Interview: Elizabeth Kolbert

Release Date: 09-14-2010

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Email: joshua.brown@uvm.edu
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Elizabeth Kolbert

(Photo: Donald Usner)

"It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself," concludes Elizabeth Kolbert's slim volume, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, "but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, spoke at the University of Vermont on Sept. 16 about some of the deeper currents and causes of global warming -- and what might be done to set a different course.

Her book grew out of a remarkable three-part series in The New Yorker, "The Climate of Man," that won numerous awards, including the 2006 National Magazine Award for Public Interest and the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award.

To write the book, Kolbert traveled around the world -- including a car tour with Burlington's then-mayor Peter Clavelle -- talking with scientists, politicians, policy experts, and many other people. The result: a sometimes wry, highly accessible, and terrifyingly sober portrait of the impacts and engines of human-caused climate change.

UVM Today spoke with Elizabeth Kolbert last week. We wanted to hear what she had to say about climate change in the age of Obama, her next book, and her backyard bees.

UVM Today: I just finished reading one of your articles about the demise of honeybees. We have chickens in our backyard and our kids want us to get bees. Have any advice for us?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Do you have bears? If you have bears, I have to warn you.

No bears in downtown Burlington -- yet. But how are your bees?

My bees are badly. They did not survive last winter. I didn't get new bees. It's a long story that has to do with having to hang my beehives from a tree. In the winter, it seems to be too cold and windy up there. One of the lessons is that the honeybees we raise are not native to this part of the world.

But it's not just non-native bees dying; it's our native bats too. I was working on this article about white-nose syndrome and how all the bats are dying from it in Aeolus Cave and I came across your haunting "Postcard from Vermont" article about the same place and the dead bats.

Aeolus is such a sad, sad story. I guess I'll go back again this year to the cave. It's an extinction disaster in real-time.

So many species are on the brink or blinking out. You're working on a book about extinction. Tell us about that.

Extinction is a recent concept -- it's older than the idea of evolution, but not much. There were a lot of intellectual battles at the beginning, when the concept was introduced. It got tied up in the same arguments that evolution did and then extinction emerges in a Darwinian model as a slow, incremental process.

But what we've learned subsequently is that there are moments in earth's history where very large extinctions happen suddenly in geologic terms. That's probably the best analogy to what we have happening right now. Many scientists argue that we are going through a very significant extinction event that will look virtually instantaneous to future geologists -- if there are geologists in the future.

So that is what the book is about: an intellectual history of extinction while at the same time coming to understand our present situation through that lens.

David Quammen's classic article, "Planet of Weeds" opens with this line: "hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt." Where do you come down on that as a journalist writing about climate change and extinction?

It's become a cliché to say: "things are a disaster but there is still time and there is still hope." I think that we really need to face up to things in a stark way and stop kidding ourselves. Not that there isn't hope -- there is -- but the message is: things are very -- very -- serious. I don't think that message has gotten out.

So what are the sources of hope?

People have faced great challenges in the past and it seems possible that we're capable of facing them again, but I would argue that we're not capable of facing them if we're not even willing to face up to what they are.

I had a chance to interview the New York Times' climate change reporter, Andy Revkin, two years ago. He was, of course, deeply concerned, but he also seemed sympathetic to the perspective that the human condition keeps improving and that part of the pessimism of environmentalism is a failure of imagination.

These are the big questions of our time and I don't pretend to have a crystal ball. I'm not a climate scientist; I'm not a geologist; I just play one on TV! But if you talk to these people, which is what I spend my work-life doing, they will tell you that it's very hard to find an analogy in the last half-billion years of what we are doing releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

We're turning back the geological clock to a state which, climate-wise, our species -- which is a very new species -- has never experienced. The best you can say is that all bets are off.

On the question of whether the human condition will keep improving: that's the fallacy of inferring the future from the past. Look at stock picks. We don't know that the future will look like the past. That's precisely to assume what is at issue.

Certainly you can say that material conditions for many people -- I wouldn't necessarily say most -- have improved. You can argue whether these material conditions are the most relevant things, but life expectancy and caloric intake have improved dramatically in recent centuries. But that is a very species-centric view. They have not dramatically improved for most other species on the planet.

Yes, oceanographer Jeremy Jackson writes about the once-fantastical populations of whales, manatees, sea cows, monk seals, dugongs, crocodiles, sharks. For example, sea turtle populations were in the tens of millions just a few centuries ago. Now we consider healthy baseline populations to be tens of thousands -- forgetting that deeper history.

If you took a manatee-centric view, the last few hundred years would look very, very grim. Going forward, the question of whether our, human, future is tied to these other species -- or not -- is the open question.

It's entirely possible that we could decimate many other species -- and we already have -- and go on pretty much as we have. It's also entirely possible that things we take for granted -- what we call, in a rather bland way, "ecosystem services" -- things like food and water filtration -- that those will collapse in ways that we do not anticipate. These are questions. To blithely assume that we know the answer is to be playing a risky game.

Freeman Dyson is a liberal, a famous physicist -- and a climate change skeptic. I've been mulling over something he said: "the purpose of thinking about the future is to not to predict it, but to raise people's hopes." I didn't know quite what to make of his thought, but it seemed a piece of that humbling realization that we can't predict the future very well.

It does get into a metaphysical realm. You can take a radically skeptical view: look, we're really bad at predicting the future, let's give up and not try. And that's sort of what he's saying, ironically, even though he's a scientist.

His view is that these climate models are useless, they're just gunk. But that's an extreme-minority view within the community of people who actually have looked at the models and what they predict and what we actually see in the world. The models have really been quite astonishingly accurate. Not completely accurate, but certainly accurate, which is amazing, considering how complicated the climate system is.

