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Talking Extinction with Elizabeth Kolbert

I recently wrote a review of New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and had a chance to chat with Kolbert about the book for about half an hour.

The bulk of the interview, covering de-extinction and conservation planning and how far back in time we can track humanity’s role in extinctions and what sort of trouble she’s gotten into with creationists and climate change deniers, will be in NCSE’s journal, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, along with the review. NCSE members will get that in the mail, of course. But I wanted to share this opening bit of the interview now.


Cover of "The Sixth Extinction"

JR: One thing that I often wonder about—and it’s a problem in talking about evolution, it’s a problem in talking about climate change, it’s a problem in classrooms or for science communicators in general—where you have these “drip drip” sort of stories, where you can’t just go into a classroom and snap your fingers and, poof, there’s evolution. Climate change is the same way. As a writer, and as someone who’s obviously concerned about these issues, what tips do you have for helping people get across the urgency or the immediacy of these slow, gradual, but sort of unstoppable forces?

EK: I suppose on one hand you could say that there’ve always been stories like this, but I think that they are particularly an affliction of our time, where people are causing phenomena that will have very long-lasting, for all intents permanent effects, without even being aware of it, and yet it’s not like an explosion or ferry accident, or the horror of the day that arrests everyone’s attention and gets wall to wall coverage. Not a missing jetliner. The timescale, the scale of the issue, are all sort of incommensurate with the news cycle, and I think there are a lot of us out there in the journalistic world, in the scientific world, trying to figure out how do you deal with that problem. And I certainly don’t want to claim that I have the answer. I do one sort of thing, I write for a magazine, I try to intervene as it were in a climate story whenever I can come up with a story that I think people will read for some reason or another. It’s not easy, I’m always thinking: “How can I … climate is still changing, how can I write that story again in a way that brings something new to the table.” For anyone who has been paying attention, hasn’t just been asleep for the last decade or two, you have heard a lot already, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be told again, because clearly on some level the message isn’t getting out.

JR: One thing that we often advise teachers, and that a lot of people have found effective, is talking about solutions, because something like climate change, extinction, can be really depressing and can make people shut down. I thought it was interesting that in the book, you said “if this was a different book, I’d be talking about that, but that’s not the book I’m writing.” How did you decide to focus it away from that?

EK: I think the obvious issue here is that you write a book, in this case a book about mass extinctions, and that’s an umbrella for a lot of separate issues. The book deals with climate change and it deals with ocean acidification and it deals with invasive species and it deals with habitat destruction. Each one of those—I guess climate change and ocean acidification are two sides of the same coin—but each one of those could definitely be a book in and of itself, and definitely should be and has been. <laughs> But you bring this all together. And those are only some of the things. I could have gone on and on, is the fact of the matter. And then you really lay out this massive geological scale issue, and then you can’t sort of suddenly turn around and say—I don’t think without doing it a disservice, if you have respect for your readers, which I definitely do—”so you’ve gotten to the end of this book, you see that this is an enormous issue and it’s an issue that has very long roots, it’s not even a project that people just started recently.” I take the position that we’ve been at this altering of the planet for quite a while now as human beings. And to just say “ok and here’s what we need to do and here’s my 5 things,” you know change your lightbulbs and blah blah blah doesn’t … I think people realize that the two don’t add up. I think that is often what’s expected at the end of an environmental book. I’m gonna now tell you how to solve this problem, and if I knew how to solve all these problems I would tell you, it’s not like I’m hiding something

JR: And you’d have various Nobel Prizes on your bookshelf.

EK: Exactly, so the idea that a journalist is going to tell you how to solve the most massive problem in the history of humanity—arguably—just doesn’t seem plausible, and I’ve never read that solution. I’ve never read the ten point plan that seemed to me that it was going to solve all these problems simultaneously. So I felt like I need to be a little bit … I wasn’t going to make that turn. And I had to tell the reader I wasn’t going to make that turn. And I think that many were probably pissed, to be honest. “I read all this way and I expected the answer and you didn’t give it to me.” But unfortunately that’s life, that is the situation we’re in.

JR: I was also wondering, if I were a teacher and I wanted to talk about extinction and mass extinctions and the Anthropocene, what would I say to not have my kids go home super depressed, but I was also thinking “if I were Elizabeth Kolbert, how would I keep myself from getting depressed?” I mean, you’ve spent quite a while living with extinction, and with climate change before that, and these are super depressing topics, and how do you personally not give in to that?

EK: There’s a couple ways I could answer that, and I get asked it all the time. One point I’d make is, journalists always deal with super depressing topics, or very often. One of my very first assignments for the New York Times was the Challenger disaster, to go to the homes of one of the astronauts who was blown up, and interview the family. That’s sort of what journalists do, that’s our calling I guess. We do things that people would consider icky and what we consider our job. And I think that the point I would make about these issues is that, is it really more depressing than covering the war in Syria? I don’t think it is, really, to be honest. Covering the war in Syria strikes me as way more horrifying on some level. I know people say that war reporters, oh that’s so depressing. I think that we see why you would need coverage of a war, and I hope people see why you would need to have coverage of an issue like this. Partly I could just say this is what I see as my job, and partly I could say, yeah, it is depressing, I don’t have an answer. I hope people are struck by it, and I hope it hits people where they live.


The rest of the interview will be in a future issue of RNCSE, so join now to get that in the mail, along with my review of the book. But these questions seem to have stuck with Kolbert through the interview, and she came back to them at the end when I asked if she had any final thoughts:

EK: The only point I want to make, and the point I try to make in the book, and I know it’s a difficult subject for educators, but as you say it’s a grim topic, and people may sort of shy away from it if they feel like “oh, I don’t have anything to tell these kids.” The answer to these stories. But I really think we’re doing our kids an incredible disservice if we don’t talk about things because they’re not so fun, and we continue to do them and to know them. So I think it’s really important that kids understand what’s going on. That’s certainly true of climate change. We’re not dealing with this problem by not talking about it, and not making kids aware of what’s going on. I think that’s pretty clear.