Extinction agenda: A conversation with the catastrophe detective

Elizabeth Kolbert is drawn to the mystery of mass extinctions. — Pictures courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
Elizabeth Kolbert is drawn to the mystery of mass extinctions. — Pictures courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 — Elizabeth Kolbert travels around the world documenting the alarming, large-scale vanishing of species. From trekking through the Andes rainforests to diving off the Great Barrier Reef, she follows scientists into the field to uncover the truth behind this mystery.

The two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer had already written about climate change in her previous book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, so one could call her a catastrophe detective.

In her new book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published by Bloomsbury, Kolbert observes that there have been five mass extinctions over the past half a billion years, and now the sixth cataclysm is upon us. What’s more devastating than the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs? The terrifying answer — we are.

We chat with Kolbert about how Man may go the way of the dinosaurs… by his own hand.

Early in your career, you covered politics for The New York Times. How did this inform your later science and environmental reporting?

When I covered politics for The New York Times, I wrote a fair amount about environmental policy. When I went to The New Yorker, I started to write more about the environment and less about the policy, but the two issues are obviously intimately connected. Having covered politics for a while, I think I probably have less faith than most that our elected leaders are going to rise to the challenge.

Until the 1800s, extinction wasn’t even a concept. How did we go from that initial discovery to the realisation that there have been five mass extinction events in Earth’s history?

Interestingly, the initial concept of extinction, as articulated by the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the early 19th century, was that species only disappeared as a result of catastrophes. This concept was challenged, and ultimately discredited, by Charles Lyell and his most famous protégé, Charles Darwin. Lyell and Darwin insisted that a global catastrophe was impossible.

Then, in the 1980s, two American scientists proposed that the dinosaurs had been done in by an asteroid impact. This theory was at first reviled, and then later confirmed. So the idea of catastrophic extinction — mass extinction — was revived in a rather spectacular fashion.

Why are more species disappearing at a faster rate today than the ordinary “background extinction rate”?

On one level, you could say there are a number of reasons for this: Habitat loss, invasive species, introduced pathogens. On another level, you could say there’s a single reason, and that’s humans. We are changing the world a lot faster than many species can adapt.


Kolbert travelled all over the world, from Panama to Iceland, while researching her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
Kolbert travelled all over the world, from Panama to Iceland, while researching her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
ow is Man likely causing the next mass extinction?

Here’s a very vivid example, and it’s one I offer at the start of the book. Frogs and toads are disappearing very rapidly owing to a fungal disease known by the shorthand Bd. This disease appeared in many parts of the world — Australia, South America, Central America — more or less at the same time, and there’s quite a broad consensus that it was moved around the world by people.

One theory is that the fungus was transported on a species known as the African clawed frog, which used to be used for pregnancy tests. When you inject an African clawed frog with the urine of a pregnant woman, it will lay eggs.

African clawed frogs were shipped around the world for this purpose, and you now find populations in many disparate parts of the world. These frogs carry Bd but seem to be unaffected by it. So that’s one way the fungus could have gotten around.

What can we learn from the past five extinction events to remedy the likely sixth (or is it too late already)?

This is a question that is very tough to answer. I guess I’d say the lesson of the five past mass extinctions is that rapid global change is dangerous. If we’re going to prevent a mass extinction, we’re going to need to minimise our impact on the planet. We’re going to need to change our ways pretty fundamentally, and that goes especially for those of us in industrialised nations.

How have members of the scientific community reacted to your reports, in particular those who are working in the areas you cover in your book?

The reaction I’ve gotten has been almost universally positive. I think scientists really want to get this message out. We are changing the world on a geological scale, and in so doing we’re putting the whole future of life at risk.

You travelled all over the world from Panama to Iceland while researching this book. Which place astonished you the most, both from a professional and personal viewpoint, and why?

I think the place that amazed me the most was the Great Barrier Reef, off Australia. The reef is so full of life — a shimmering world with no analogue on land. It was an incredible experience to look down into the water and see the fish, the turtles, the rays, the sharks — to be honest, it almost seemed unreal.

Do you agree with Annalee Newitz that “[a]s long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive” (the “we will colonise Mars if we exhaust Earth’s resources” argument)?

I’m afraid I think that if we need to colonise other planets in order to survive, we are not in very good shape. The Earth has a lot going for it, including an atmosphere with oxygen. You don’t find that on Mars. So this idea that we’ve got somewhere else to go if we render the Earth uninhabitable — I’m afraid that that’s a pipe dream.

What will you write about next? Will it continue to be “catastrophe science” reporting or something else entirely?

I’m not sure. I feel that the future of life is such an enormous topic that obviously many more books could be written on it. But I sometimes think I’d like to write about something very different — “catastrophe science” can be pretty draining.

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 14, 2014.

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