Some scientists have known about the greenhouse effect since the 1850s. The mainstream of the scientific community has known about climate change since the 1970's. Now we have some 1300 scientists in the IPCC and many others pouring out thousands of points of evidence that the planet is heating -- fast -- and yet seemingly intelligent people have serious skepticism. And the skepticism seems to be growing even as the data becomes more incontrovertible. Why?

That's an interesting question and I can't answer that. Is it that what we know is actually too disturbing and we find ways around it? Or is it the fact that climate change is relatively complicated and there have been well-documented attempts to obfuscate what is known? That's a mass psychology question that is hard for me to answer.

OK. Tell me about things that are making you feel optimistic about our response to climate change.

I specifically set out to do a piece about solutions. I ended up on an island in Denmark on an inland sea where they have succeeded in going carbon-neutral. It's pretty much all done with wind. It's a very windy part of the world. They had gone about it in a rigorous, but folksy, way. It was inspiring.

What about the United States?

There is shocking little you can point to that is inspiring. You could say that I just don't know enough of what is going on and that's quite possible. Your own hometown is inspiring. There was a lot of energy a couple of years ago. I wrote a chapter in my book called "Burlington, Vermont."

I read that chapter.

You tell me: what's happening in Burlington now?

A lot of great things. You visited the Intervale. The statistic bandied about is that 8 percent of the produce eaten in Burlington comes from fields and gardens in the Intervale. There are many efforts to live lighter on the land here. In the 90's, I wrote a booklet for Peter Clavelle, the mayor who you toured around with, about all the sustainability efforts happening in Burlington -- it was fifty pages long! Many of these efforts continue. But the climate impact of our entire city's efforts -- walk to work, grow local vegetables, promote efficient buildings, produce low-carbon electricity -- are blotted out by a few seconds of growth in the Chinese economy.

Right. I don't want to say that people have reached the limit of local efforts, because that's not true, but people feel like they are fighting such an uphill battle. It's obvious that, when we look at the climate numbers, we need something big: at the very least national and, really, international.

When I was working at Wild Earth magazine, we published an article that argued that we need the ecological equivalent to the abolitionist movement to give rise to an environmental Lincoln. Some people thought Obama might be that. What do you think?

People had high hopes. People thought: we need to move onto a national level and we elected Barack Obama. Obama put in high places people like John Holdren and Stephen Chu and Lisa Jackson who clearly understand climate change as well as any people in this country. Something is going to happen, right? And then nothing happened. It's very hard to sustain the energy when nothing happens.

Most journalists, if they're working at all, are laboring in anonymity. So it was interesting when I was talking this morning with Warren Cornwall who used to be an environment reporter for the Seattle Times, and he said, "Elizabeth Kolbert: she's become a rock star." What's it like to be a prominent journalist?

The words "prominent journalist" and "print", these days, are almost contradictory! I'm flattered to hear you say that, but the work is the same. You call up people and you go and interview them. The nature of the beast doesn't change. Writing is hard. And that, tragically, stays the same. It's only harder in a lot of ways. Once you make a point, no one wants to hear that point again. You have to come up with a different story. That's what journalism is: we're always looking for a new story. And that hasn't gotten any easier.

There are tens of thousands of journalists out of work. So what do you say to a bright college freshman who says: "I want to be an environmental journalist"?

It's a little bit like the state of the planet: is there hope? I don't know what the future of journalism will be like. Everyone is trying to peer into the future and no one knows what it's going to be. But I was a judge last year for the John Oakes Award which is given out of Columbia for environmental writing -- and there was a lot of good work being published in different ways. So I know that it's possible to do important work -- and I also know how hard it is to get a job and to get it funded.

Take me into your thoughts about the craft. My friend Dave Foreman calls environment the "e-word." He'd say: "it's this godawful abstract word, popularized by bureaucrats and assistant professors." He'd talk about needing to love mountains and swamps -- not environments. You're a writer. How do you wrestle with the problems of abstraction like "environment" or "sustainability" or those kinds of bloodless words?

That gets back to having to find stories. That's the job of a magazine reporter: to find things that will bring these issues alive. The challenges are no different from any other kind of science journalism or policy journalism. How do you bring health care policy alive? The problem is not unique to environmental journalism. There is a saying around The New Yorker: that's an issue, that's not a story.

On one end of a spectrum you have people like James Lovelock saying the carrying capacity of the planet is maybe a billion people and we're way over. And on the other end, you have people like Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University who are technological optimists, saying, nine billion, no problem.

As Ed Wilson has put it: our reproductive pattern over the last couple hundred years has been more bacterial than primate. Even if you are the most insane optimist on the planet, you cannot have exponential growth forever. You do reach a Malthusian moment. Malthus has been much derided, but he was onto something. If you're adding another billion every decade or so, how long can you sustain that?

I think we can agree that we'd all like to get through this bottleneck, this moment when we have too many people on the planet, doing the least amount of damage possible to other human beings and to the planet. To be sustainable in the long-term, the population probably has to be significantly lower than it is today. Are we going to get there in some way that you want your kids to grow up through? I can't answer that.

So what do you tell your children? You've reviewed kids' books; you've got kids at home. What do you tell them?

It might sound weird, but I don't tell them that much. They absorb certain things and ignore certain things. My oldest is 16. He's very conscious. I have twins, 12, and they're in their own world. I don't sit them down and say, hey, this is the future of the world.

I once spoke to economist Herman Daly about being a grandparent. He didn't know what the world was going to be like any better than anybody else, but he sure thought it was going to be lot hotter and more dangerous for his grandkids than what he grew up in.

That's a pretty safe bet.

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