it’s very, very unusual. You should not be able to identify any species that's gone extinct in the course of your lifetime 

MB: And these events are part of a larger, sweeping [event] …
EK: Yes, and even though we look for different causes—we’ll say, ‘OK, that creature was done in by deforestation,’ or ‘That creature was done in by an invasive species,’ or ‘That one was done in by an imported pathogen’ But if you look at the big pattern, then you see that they're all, as one of the papers I quote in the book—a scientific paper on this mass extinction—[states,] they can all be traced back to one needy species, and that's us. They all have a human cause. If you're the detective and you're tracing it back to the ultimate cause, it's always us.

MB: We're the culprits.
EK: We are definitely the culprits, and I don't think there's any extinctions that we know about in the last several centuries that we can't trace to some kind of human impact.

MB: It’s really progressing very quickly too.
EK: Yes, I mean, even though sometimes these things look slow from a human perspective … One of the ideas—once again, it's not my idea, but it's a scientific idea that you read a lot in the scientific literature—is that these changes are phenomenally fast, from a geological perspective. The planet is now changing as fast, certainly as fast as it has. The only potential analog is the asteroid aspect that did in the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. When scientists look back in the record, they have a hard time finding analogues for what we're doing right now.

MB: You write that it's tough for us to really understand this, [not only] because our perception of time is very different from [the perspective of geological time], but also because of psychological resistance to disruptive information. That’s making it harder for us to face what's going on.
EK: I think that one of the things that you're up against is simply that people are bombarded with information and also people don't …. You know, when you think about where people live and how they live nowadays—if you live in many parts of the U.S., you're not actually even interacting with what we would call, what I somewhat in quotes call, ‘the natural world.’ So the species you see around you may well already be imported species that weren't even there a couple hundred years ago. So I think people have a hard time even envisaging what we're doing, because in some sense it's been unfolding, once again, in human terms, pretty slowly.

MB: [In your book,] you connect these dots for readers, readers who aren’t scientists, so they can understand it. And what I think some people might find extraordinary is that you didn't start out as a science writer. You got a literature degree from Yale. When you were the age of the students here, what did you think your future held? Did you see a book like this in your path?
EK: I was definitely one of those people who did not know what they were going to do, so I'm not sure what I saw in my future—that was a long time ago—but I definitely didn't see science in my future, and obviously, I haven't become a scientist. I write about science. But I regret that I didn't take more science in college, so I always like to meet students who are taking science, because I think that is a very useful thing to do in college, especially maybe if you're not going to go on and science write, because when else are you going to encounter a lot of this information? Yes, I am a classic product of a liberal-arts education. I had a real classic liberal-arts education and what did it prepare me to do? I'm not sure, but here I am.

MB: It seems to have prepared you for a lot. Even the switch from [writing about] political science to natural science—from dealing in this world of constructed truth and to empiricism—is a leap.
EK: I think that that's true. You know, learning to ask questions, that's what journalism really is—asking questions and trying to distinguish between information that you're getting for sort of self-interested reasons and disinterested reasons. And so I think that, in some ways, of course, that was good training. Certainly my own college career was influenced by people—great people asking the big questions—and I think that that was a very useful.

MB: Getting back to the book …I read that this book began with an article in a children’s magazine.
EK: That's basically true, more or less true. I was looking for a way to write about what's being called the amphibian crisis. Amphibians have the very dubious honor of being the most endangered class of organisms that we know about; something like 40 percent of all amphibian species are categorized as endangered in one form or another. And I was looking for a way into that story. My kids were subscribed to National Geographic Kids—I subscribed for them—and we got an issue where they talked about these frogs having stayed at a hotel—‘the amazing frog hotel!’ [which sheltered Panamanian yellow frogs from a lethal fungus, to help preserve the species]. I thought, as a journalist, "That's a good story; finally, I have a way into this story." And I actually, by the time I got there, the frogs were out of the hotel and they had their own special biosecure facility. But I did go visit the amazing frog hotel.

