EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Interviews with the Author


The videos below are optional, but it might be nice to put a face and voice to the words in the book. I think it's pretty interesting to hear her discuss some of the events in the books from a first-person perspective. Note that Paul Broun, whose comments are featured at the end of the first clip, is no longer in Congress. The last few minutes offer some interesting food for thought, I think. Feel free to post your thoughts to the Coffee Shop. 

The first video is from a few years ago an focuses on the topics in The Sixth Extinction. The second is from 2021 and focuses on Under a White Sky.

FYI, Democracy Now! is a good source for independent media analysis, albeit with a left-leaning bias. They tend to speak truth to power no matter which political party is in power, though. Enjoy! This video is 12:45 minutes long.

The Sixth Extinction: Elizabeth Kolbert on How Humans Are Causing Largest Die Off Since Dinosaur Age
Click Here for Transcript of The Sixth Extinction Video

To say the least, a chilling title, "The Sixth Extinction". So take it forward - what does that mean exactly?

Well as Aaron mentioned, there have been five previous, I guess we call them major mass extinctions, because I should say there's a sort of an oxymoron. You can also have a minor mass extinction, but there are five major ones that we see in the fossil record. The most recent being the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs, and so now human impacts on the planet: burning fossil fuels, acidifying the oceans, cutting down the rainforests, just altering the surface of the earth, moving species around has an enormous effect. You know, you, everyone, has heard of invasive species, but we are we are moving so many species around the world, we're really sort of reverse engineering the planet. In effect, bringing all the continents back together, so all of these things have the unfortunate side effect of causing extinction.

Explain what you mean by reverse, by spreading the species around the planet.

Well, we, you know, just in ballast water. For example, just to take an example, it's estimated that 10,000 species are being moved around in ballast water.

Explain what ballast water...

Well, our super tankers, you know they have these huge tanks of water ballast to stabilize the ship and they contain lots of creatures, you know, some are very, very tiny, some are less tiny, but you're moving them around - and that has - from ocean to ocean, right... so, imagine, you know pre Panama Canal, pre-people, the Atlantic and the Pacific. If you lived, had evolved, in the Atlantic or evolved in the Pacific, you'd have evolved separately for many, many millions of years. You bring these lineages together and it can have many impacts, some of which can be quite devastating, and everyone has heard stories of invasive species. There is a very famous story, for example, of a the brown tree snake which has been told, you know, many times. The brown tree snake was brought from New Guinea to the island of Guam, probably in military cargo in World War Two. Guam had only one tiny native snake about the size of a worm. The snake had no enemies.  It went, you know, crazy, multiplied like crazy and ate just about everything that it possibly could on Guam. So now, a lot of Guam's native birds are either gone or very, very critically endangered. So that's an example of what happens when you bring together organisms that have evolved separately for a very, very long time.

On the issue of the oceans, would you say that it's an overlooked part of the global warming debate, and the impact of carbon pollution on the oceans and what should people know about the dangers of humankind to the oceans?

Well, yeah, that's a really big issue and Jane Lubchenco who was head of NOAA until fairly recently has called ocean acidification global warming's equally evil twin, and I think because we are terrestrial organisms we don't appreciate it as much, but a lot of our carbon emissions, so a lot of what we're putting up into the air is ending up very, very quickly in the oceans. It's absorbed by the oceans, and when carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it has the unfortunate effect of becoming an acid. So we drink that acid, very weak acid, carbonic acid, and you drink it when you drink Coke, but it's still an acid, and you put enough in the water and it changes the pH of the water, the chemistry of the oceans, and that's what we're doing, and that has you know potentially enormous ramifications, because obviously if you're a creature whose only contact with the outside world is through the water, it's a very big deal.

Tell us some stories that you learned as you did this research from continent to continent that most alarmed you.

Well, one of the trips I took, I got to go sort of paradoxically, and in you know chronicling this extinction event, I got to go to some of the most amazing places on the planet, and one place I went to was a cloud forest in the Andes, and we started out at about 12,000 feet on a mountain ridge and started hiking down the ridge, and one of the scientists I was with said to me, you know, pick out a leaf that has an interesting shape and and watch it and you're only going to see it as we go down this this ridge for maybe 100 meters or so because that tree has a very, very narrow range, right, it only is adapted to this this little band of altitude, and I think what that lesson and what he was looking at, why we were in the Andes, we're looking at these tropical species that tend to have a very narrow climatic range and the impact of climate change on these species, and I think that people are aware of the potential impacts of climate change on Arctic species, you know ,everyone has seen the pictures of the poor polar bear as you know as the sea ice shrinks but really where climate change could have an even more devastating impact is in the tropics both because most species live in the tropics, that's just where the abundance of life is, and also because these species tend to have a very, very narrow tolerance for climatic change; they're used to a lot of climatic stability. 

