New Yorker staff writer Kolbert examines the growing global crisis of species loss in her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
In this book and your last, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, you address climate change at the global level, which is well-accepted by the scientific community. The general public, however, has been less willing to accept that view. What are your thoughts on the gap?
Since there have been scientists there’s probably been a gap between their concerns and the concerns of the general public. And there are many topics—for instance, the expansion of the universe—where it could be argued that the disconnect doesn’t much matter. The universe will go its merry way no matter what we think or do. When the topic is our own impact on the planet, though, obviously it’s another matter. The main reason I wrote both books was the hope that I could do something to narrow this gap.
How does current biodiversity loss fit into the greater context of our human impact on the environment?
It’s important to recognize that humans have been at this world-altering project for quite a while now. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the moment we’re living in is a truly exceptional one. Just since WWII, human impacts have increased probably by whole orders of magnitude. So the situation we’re in is at once very old and at the same time entirely new.
How do you see the sixth extinction ending?
In the book I quote Jonathan Schell, who wrote: “Futurology has never been a very respectable field of inquiry.” While the book is full of projections, I can’t say where all this is going to end. I don’t think anyone can. One of the many uncertainties in the system is us. How are we going to respond to the changes we have set in motion?
People seem to care deeply about the loss of single species, but are less concerned about larger patterns. How do we bridge this gulf?
This is an interesting quirk of human nature; studies show that people are willing to spend more to save, say, 10 birds than they are to save a hundred or even a thousand. People are interested in individuals, not so much in populations, and certainly not in meta-populations. If you want to reach people, you’ve got to give them something to care about.
As a non-scientist, how do you see your role as a popularizer of difficult, complex scientific concepts?
In many ways I see myself as a translator. I got a lot of knowledgeable people to explain their work to me, often multiple times. Almost all of the scientists I dealt with were incredibly generous. They put up with my questions for months, in some cases years. I think they are very worried about the gap you mentioned. They really want to people to understand the enormity of what’s going on.