MB: Did you know at that time you had a book, if not this book?
EK: I wouldn't say I immediately jumped to book, but pretty soon after that I, in the process of reporting that, I came across this idea, which was really new to me, of the sixth extinction. It seemed to bring together a lot of things I was writing about and thinking about, so it seemed like a book. It then took me quite a long time to actually write the book, but I did kind of get the idea for the book pretty quickly.

MB: What was the timeline?
EK: That article appeared in I believe 2009, and then I probably ... It took about four and a half years between the time that I wrote that piece to get the book actually out. I was pretty much working, not entirely full-time, but most of the time, on the book, so it was a long haul.

MB: So many memorable and touching and darkly funny moments along the way. I’ll never forget the rhino ultrasound [Kolbert vividly described watching a scientist perform an ultrasound on a Sumatran rhino that had been artificially inseminated]. And the bats! I can’t stop thinking of the bats. [Kolbert trekked with scientists through a Vermont cave and helped them count dwindling populations of live hibernating bats, and also to collect and count bats that had died of a deadly fungus.]
EK: And that's very present here, I'm sure, in Pennsylvania too. Definitely. I'm sure your bat populations have plunged. You know, people ask, ‘What was the most horrifying thing you did for the book?’ and this was  …. This is a book about extinction, but the fact of the matter is that most extinction takes place in absence; you can't see it. But these bats … their populations are plummeting. And this is one of those rare instances where you can actually see things being killed off by this imported disease.  So that was extremely memorable … I’ve been back almost every winter to the same place, and there is a remnant population of bats there, but it's … the numbers are a tiny fraction of what they used to be.

MB: You were there, as you say, you were there to see that. You were also there to see a plant species being discovered. Some really key moments.
EK: Well, it turns out if you hang around with the right people, you see some really interesting things. [Laughs.] It was a really great experience, some very memorable experiences for me, reporting the book. So that was compensation for a lot of years spent over the typewriter, not typewriter, computer. [Laughs]

MB: What moments affected you the most?
EK: I'm not a scuba diver, but I really loved being out on the Great Barrier Reef. I found that sort of mind-blowing, like a hallucinatory experience, almost. It's really so fantastic ... The world of the oceans is very different from the terrestrial world, and one of the great things about the oceans is that if you're on a reef, you're just seeing a variety of life that you can never see on land; it would all be hidden behind the leaves, like a rainforest. So it's really a fantastic sight, and I would love to go back.

MB: It's funny you mention that, because [in the book,] you were talking about the changes [at the Great Barrier Reef] during the past 30 years, and I was at the Great Barrier Reef exactly 30 years ago. So as I read this book, it just boggled my mind to think that so much of it has changed since I’ve last seen it.
EK: Oh, and this past year, if you want to be depressed, was a big bleaching year. You can go online and see people who really know the Great Barrier Reef, who say that big sections of it were really damaged just this past year. Very, very, very warm water.

MB: Thinking about some of the amazing things you’ve seen, and amazing things you’ve experienced … and the way you write about them is just beautiful.  You're going deep into the science, but then you bring in the sort of bigger, more philosophical questions about who are we as human beings: What are we here to do? What is our nature? When you were looking at the stars in Australia, and thinking the about smallness of humans and [their relative] big impact [on the environment] … for me, that [larger perspective] is what really takes [readers] into a whole new level of understanding.
EK: I think that what one tries to do as a journalist is take people to new places and places that they wouldn't be able to go themselves, and in that sense, show them things that they wouldn't see and maybe make certain connections that they wouldn't make. But also on the flip side of that, to leave certain things unconnected for people to make their own connections or draw their own conclusions. You don't really want to connect all the dots for people because that's just sort of pedantic.

