BOOK TALK on Willinet
Host, Tela Zasloff
What was the initial impulse that launched you into this book?
My first book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, was about climate change. People commented that I neglected a big aspect of what carbon emissions are doing: We’re throwing up into the atmosphere about 10 billion metric tons of carbon per year. A lot of it stays up there, creating global warming, but a lot of it also is absorbed by the oceans, causing what is called ocean acidification. That was left out of the first book because I didn’t know about it, so that became one strand—that climate change is only one of the ways that people are changing the planet on what geologists call a geological scale.
The immediate impetus was a story I wrote about frogs, which has become known as an amphibian crisis—amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the world’s most threatened species. About 35-40% of all amphibian species are classified as endangered so I went out to Panama to write a piece about that. Amphibian scientists, herpetologists, were referring to that large percentage of threatened species as being part of the present Sixth Extinction, also called the Anthropocene era, meaning that it’s based in the activity of human beings. That was a new term to me and what started me off. I worked on this book for 4 ½ years.
Looking back at your own life and career, what formed your interest in nature, the environment, the evolution of life?
We used to go out West when I was a kid and I think it does go back to some of those experiences in the Rockies, which made a big impression on me. When I was working in Albany as NYTimes Bureau Chief, I was writing about environmental issues, although mainly from a political standpoint. When I went to The New Yorker in 1999, I started writing about climate change, because of personal interests and what was going on in the world. This led me down the path of focusing on science reporting, rather than political reporting
What places in the world did you go to, to do your field research? How were you able to take all the physical challenge of these trips—into caves, through dangerous jungles, climbing mountains, entering mines?
I went to Panama, Iceland, Italy (off coast of Naples), France (Paris), Germany, the Amazon (Brazil), Peru, Australia (Great Barrier Reef). In the Bay of Naples, the scientists I met were looking into the future of acidification of the oceans, in this case caused by underwater volcanic vents pouring carbon dioxide into the water from below. Just circling this one small island, you could actually see differences between one side of the water around the edge, and the other side, depending on the degree of acidification caused by these vents, how species dropped away. It was freezing water, the coldest I’ve ever been in my life!
I was never very brave, as anyone in Williamstown will tell you. People warn you—and when you’re in a mine, for example, it IS dangerous—when you’re out in the field, you hear plenty of stories of people who met bad ends, but I was with people who were very experienced. I did get the usual stomach things in several places, but nothing very exotic. For field researchers, there are parasitic diseases you can get that are very nasty.
Would you explain some of the important concepts about extinction that you cover in the book? I’m particularly interested in the importance of rate of extinction, size of habitat, and size of the animal.
Rate matters. It’s what we’re doing to an unprecedented level in this Anthropocene age. If you look at how quickly average temperatures are changing now, you can calculate, a very crude calculation, how fast a creature would have to move to keep up with the isotherm, the average temperature for any one area. It will be slightly different tomorrow, and a year from now, significantly different. So it comes to many miles a year a creature has to travel toward the poles to keep up with the temperature, if you were calculating simply on flat land. And if you were going up a mountain, that’s another way to track the climate change, at different elevations.
In walking past an exposed face of rock, we could track many, many tens of millions of years because the rock, which was originally underwater, had been uplifted and tilted by the time of the dinosaurs, and those layers had been compressed. So just walking along a road cut, you’re moving along many millions of years of geological history.
Size of habitat matters, too. It can become too small to sustain certain species. And one thing that is fairly obvious statistically is that small populations are vulnerable—to accidents, to bad luck, a hurricane, a bad year. So if you have a small population in an isolated area, you could end up with offspring of only one sex, for example, so then you’re doomed. That is exactly what the experiment I visited in Brazil showed. There is now clearing of a lot of land in the Amazon, for ranching. An American scientist went down there and convinced the Brazilian government to preserve these rectilinear, forested plots of different sizes to do an experiment on what happens when the habitat is reduced. Before the forests around these plots were cut down, they did a careful census of what was in them. Then they found that the bigger the preserved plot, the longer the species lasted, but all of the plots started to lose diversity. The big animals who needed a bigger range couldn’t survive—a lot of the monkeys, a lot of the peccaries—
On the size of the animal: Elephants are vulnerable to extinction for at least two reasons: They need a big range, so a shrunken habitat becomes dangerous for their survival. Equally important is their very long reproductive cycle—It takes 22 months to produce one baby elephant. And if you are producing only one baby infrequently, an elephant—which is a pretty long-lived animal—finds it hard to keep up with an elevated mortality rate, caused mostly by poaching. So many of the species that we humans have killed off, have been very large animals. True of large birds also, like the giant Moa that once lived in New Zealand.
