Elizabeth Kolbert

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert recent book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” suggests that not only are we are in the middle of the Earth’s latest calamatous mass extinction, but humans are probably the major factor in it happening. Colbert will speak at Williams College on April 23 about this.

The event’s organizer Sarah Gardner, of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College says that Kolbert is “one of the most important environmental writers of the day” and the perfect person to relate such an important and complicated subject.

“There’s no more important message for college students to hear right now: climate change is here, extinctions are happening, environmental changes are unfolding all around us, and the next generation is inheriting this environmental disaster,” Gardner said. “We hope today’s students will have the good sense to take these messages seriously, as our generation has failed to do, and that they will make saving life on this planet their generational priority.”

Kolbert’s book has the journalist travelling around the globe, visiting researchers as part of an eyewitness account of the unfolding natural apocalypse. This is science as current events, reporting from the scene as if it were the middle of a war or the aftermath of an earthquake, but also an effort to frame the crisis alongside the planet’s past and fashion a history of all life, rather than just human life.

“I’d like people to come away with a pretty long view of the history of the world, the history of life and how it’s had several major crises,” Kolbert said. “What’s happening now is analogous to these great crises and the history of life, and those are a very, very hot, as it were, topic of research precisely for that reason, precisely because of what’s going on now. People are very interested in figuring out why life very nearly collapses at various moments.”

It’s not a cheerful subject, though Kolbert’s well-humored enough that the book doesn’t continually pummel the reader’s spirits. Still, the larger point can be gloomy, even hopeless, and Kolbert says it’s valid to read the book that way. The event is still unfolding, so Kolbert is unable to offer a positive turn at her book’s end.

“This is a sad story,” she said. “In the case of this story, we — and I use that term very, very broadly, all of us, every single one of us, depending on how many people there have been on the planet for the last several hundred years, or several thousand years even — we all have a teeny bit of the blame.”

It’s also a story that features as its center the historical capacity of man to destroy his habitat. Climate change is just the latest version of a common theme. Research shows that when humans arrived in new places, large animals disappeared, as well as other humans that already inhabited the land.

“It seems pretty clear that they had a very significant effect on large animals that we just don’t have anymore in North America,” Kolbert said. “There used to be a lot of really big animals on this continent, so, I don’t think we can say it’s just a product of modernity. Modernity is ratcheting everything up astronomically, slowly but surely. These extinctions, they were very slow in terms of human lifetimes, over many, many generations, but in terms of the history of life, they were still very fast.”

The book brings up questions of how much longer humans have on this Earth, of what the future holds, but Kolbert is clear that looking ahead is not the point.

“We don’t have to look into the future is the point I’m sadly making,” she said. “We can just look around us right now. One of the real major points of the book is if you can see this stuff happening, if you can see a mammal, an amphibian, ten mammals, ten amphibians, hundreds, going extinct in the course of a human lifetime, something very, very unusual in the history of life is going on.”

“I actually think none of us can fathom the scope. We live in one place and see only a very small part of the world at any given time. I don’t even want to claim that I fathom the scope. I think the best that you can do is try to get people thinking about things in new ways.”

While it’s impossible to answer how far this will go, it’s easier to predict in a societal landscape that too often promotes the acceptance of data over personal feelings.

“In general, if you tell someone something about astrophysics or dark matter, they don’t say, ‘well, my gut tells me that’s not true, so it’s not true,’” Kolbert said. “Somehow in these environmental issues people can follow their gut in this decision and it just doesn’t turn out to be the case. Is the problem scientific literacy, or is the problem of psychology that we trust our sense and our own daily experiences in ways that are not reliable, and that often people are not willing to look at the scientific evidence and make really informed judgments?”

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