MB: There's this adventure aspect. As I read this book, I kept thinking [that it takes] fortitude, hardiness, to go out there on the tundra and the Great Barrier Reef [to research this book]. It also takes a different kind of fortitude to keep facing dismal information—to keep going there over and over again …  What do you think it is that allows you to keep going there, and where do you think that quality comes from?
EK: People ask me that a lot, but I don't really see that. People write books about all sorts of horrors, to be honest. Some people are war correspondents, and I would find that really impossibly depressing—man’s inhumanity to man, I think that, as I say, most extinctions are just absences, and one of the ironies or paradoxes—I’m not sure what the right word is, even though I'm a writer—is that, in the process of writing the book, I actually went to amazing places. I went to the Great Barrier Reef; I went to the Amazonian rainforest; I went to the Peruvian cloud forest. So the actual writing of the book was not one long—it wasn't like reporting from Syria and seeing dead bodies in the street. So I think there's a lot of kinds of writing that are much, much more difficult and a lot of projects that I would find too horrific to pursue. The actual reporting for this book was often quite fantastic and beautiful, so even though the basic thrust of it is pretty heavy—I don't want to, I'm certainly not going to back away from that—I think that that's—journalists are always reporting on things that are awful, so it's not a particular skill of mine.

MB: Do you look at a landscape differently now, knowing what you know?  
EK: The fragility of the world, definitely, and the fact that things can be wrecked a lot more easily than they can be protected, at this point in time, is a very sobering and saddening fact. . Now once again, I want to say any field scientists out there, anyone who studies the Great Barrier Reef, anyone who studies the Amazon, has seen this way more intimately than I have. So I arrive at the Great Barrier Reef once, and it seems to be quite spectacular, and it is still quite spectacular, but people who have watched it over many years will tell you how it's already quite degraded from what they knew when they started out their careers, and how even places that are extremely remote and untouched—no one's digging them up, no one's mining them—they’re all touched by us. That is definitely the overriding message of the book. There's no place on earth—and this is true, even in the deep oceans—where you can't find human impacts now.

MB: Has coming to understand that in a really deep way—has that changed the way you talk about the future to your sons and to your students?
EK: That's a good question, and I think that my kids are definitely aware of what I'm writing and they've all read the book, and they read my book on climate change. But I don't think they go from life wildly differently from any other kids in 21st-century America. They know there are things I won't do and I won't let them do, but basically they're pretty ordinary kids. I don't know if they feel burdened by this. It would be an interesting question.

MB: What would you advise, or how can we better prepare our young people to do better in the future?
EK: Journalists always act on the notion that knowledge is power, and it's better to know things than not to know them, including things that are painful. I don’t want to say that acknowledging what's going on will solve it—this is not like a 12-step program, like the first step is acknowledging the problem—but I do think, from just a sort of ethical standpoint, that acknowledging the problem, and one's participation in it, is crucial. Unfortunately, what we see in our politics now, without getting too deep into that, is people not wanting to take responsibility and not wanting to—it’s easier, therefore, to just say, ‘Well, it's not a problem,’ and to deny what are, unfortunately, scientific facts, so I think that the power of simply facing the truth, there's a lot to be said for that. You wouldn't think that would be such a big barrier in the 21st century, but it turns out to be.

MB: You bring up the election. I really enjoyed your articles on Hillary Clinton, and you’ve also written a book on politics and its issues and truths. Do you have any thoughts on this election?
EK: This election really challenges any—even if you had a shred of sort of sense of how informed debates should work, this election really challenges that in a pretty dispiriting way. I think we can all agree on that.

MB: Yes! I think we can go right into the questions we ask all of our [Walters] award-winners. The first one is: Do you think of yourself as an activist?
EK: That's actually a tough one. I'm going to be honest about it and say that I would not describe myself as an activist. Now, I think that a bunch of people who I know—some of them, not all of them—are.  Bill McKibben was a writer-turned-activist, absolutely, and James Balog is a filmmaker; would he describe himself as an activist or as a filmmaker? When you put things out in the world are you an activist? I mean, on some level, I guess your choices of what you're going to write about put you into the mix, but it's not the word I would use to describe myself. I would really describe myself as a journalist. I'm a pretty straightforward journalist. I think, obviously the fact that I'm here, I think, means that the committee took a pretty broad view of the word ‘activist’ …

MB: What does activism mean to you—by your definition?
EK: Obviously, I am very grateful and obviously, that's their call, but I can't—I don't want to—I have to be frank and say that that's not how I would describe myself.

