Elizabeth Kolbert: 'The whole world is becoming a kind of zoo'
The American environmental journalist on how humanity is wiping out our fellow creatures… and one species she'd choose to bring back
Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, which argues that a catastrophe that may be as significant as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is under way around us. But whereas the previous five mass extinctions were caused by natural phenomena, Kolbert shows us that this one is manmade. One third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds, says Kolbert, "are heading towards oblivion".
When did you first hear the phrase the Sixth Extinction, and how did it become the subject of your book?
Not that long ago. I read a paper in the National Academy of Sciences that set me down this whole road. That came out in 2008 and it was called Are We In the Midst of The Sixth Extinction? That was sort of the beginning of this whole project. Then I wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "The Sixth Extinction?" , and it involved amphibian-hunting in Panama. I knew I hadn't scratched the surface, that there was a book there.
Your previous writing on climate change met with scepticism. Do you think this broader approach might have a more engaged reception?
Climate change, especially in the US, has been extraordinarily politicised, and that is a real barrier to getting people to even think about the issue. The other issues in the book, which are all contributing to this mass extinction – invasive species and ocean acidification – have not been politicised. But acidification is completely the same phenomenon as global warming. It's all about carbon emissions. Unfortunately the public discourse has really taken leave of the science and just exists in its own realm.
The irony of the previous catastrophes is that we wouldn't be here without them…
Yes, there's a consensus that the dinosaurs were doing just fine 66m years ago and presumably could have done fine for another 66m years, had their way of life not been up-ended by an asteroid impact. Life on this planet is contingent. There's no grand plan for it. We are also contingent. Yet although we are absolutely part of this long history, we turn out to be extremely unusual. And what we're doing is quite possibly unprecedented.
Reading your book, one wonders if it might not be good for the rest of the planet if we died out?
A few species would be worse off if we weren't here but probably most would be better off. That's sounds like a radical or misanthropic thing to say but I think it's evidently true.
It seems that from the moment we arrived we've been busy wiping out species.
There is incontrovertible evidence that when people reached Australia, 50,000 years ago, they precipitated the extinction of many species. Giant marsupials, giant tortoises, a huge bird – all were gone within a couple of thousand years of people arriving.
Your book is very much a reporter's book. Was that important to you to have that sense of a journalistic quest?
Yes, because I am a reporter,not a scientist. I'm not drawing on my own expertise. I'm drawing on the expertise of the people I went out with. You could summarise this whole sad story in one or two chapters, but part of trying to get people to really think things through, and follow you on this quest, is to be out there and tell some good stories along the way.
Your background was in political reporting. Why did you switch to science?
Because I was interested in climate change, and politics led me to it. It was in 2000-2001 when the US, under George W Bush, was withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol. The question was whether climate change was really a huge problem or, as Bush and others were saying, not a problem. It took me a long time to find a way to tell that as a story, and then it ended up being a three-part story in the New Yorker, and it mushroomed from there.
How much of a challenge has it been to get scientifically up to pace?
A huge challenge. I don't have much of a science background. I'm a literature major. But I really think that covering politics and covering science are not that dissimilar because they both involve people in their own worlds speaking in their own jargon, and you have to find ways to write stories that seem relevant to your readers.
International travel has hastened many extinctions. Should we stop it?
I don't end the book with my grand plan to solve this problem. There are steps we could take to minimise our impact, but when you look at the totality of what we're doing, you realise it's so much a part of how we live, and have done actually for a long time. We've been dragging beasts across the oceans for hundreds of years. It seem very unlikely we're going to stop crossing the ocean.
How important are zoos nowadays?
I wrote a piece about zoos for National Geographic and I came away impressed by what zoos are doing. They are on the front lines of realising how much is disappearing. A lot of zoos said to me that what we do is manage small populations of animals. And increasingly that's what everyone is going to be doing in national parks and elsewhere, so that the whole world becomes a kind of zoo, which is a sobering thought.
Will this Sixth Extinction have an impact on humanity's survival?
I'm often asked: what about us? I pretty pointedly don't think it's the most relevant concern. We are very good at assuming the habitats of other creatures and consuming their resources. So far it's been an extremely successful strategy. There are now 7.2 billion people on the planet and there are many other species down to their last hundred individuals. There's a lot of unconsumed biomass out there to still be consumed. It seems to me we could do a tremendous amount of damage to other species and the natural world before we'd feel it.
Is there one creature you'd like to bring back from extinction?
I wrote about the great auk, which became extinct 150 years ago. I visited a stuffed one in Iceland. They're really beautiful birds, and apparently they were really rather comical in the way that flightless birds can be. I guess if I had to choose one, that would be it.