Chasing the Biggest Story on Earth

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When Elizabeth Kolbert joined The New Yorker in 1999, after more than a decade covering New York politics as a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, she began gravitating to environmental issues.

"The magazine has a history in this area,” she told me in one of two recent conversations. “They’d published Rachel Carson. It was unoccupied territory at the time.”

This week Ms. Kolbert, 52, published her second major book on the environment, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt), which asks science-based questions about whether humans might be causing mass extinction. (Her first, “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” was about climate change.)

What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversations.

Q. How does a journalist take on a topic this big — mass extinction?

Written By: Claudia Dreifus
continue to source article at nytimes.com

21 COMMENTS

  1. Humans are causing the current mass extinction and worse than that, it is preventable; and the view from my seat has the future getting more bleak. When China “comes aboard” and another 10% of their population are well off enough to own and operate cars (that is 100 million more cars with emissions that are not regulated much) the problem will escalate and we will be amidst a die off of biblical proportions. ANd, please do not take this as a criticism of the Chinese folks, I extend every right of mine to them and do not begrudge them their cars, but the reality is: in the next decade we will probably see this acceleration.

    • In reply to #1 by crookedshoes:

      Humans are causing the current mass extinction and worse than that, it is preventable;…

      It is preventable if we remove the human element. With humans in the mix, I don’t think it is preventable but we are adaptable. Times have to be bad before we deal with bad. Look at the banking fiasco we just suffered, it was preventable, just not while humans are involved. Even now, after we identify huge issues, it is still business as usual. As long as you have the rich getting richer and the poor wanting to get rich, we’ll just keep making more and needing more energy to make it.

  2. Looking at it objectively, this could very well be thought of as part and parcel of the grand evolutionary process.

    However, unlike all previous extinctions this one can be analysed and prevented; the question is, do we, who can carry out the analysis and adopt the necessary measures, have the collective capability of doing so.

    It seems to me that if we can rid ourselves of certain arrogant and vain notions about ourselves, we can indeed meet the challenge of rectifying the damage we’ve wrought on the environment.

    However, I constantly hear “bright” people proclaiming via the media that they are yet to be convinced that Global warming is occurring. Perhaps they need to poke their over fed noses out of their comfort zones and take the time and trouble to examine the evidence.

    Unfortunately these are individuals who hold sway over matters of policy and have very well healed friends in extremely high places, who, speaking metaphorically, are sitting on top of the hill as the waters rise.

    I mentioned the deniers to one of my daughters just now, and she said that we will probably have to wait for that generation to die! A bit harsh, but certainly an option of last resort.

    Truly, nature cannot be fooled, but, if as it does, evolution proceeds blindly without plans or goals could it at times perhaps create anomalies, and could we be one such?

    Even if this rather negative and fanciful idea holds, the fact is that we do possess the wit to come to our senses.

    And as my old mum used to say when I was a nipper, and she asked me to blow my nose or go to the lav’ after I’d farted, there’s no time like the present!

    • In reply to #5 by Alan4discussion:

      The climate is quite capable of reducing excess human populations! … .
      . . . and it does not care how much suffering is involved.

      Exactly.

      We have a choice: cling on to our comfort blankets of consumerism and growth, or follow the evidence and go without stuff we don’t need.

      Too many of us in the “developed” nations are overweight and in danger of cardiac arrest, diabetes, joint damage and the rest, so for a start, missing a few meals wouldn’t do any harm; in fact it would do some of us good.

  3. Couldn’t one successfully argue the following?

    Human beings are a part of the evolutionary process. As such, anything we do is a result of evolution. If our abuse of the planet causes the extinction of other species, shouldn’t it be considered normal?

    If there is one thing I have learned, nature WILL fill in the gaps via evolutionary change for this planet, regardless of how many current species die off. By further meddling, via attempts at the prevention of additional extinctions, we would likely prevent future species from evolving to take the place of others who have perished. From a moral point of view, it seems to me that no matter what we mere humans do, evolution will keep churning out new and exciting species …even after we are long gone. I can argue that we, (and all that we do), are simply part of the natural process despite our brain size.

    The real question is “SHOULD we do anything to prevent other species from failing to ride the evolutionary curve, even if we are setting the bar with our own meddling?”

    • How did you decide that our “abuse of the planet” is the normal evolutionary process but our “further meddling to prevent extinctions” is not?

      In reply to #7 by holysmokes:

      Couldn’t one successfully argue the following?

      Human beings are a part of the evolutionary process. As such, anything we do is a result of evolution. If our abuse of the planet causes the extinction of other species, shouldn’t it be considered normal?

      If there is one thing I have learned, nature W…

      • In reply to #9 by Marktony:

        How did you decide that our “abuse of the planet” is the normal evolutionary process but our “further meddling to prevent extinctions” is not? <

        Actually Martony, I didn’t. It’s a classic case of starting a thought, leaving and then coming back an hour later to finish it. Thanks for noticing that, but I do not think it changes my question which is, “If we are part of evolution, should we be trying to intervene regarding the extinction of other species?”