MB: OK. Why do you think sustainability in climate education is so important?
EK: I think, on some level, there couldn't be anything more important, and I think that when you just think about the purpose of higher education, which is, at its heart, to create an informed citizenry—that’s the highest calling of, I think, of higher education. It’s not to create professionals, and it's not even to create self-actualized people. I think that if you looked at the founding documents of Dickinson, it would be to create a group of people who could be informed participants in democracy and perhaps it has a theological background too; I'm not sure about Dickinson's particular history, but most liberal-arts colleges in this country were formed with some kind of theological mission and so that is to create ethical people, people who will act ethically in the world. And even now, 200 some odd years later, I still think that is the mission of higher ed—and, once again, we couldn't see more urgent questions around which people should be informed, it seems to me, than issues of sustainability and climate change. And so I do really applaud Dickinson for trying to incorporate those lessons into a lot of different fields, so that you should not be able to graduate without being, without having a basic level of information.

MB: What is Dickinson doing well, and what should we be doing better to move toward the front line of the climate fight?
EK: I am a little bit hesitant to tell Dickinson what they're doing right and wrong as someone who's been here for all of 24 hours, but I know that, you know, you have certain goals, you've set certain emissions reduction goals, and I really applaud that, and I think that—I know that—you have a great sustainability center, you have some great people working there, and you've really tried to incorporate it across the curriculum, which I really applaud. And the thing that I think that Dickinson could do better, and that I tell a lot of institutions that I visit that I think they could do better—and, maybe, here I contradict myself and move into activism—is that because higher education is creating the next generation of leaders and politicians, it's really important to confront students with choices, these pretty difficult choices. And so I think that a lot of schools—and I'm not singling out Dickinson, because I honestly don't know—are trying to solve these problems without really asking the students to confront the really hard choices of ‘Do we do x, or do we do y?’ They're trying to reduce emissions without anybody noticing it, and I would advocate, let's notice it, let's see what it really takes to really dramatically reduce our emissions even if that impinges on student life or faculty life or whatever. We should confront precisely; we should confront those trade-offs pretty directly.

MB: A little more radical approach. What message would you like to give Dickinsonians to help them join in the movement of global environmental activism?
EK: One of the messages that I really try to impart to young people in particular, and why I like to come to campuses, is a message that's hard to convey, even in journalism, and that is that this is an issue--climate change in particular, but a lot of these big, global change issues—for which there's a time lag, so one generation is really leaving the problem to the other. So, you know, our generation is really leaving this problem for the next generation, and they should really be aware of that, because there are huge issues of intergenerational equity and international equity, huge issues there. And so people should really … I always sort of tell young people, I encourage them to even get angry. This is really the issue of their time, and they’re being saddled with this, and this should be pretty close to the top of their political agendas, as far as I'm concerned. And their elected leaders need to hear from them. Everyone needs to hear from them about how they feel about that.

MB: Even though [in this book] you’re reporting—you're not connecting all the dots, you're reporting on what is going on—is there a hopeful message here? Is there something you’d like to say to people who are working on the front lines of this—that it's not a hopeless pursuit?
EK: It’s a really difficult message to convey, and maybe that’s why I leave it un-conveyed, and you can connect the dots however you want. But my own view of things, you know, [is that] there are a lot of problems we're not guaranteed to solve, but we still have an obligation or responsibility to try to confront them. So often people seem to me to be saying, ‘Well, I'm not sure this problem is solvable. Therefore, I shouldn't do anything,’ and then I think, ‘Well, we don't say that about the war on Syria. We don't say that about poverty.’ … There are so many issues we don't know if we're going to solve, but we still feel we have to make our best effort. And I certainly think that's true of the fate of the planet. You know, we don't know that we're going to solve these problems, but we certainly are required to make an effort. And there are degrees of damage, degrees of badness. There’s never a point where you can just say, ‘Well, let's just give up on the planet.’ 

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Published January 18, 2017