Ten Minutes with Elizabeth Kolbert
Pulitzer Prize-winning poetic activist
Photo by Joanna Chattman
Elizabeth Kolbert makes no claims to predict the future. But the soft-spoken author, who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt, 2014), has a firm grasp on the trajectory of destruction that human “progress” and policies are imposing on the planet. Kolbert is an environmental fellow-in-residence and teaches at Williams College. Despite her seemingly faraway demeanor, she is a compelling voice for the countless amphibians, birds, mammals, and flora that have gone into extinction.
Let’s jump right into this. Donald Trump. How do scientists and environmentalists and people who are concerned about the planet negotiate the next four years of climate-change denial?
It’s going to be very tough on all fronts. I think the courts are going to play a huge role. One avenue that may be powerful is a legal strategy. Another avenue is being focused on state policy. Trump can’t just undo what Obama did, but unfortunately the best that we can probably hope for is a kind of stasis. At the same time, there is a moral imperative to move forward. We have to. This is the last gasp for the fossil industry, but we are running out of time. It’s a really serious fight for the future of energy.
It feels like there is a huge disconnect between the environmental movement and the-social justice movement right now. Can they find common ground?
I do think that there is an unfortunate division. Achieving social justice will not be possible in a world convulsed in ecological disaster. People need to see the totality of these issues. I see these things as inseparable. It’s unfortunate that it’s become so divisive.
Former President Barack Obama mentioned your book as essential reading in a recent New York Times interview. What does that say to you?
I was very excited to see it. Obama had The Sixth Extinction on his summer reading list in 2015, and I like to think that in some small way it influenced his thinking. Over the last several months, he put a huge amount of land—and sea—under protection, which is so important in fighting extinction.
What is really poignant about your book is that in your extensive research across the globe, there is this very active community of people—fisherman, scientists, outliers—who are working to save what’s left, down to little frogs. Are you still in contact with them?
I’ve definitely kept up with a bunch of people who are in the book. Unfortunately, I could add many new chapters. The scale of what’s going on is so massive. Just in the two years since the book’s been published, so many species that we love have been found to be in danger. I just saw the other day a report that now giraffes are in peril. Giraffes! Things take their toll in ways we can’t conceive.
Do you miss being out in the field doing research?
I do. The book took me about three to four years to write. It was just amazing. Better than being on vacation. You have to be very observant and you get to go to places that tourists rarely go.
Any places you’d like to revisit? Before they disappear as we know them?
The Andes. It was otherworldly. There are still parts of the Andes that are extremely remote. It takes hours and hours to get 50 miles. It’s spectacular.
There is so much talk about climate change that people have become almost apathetic. How do you define climate change?
People are numb to it, I think that’s part of the problem. We think that when it gets bad enough someone will do something about it. But there’s no going back on this. Climate change is essentially pushing the system into a whole new state. The process will continue for thousands of years. Don’t think that when Florida is under water, you can bail it out.
Do you think it’s futile to recycle and be energy efficient?
We are very extravagant in how we lead our lives. I never hold myself as an exemplar. I participate in and benefit from modern life. I live in a house that’s attached to the grid—it’s solar powered so that’s good—but I definitely lead a middle class, 21st-century American life, and it’s very energy-intensive. We in the U.S. have such a huge responsibility. We have a role to play in the world. One of the many unfair things is that the people who are feeling the first effects of climate change are the ones who have contributed least to it.
In your book, there is a sense of sadness, and rightfully so, for the creatures that have been lost in this sixth extinction. Any in particular that you mourn?
The great auk, of course. And recently, this frog that I had seen in captivity when I was researching the book, it died. It was the last one of its species, the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. This was super, super sad to me.
I know there is a joking element to the zombie apocalypse, but are we humans the zombies? Are we the parasites that won’t stop?
Obviously we are a huge force on the planet. I guess you could say we are sucking the life out of things, so maybe in that sense we are the zombies. But we don’t really have the excuse zombies do, which is that they are dead.