        • Actually Martony, I didn’t. It’s a classic case of starting a thought, leaving and then coming back an hour later to finish it. Thanks for noticing that, but I do not think it changes my question which is, “If we are part of evolution, should we be trying to intervene regarding the extinction of other species?

          Why do you think our being evolved animals has any bearing on the question of whether or not we should intervene with regard to the extinction of other species. Perhaps we would intervene if we believe that it would be in our best interests to maintain a broad range of plant and animal species. Maybe we would intervene because we think it’s the right thing to do.

          In reply to #13 by holysmokes:

          In reply to #9 by Marktony:

          How did you decide that our “abuse of the planet” is the normal evolutionary process but our “further meddling to prevent extinctions” is not? <

          Actually Martony, I didn’t. It’s a classic case of starting a thought, leaving and then coming back an hour later to finish i…

  4. We have a choice: cling on to our comfort blankets of consumerism and growth, or follow the evidence and go without stuff we don’t need.

    Too many of us in the “developed” nations are overweight and in danger of cardiac arrest, diabetes, joint damage and the rest, so for a start, missing a few meals wouldn’t do any harm; in fact it would do some of us good.

    I foresee none of our personal efforts being effective; laws with unstated ulterior motives will be enacted that will thin out “the herd.” Corporations will keep only the most healthy, leaving older workers and those with disabilities to fend on their own. People will no longer be living well into their nineties. Despite medical advancements, only the most wealthy will get certain types of care. I foresee a camouflaged “Logan’s Run” society in which those who share the political views of climate deniers will enforce veiled measures to eliminate the “lesser” of society.

  5. The key question is very simple:-

    ” Can human beings act collectively with more long-term self-interested intelligence than a yeast culture in a barrel of fruit juice?”

    The yeasts exploit all the available finite resources until there is nothing left to exploit, and then die pickled in their own waste products (alcohol)

    • In reply to #10 by Alan4discussion:

      The key question is very simple:-

      ” Can human beings act collectively with more long-term self-interested intelligence than a yeast culture in a barrel of fruit juice?”

      The yeasts exploit all the available finite resources until there is nothing left to exploit, and then die pickled in their own w…

      Where can you get this hooch?

      S G

  6. Nice analogy A4D. I think first things first, we have to admit that all of this concern is not for the planet – the earth will be just fine – it’s solely for us humans. It’s a completely selfish concern. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, selfishness in the service of self preservation is essential. But I’ve never liked when people would cloak this selfish concern, which seems obvious enough to me, in a fake veil of concern for “the planet”. The earth has been here a while [sarcasm] and has endured worse than what we’re throwing at it (or spraying at it, exhaling from our vehicles at it, etc). The concern is solely for ourselves. There is always a tipping point. We haven’t reached it, clearly, and my best guess is we’re not close to reaching it. That tipping point will be a problem for another generation. What will be interesting is whether or not our inherent naturally selected altruism (for lack of a better term) will result in enough real planning to stave off an incredibly uncertain fate.

  7. I read an Interesting book called Plague Species – Is it in our genes…..By Reg Morrison quite an alarming view of what humans could become…en masse with tensions reverberating through the population

  8. Storms of My Grandchildren- James Hansen

    A good non-technical read, been criticised for its alleged Anglo-Saxon bias. I’m with him on our best hope,
    4th generation nuclear and in particular, Thorium reactors of the LFTR type. Much has been said about the
    technical difficulties but come on, recall what the Manhattan project achieved in a few short years.

    I don’t see how mass extinction, serious as it is can compare with runaway global warming…

  9. If decades and decades of “managing nature” debacles have demonstrated anything, it is that man cannot and does not have control over nature. The examples are so extensive, I don’t feel the need to list them. However, and this is crucial, man INFLUENCES he planet more or as much as any organism that has ever existed.

    Now, we have a choice. “Hands off” laissez faire attitude — “well, we are part of evolution and the cards fall where they fall…” OR, “fuck everybody” (often practiced by the rich, republican, religious) I will go out and get mine and the hell with impact on anybody or anything….. OR the “hippie mentality” let’s be aware of our impact on other’s suffering and try to mitigate it through responsibility and common sense.

    I guess I am a hippie!!! The problem is that the assholes we have representing us and actually making these impactful decisions are not in it for anything but self gain and are incapable of understanding more than 90% of the issues that they vote on. They are also 99% con artists. Think about Sarah Palin controlling policy for the nation. She couldn’t control the patch between her daughter’s legs (none of us can, however, she shouted that she could and that it was the RIGHT way for ALL to live). I wouldn’t let her supervise a petting zoo and she was close to being our vice prez. If her “finger was on the button” of any crucial situation, you could rest assured that it would turn to shit.

    It turns out, Obama is no better (well, maybe a fraction of a fraction better).

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