University of Vermont

The Honors College

Eliabeth Kolbert Plenary Lecture - September 2010

Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Elizabeth Kolbert's book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change might not be the first book you would think to put on your summer reading list. Excellent and engaging though this book is, its look at the incontrovertible proof that the planet is warming might not make the "feel-good" list. But at least 160 people did read the book this summer as they prepared for their first-year Honors College seminar, "The Pursuit of Knowledge." And those same 160 people, now fully vested students of UVM's class of 2014, together with dozens of people from the greater campus community and beyond, showed up to hear the author of the book speak about climate change on September 16 at the Music Recital Hall as the Honors College's Plenary Lecture Series (part of the first-year seminar) got underway this fall.

Kolbert has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1999. She worked at the New York Times before coming to the New Yorker and her familiarity with the New York political and media scene is evident in her first book, The Prophet of Love, a collection of her profiles of New York public figures. Field Notes, the book that all of the Honors College first-year students read over the summer, grew out of a three-part series in the New Yorker called the "Climate of Man." This series won many awards, including the 2006 National Magazine Award for Public Interest and the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award.

Kolbert's lecture was also part of the Zeltzerman Lecture Series. The lecture is named for Michael Zeltzerman, who was a graduate student at UVM. His parents, Dr. and Mrs. Morris Zeltzerman, established the lecture in 1966 in memory of their son to continue a tradition of inquiry in which Michael had been very interested. This is the relation of science to other areas of knowledge concerning people as individuals or societies, or, the other way around, in the development of sociological and humanistic ideas in the world of science. And it is hard to imagine a topic that more urgently represents the shared discourse of science and the humanities than Kolbert's work on climate change.

In her lecture, Kolbert speculated about whether we might be entering into a new geological age, the anthropocene, a geological event characterized by what climate scientists refer to as D.A.I.: dangerous anthrogenic interference. As she led us through various climate models (speculative models based on hard science, but often disputed by climate skeptics) and then the hard recent data that points to some of the worst-case scenarios and the fact that the climate models may have been even too conservative (as in the case of the melting of the arctic ice cap, for instance), Kolbert's message that there are no excuses for inaction anymore became chillingly clear. It was only slightly heartening to be listening to her diagnosis in Burlington, a city that gets high marks from her - and an entire chapter in the book - for making decisions about sustainability through a conviction that local action can make a difference. From the city's far-reaching philosophy of recycling (even buildings are recycled - or "deconstructed" - in Burlington), to the Intervale Food Hub, Burlington is a constantly evolving example of how much one community can accomplish through local action.

Has Burlington found the silver bullet? The answer is quite obviously no, for the problem, Kolbert reminded us, is much much bigger than Burlington. Kolbert didn't offer any solutions; as a reporter, she doesn't see that as her role. Her warning is dire, though, as the last lines of Field Notes attest to: "As the effects of global warming become more and more difficult to ignore, will we react by finally fashioning a global response? Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest? It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

University Communications - Interview with Elizabeth Kobert

Last modified October 01 2010 08:39 AM