I was reluctant to begin this book because I thought it would be too depressing. But I was surprised, once I began reading. It is fascinating, even exhilarating because, I concluded, scientific inquiry itself is exhilarating. Not comforting but enlightening and enriching to our sensitivities toward all life. I have these words from Einstein taped on the kitchen wall: “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Did you feel that while writing it?
I hope that one of the things that comes through in the book, and that definitely comes through when you’re out there with these men and women—I was mostly with biologists, conservation biologists, marine biologists—they’re out there because they are fascinated with the extraordinary forms life has taken and are very concerned about what they see happening in the field. But I hope that what’s happening to this amazing diversity, which is especially the case in the tropics where a lot of the book takes place, comes through in the book from both sides—the extraordinariness of the world we live in, and also the fragility of it. The extraordinary part is exhilarating, and beautiful and marvelous, and the fragility part is sad, that we are agents of the unraveling of this diversity and making it go very, very quickly. That’s the basic point of the book.
I did have writerly ups and downs, how to fit pieces together to make the book work the way I wanted, one chapter building on another. The organization was determined by the sequence of ideas I wanted to introduce and also chronologically according to the intellectual history, like starting with key discoveries in Paris in the 19th century, the mastodon discoveries and the various conclusions scientists came to over the generations. This question gets inside my own head–Why did I choose things the way I did? I can’t entirely answer that.
It seems to me that you move from the amphibians, a species at an evolutionary distance from us, to the mammals we feel closest to. The chapter I found the most affecting, and the saddest, was the bats. For eight summers my husband and I and our four little girls lived in Sylvia Harper’s house here in Williamstown and quietly, without disturbing them, we watched the bat families, older and younger, who roosted between the attic windows and the storm windows on the third floor, and came out every night to catch the mosquitoes. Then the white nose fungus started endangering our local bats. Is it your conclusion, in working with bat experts in the Albany area, that this fungus was human-transported?
Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. Nowadays they can do these fast and quite precise genome sequencing of a fungus. It probably came from Europe, surely inadvertently. Someone went into a cave—we don’t even know what cave. You can watch how diseases spread—a classic spreading bullseye pattern in epidemiology—and you can trace this one spreading out from Albany. We here in western Mass and in Vermont were affected right away, in a year or two. And now I just read a piece that it’s spread all the way to Oklahoma. Eventually, it gets to parts of the country where bats don’t hibernate, so it’s not so dangerous in those areas—as you said, it’s a cold-loving bacteria.
What got me started on bats was a New Yorker article years ago, by Diane Ackerman, about watching millions of bats fly out at dusk from a very large cave in Texas and the strong efforts to preserve bats worldwide of biologist Merlin Tuttle. I enthusiastically joined Bat Conservation International and was sent a medal that now hangs over my desk. Bats are our only flying mammals, aren’t they?
Yes, unless you want to count Flying Squirrels. And there are sometimes discussions among scientists about whether bats truly fly. But there are a lot of bats of many varieties, all the way from flying foxes with a large wing span to little tiny ones.
When we were in Sri Lanka, staying at a motel along a river, at dusk I noticed these large black men’s umbrellas hanging from trees on the opposite bank. Then they all slowly, magically opened and darted over the river for the next few hours, catching millions of mosquitoes. I’ll never forget it.
Talking about your style of writing, some readers (including Jon Stewart) comment that you are funny at times, and laughable, which eases the burden of reading the substance with its message of loss. But I wouldn’t describe it that way. I think your metaphors—like your description of a crustacean as looking like a soccer ball with woven baskets fixed to its outside—these descriptions are helpful and homey, so that the reader understands clearly how things look. But I would say the book is a unique combination of being exhilarating, because of all the knowledge we’re getting about life, and deeply sad and ironic. And irony can be very sad. The main irony is, as you’ve said many times, that the unique capacities we have as humans, enable us to both control and understand our world, but also to destroy it.