You identify some key figures whose theories were initially mocked but have since been vindicated. Can you talk about George Cuvier and the Alvarez father-and-son team and their findings and their work? 

Yeah, that's a really interesting sort of history of science, you know, story, a rare instance where an idea you know came and went and came again and and George Cuvier was the great naturalist from the beginning of the 19th century, so right around 1800, and he was the first person to really say organisms go extinct. So, to understand, you know, to appreciate how important that was - when Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest, he hoped they'd find live mastodons roaming around. He really just couldn't believe even though he was very interested in fossils - he had a fossil room at the White House when he was there - he couldn't believe these animals had gone extinct. It just wasn't what happened. It wasn't what the Creator, you know, had planned for them and George Cuvier came along and said, you know, really, essentially, if they're out there, we would have seen them. We haven't seen them.  They're gone. And he posited this whole lost world, which he then proceeded to start to uncover, so a lot of the animal names that we have now, for example "pterodactyl" he came up with. He was the first person to identify a pterodactyl, and his theory was that animals only went extinct in these catastrophic waves, you know, something happened, the planet changed, otherwise why else would they go extinct? And then a naturalist named Charles Lyell who is Charles Darwin's mentor came along, and he said, That's ridiculous, you know, we never see these catastrophes. They don't happen. Only, the only way the earth changes is very, very, very gradually and things go extinct very gradually, and the world changes very gradually, and that became sort of the doctrine for a very long time, over a hundred years until the Alvarez's came along and identified an asteroid impact as the event that had done in the dinosaurs and many other creatures, I should say. The dinosaurs always get top billing, but that extinction event did in a lot of other groups as well. That was resisted, that there is resisted, but it was proved and now the sort of general theory is, you know, yes the earth changes very slowly except for these extraordinary moments, and I'd say the whole point of writing the book is that we are in one of those moments right now.

Talk about the Panamanian Golden Frog.

The Panamanian golden frog, it is a very sad story. The Panamanian golden frog is a beautiful frog; it's a sort of taxicab yellow color and it lived, it was considered a lucky symbol in Panama. For many years, you'd see it on lottery tickets in Panama, and this is in case of an invasive species, a disease passed through Panama, a disease that affects amphibians, and it sort of raced through, and people watched these frogs disappear, not just the Panamanian golden frogs, many frogs disappeared, and they fortunately had anticipated this; they could actually watch it moving through and they took some of them out of the rain forest, and they're now in a in a conservation center. They can't leave, they can't go outside, but they're in this little Conservation Center in a town called El Vi.  

I wanted to play for you a clip of Congress member Paul Broun. He's of Georgia, Chair of oversight investigations for House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  This is video of him speaking in 2012 at Liberty Baptist church in Hartwell Georgia. 

"I've come to understand that all this stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, and Big Bang Theory, all that is lies. Straight from the pit of hell, and its lies, to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see there are a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist. They actually showed that this is really a young earth.  I don't believe that Earth's but about 9,000 years old.  I believe it's created in six days as we know them, that's what the Bible says." That's Republican Congress member Paul Broun of Georgia denying climate change exists coming up right now now.  "We hear all the time about global warming - actually we've had flat line temperatures globally for the last eight years. Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community, it is a hoax." Those clips also highlighted on Bill Moyers program on PBS. Congressman Paul Broun is not only just a congressman from Georgia but he's chair of oversight investigations for the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The significance of what he is saying both on the issue of evolution and climate change, Elizabeth Kolbert.

Well, it's hard to overstate it. I mean you have a situation where we really need to be taking serious action on climate change and we're still having this surreal, I guess I would use the word, debate over whether it's happening or not, and I think a clip like that shows that, you know, people are really speaking entirely different languages. We're just not even speaking to each other using, you know, we're using English, but we're not really speaking the same language, we're not looking at the same, well, some people are looking at scientific data and some people are not -  let me just put it that way, and it's very, very hard to carry on, you know, a reasonable sort of post-enlightenment conversation, and what are the implications of this for policy? Well, we all know it, you know, we all see the implications for policy. There is no policy, so you know people have essentially, you've given up in this Congress on getting any kind of meaningful legislation through, and the only hope of getting any kind of action on climate change now rests with the administration, and the Obama administration knows that everyone knows that what needs to be done,  well, you know massive things need to be done. Obviously, we need to start transitioning our whole economy off of fossil fuels. That's not - it's not a small thing. That's a big thing, and if you were going to ask, you know, policy experts what we should do, they would say, well we need some kind of price on carbon. Now, that is, that requires legislative action - in the absence of that, in the absence of you're putting a price on putting co2 into the atmosphere, there are things the administration can do and that they are supposedly working on, you know power plant regulations that would reduce co2 emissions, but it's very difficult to get the kind of action that we need without any hope of getting anything from Congress.

Credit: freespeechtv
Under the White Sky: Elizabeth Kolbert. You can view the transcript by clicking on the title of the video and going to YouTube.