A year ago, I had a chance to interview New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert about her book The Sixth Extinction. As I said in my review for Reports of NCSE, it’s a remarkable book, thoughtful, deeply-reported, and passionate. I wrote:
Throughout this unflinching exploration of extinctions past and present, Kolbert delivers a thrilling, intriguing, and loving narrative, with insightful and engaging portraits of scientists at work. Her ability to meld history and science with vivid nature writing, vibrant personalities, and vigorous adventures lets readers place today’s extinctions into a broad context: that of an Anthropocene epoch defined by the destruction of many lineages and homogenization of the world’s remaining biota. Her stark assessment of what is happening and who is causing it makes it impossible to put down The Sixth Extinction until the final meditation on humanity’s geological and evolutionary legacy.
Apparently the Pulitzer Prize Board saw things similarly, since they awarded The Sixth Extinction a Pulitzer for General Nonfiction.
The first involves the challenge of writing about something like extinction, which although a global crisis, moves too slowly to make frequent headlines. As Kolbert explained:
[Such stories] are particularly an affliction of our time, where people are causing phenomena that will have very long-lasting, for all intents permanent effects, without even being aware of it, and yet it’s not like an explosion or ferry accident, or the horror of the day that arrests everyone’s attention and gets wall to wall coverage. … The timescale, the scale of the issue, are all sort of incommensurate with the news cycle, and I think there are a lot of us out there in the journalistic world, in the scientific world, trying to figure out how do you deal with that problem. And I certainly don’t want to claim that I have the answer.
Her solution was to tell the stories of current efforts to prevent extinctions, as in the chapter available as an excerpt on NCSE’s website, to explore situations where the risk of extinction is so broad as to render it unstoppable, and to describe the research into both why extinctions happen at all and how mass extinctions in particular played out in the past.
The second challenge is the mismatch between the enormous scale of the problem and the individual actions any one person can undertake. Kolbert points out that in certain instances, there is even a mismatch between the scale of the problem and the combined ingenuity and actions of all humanity. She writes that the intense efforts under way to save species, or to preserve their tissues for later cloning, are laudable and “could be invoked as a reason for optimism,” adding “And if this were a different kind of book, I would.” But the sixth extinction can’t be stopped. At best we can prevent a handful of extinctions and adapt society to the loss of many others.
In the interview, I asked how she decided to take that stark perspective, and she explained that, after laying out the “massive geological scale” and the host of related issues connected to extinction:
I felt I couldn’t sort of suddenly turn around and say, “So now that you’ve gotten to the end of this book, you see that this is an enormous issue, and it’s an issue that has very long roots, and here are the five things we need to do to fix it.” I think people realize that the two don’t add up. I think that is often what’s expected at the end of an environmental book, but I also think it is a disservice to my readers, for whom I have great respect. If I knew how to solve all these problems, I would tell you; it’s not like I’m hiding something—
JR: And you’d have various Nobel Prizes on your bookshelf.
EK: Exactly, so the idea that a journalist is going to tell you how to solve the most massive problem in the history of humanity—arguably—just doesn’t seem plausible, and I’ve never read that solution. I’ve never read the ten-point plan that seemed to me that it was going to solve all these problems simultaneously. So I felt like I need to be a little bit … I wasn’t going to make that turn. And I had to tell the reader I wasn’t going to make that turn. And I think that many were probably upset, to be honest. “I read all this way and I expected the answer and you didn’t give it to me.” But unfortunately that’s the situation we’re in.
She returned to the theme later, explaining why it’s still important to discuss these issues even if they are scary or depressing:
I really think we’re doing our kids an incredible disservice if we don’t talk about things because they’re not so fun. It’s really important that kids understand what’s going on. That’s certainly true of climate change. We’re not dealing with this problem by not talking about it, and not making kids aware of what’s going on. I think that’s pretty clear.
This brutal honesty pervades her writing, making her and her readers a witness to these crises, and bringing those crises into stark immediacy, and does so without merely becoming a depressing litany of horrors from around the world. She loves the people and projects she profiles, and the natural world she helps her reader explore, and that love shines through even as she mourns the imminent or actual loss of species like the Great Auk or the Little Brown Bat. Little wonder that the Pulitzer citation praises the book as: “an exploration of nature that forces readers to consider the threat posed by human behavior to a world of astonishing diversity.”