I would like to read the last paragraph of the book and then ask you about it:
“Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human—some of my best friends are human!—I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have–or have not—inherited the earth.”
Since this is your conclusion—which isn’t tying everything up in a neat bow, and should not be—do you have any hopes of remedying this extinction direction we’re going in, with the other side of our human nature—like love, kindness, caring, altruism, I am my brother’s keeper?
I actually think that one of the real complexities turns out to be that one of the characteristics that we tend to value in ourselves, our empathy for other humans, potentially conflict with our relationship to the non-human world because at the heart of the matter is the fact that we humans consume so much of the world’s resources. If you think about that in a simplistic way—which is not essentially inaccurate—we can’t consume so much of the world’s resources and not affect other beings that need those same resources to survive. So I think the central question–a question that all environmental writing, that Rachel Carson asks and that everyone has asked in different ways, that I’m asking again—is, can we all live and survive on earth.
You know, there are 7.3 billion humans on earth right now, and we’re heading pretty clearly toward at least 9 billion. Can we live in a way that allows other species to persist? Right now the evidence is not too good, and unfortunately some of the fundamental values we have, like feeding the 9 billion people that we’ll have in this century by destroying the rain forests, mono-culture farming–This is very dangerous for anything that depends on a diverse ecosystem. So there are a lot of choices to be made and certainly the impetus for my writing this book was to bring those choices into consciousness because I think right now we’re making those choices unthinkingly, unwittingly, which is certain to lead quickly to a very bad future. Of course bringing them into consciousness doesn’t immediately present an answer. There are a lot of competing values here, competing interests. But at least we need to step up to the plate and acknowledge what the choices are.
That reminds me of another New Yorker article you recently wrote, which is not completely uninvolved with this same question. You talk about going to Berlin to witness a German project to put memorial plaques at the front of the residencies formerly owned by Jews who were taken to concentration camps by the Nazis. Your great-grandmother was one of them, and she died in Auschwitz. This was another kind of threatened mass extinction, engineered by humans. You ended that article with a question–that it’s been so long since these events happened, that we’ve been putting Nazis on trial for decades—you ask, what’s the benefit of doing this kind of memorializing now?
I think some of the themes are the same, in the sense that this project putting memorial plaques in the ground in Berlin, is important–what the Germans are doing with this project and its spread to other countries–because it acknowledges that something horrific happened. I think that is also part of what clearly motivated me to write this book: We have to acknowledge what was going on in the past. I’m not saying we can solve it or reverse it, but we have to acknowledge it. That’s always the first step to taking any action to minimize the damage. The two stories are very different kinds of tragedies, but they both have that crossing.
The reason I’m asking is, I wrote a book on a French pastor, described by Holocaust scholars as a Christian rescuer, who saved hundreds of people from the Nazis–Pastor Pierre Charles Toureille, whose son Marc lives here in Williamstown. I was interested in the altruistic impulse that’s part of our human makeup, and wanted to ask why this rescuer, in constant danger to himself, his family and the people who worked for him—kept going throughout the war, with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. It reminds me of the doctor in Camus’ La Peste (which Camus wrote during the Nazi occupation of France) who says, despite there being no apparent hope in his keeping people alive when so many are dying of plague, he still has to keep treating them, trying to save them. Whether this kind of altruism is the more dominant in human nature, than our active destruction of life, I suppose depends on one’s personal point of view and beliefs. I get the impression that you think it’s late for turning around our destruction of the earth.
Well, it’s obviously late for everything that’s been lost, and it’s too late for those lost species. It’s late for thousands of species that are just clinging to existence right now, but we do still live in a very diverse world—there are millions of species out there we haven’t even named yet. So where are we right now? Is it five minutes to midnight, is it 11:30? I can’t say. But the important thing for us to realize is that the scale of changes going on now, with climate change and ocean acidification, are close to being unprecedented. They have happened before only at a few moments of real crisis in the history of life. It’s definitely within the realm of the possible that, within this century, we could precipitate a crisis on the scale of these massive extinctions of the past. But we always have choices to make. There are always degrees of disaster. So I don’t think we ever have the option of saying, “It’s too late. Nothing can be done.” It’s too late for some, but not for others.
[Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Prophet of Love: And Other Tales of Power and Deceit. She lives in Williamstown, with her husband and three children.]