Five Questions for Elizabeth Kolbert
On Facing Up to the Sixth Extinction

17 Feb 2014

Elizabeth Kolbert's new book, The Sixth Extinction, focuses on one of the most troubling realities of our age: We are living in a period when, for only the sixth time in earth's history, the diversity of species is contracting suddenly and rapidly — but this time, we humans are the cause. Yale Environment 360 asked Kolbert, an e360 contributor and New Yorker staff writer, five questions about the book and what she discovered in reporting it.

1. Your first book focused on climate, and now your second book is focusing on species extinction. How is it that you went from one topic to the other?

Climate change is a huge issue, and yet even as I was writing about it, I kept bumping up against an even huger issue. Climate change turns out to be just one of a number of ways that humans are altering the planet on a geological scale. The unfortunate side effect of all these changes is extinction. So I sort of got sucked into extinction via global warming.

2. The loss of biodiversity, like climate change, is an issue that has been difficult to get most people, particularly Americans, to care about. Why do you think that is?

People often ask me: "Why should I care about extinction?" I have to say the question really astonishes me. No one would say, "Why should I care about the war in Syria?" (though it's probably the case that most Americans don't care about it all that much). Another reaction I've gotten is, "Oh, that's just too depressing; I don't want to hear about it." I'm amazed by this one, too. It seems to me that the lesson of
Five questions
Five Questions for Elizabeth Kolbert
Elizabeth Kolbert
the 20th century is that we really shouldn't turn away from depressing news just because there are more fun things to think about. The challenge of writing the book was trying to get members of both these groups at least to consider reading it!

3. You traveled all over the world reporting this book. What was your most exhilarating experience in the field? What was your most sobering experience?

Paradoxically, in writing about the scope of human impacts on the planet, I got to go to some of the most extraordinary — and, relatively speaking, untouched — places on the globe: the Amazon, the Manù National Park in Peru, the Great Barrier Reef. I think my most exhilarating experience was snorkeling on the reef. The profusion of life you see beneath you is just extraordinary — a shimmering world that really has no analog on land. Fish, sharks, rays, turtles, sea cucumbers the size of bolster cushions, giant clams that seem to leer up at you with painted lips.

The most sobering — or at least the most gruesome — was visiting Aeolus Cave, in Dorset, Vermont, not long after the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome arrived. The floor of the cave was a carpet of dead bats in various stages of decomposition. It was a bit like visiting a battlefield, only all of the casualties were five inches long.

4. Despite such a somber topic, you bring quite a few light touches and humor into this book. Was that your intention, and if so, why?

One of the paybacks for reading a book on a subject as somber as extinction is that usually at the end the author tells you: Here's how we're going to get out of this mess. I knew that I was not going to make that

Related Yale Environment 360 articles by Elizabeth Kolbert:

The Anthropocene Debate:
Marking Humanity’s Impact

At Edge of Peruvian Andes,
Tracking Impacts of Warming

In Aeolus Cave, A Search for the
Vanishing Bats of the Northeast

turn, so there had to be a different payback. Part of the payback for reading my book, I hope, is that readers will understand the world in a new way. But part of it, once again I should say I hope, is that it's just a good a read. And part of that is finding moments of comedy — dark comedy.

5. What, if anything, that you came across in your reporting gave you hope for the future of the earth's species?

People are incredibly resourceful. That's why we have this problem to begin with — people are constantly innovating, and the process produces change on a scale (and at a rate) that many other species can't cope with. If we brought our inventiveness to bear on the problem of extinction, it's possible that we could find ways to minimize our impact. The first step is recognizing that there's a problem — a very big and very serious one. Which gets back to your second question. If the book contributes to that recognition, I'll feel it's fulfilled its mission.


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