There are at least three kinds of science writers: scientists who write for other scientists; scientists who popularize science for the intelligent laity; and science journalists who bring science down to the level of ordinary readers with an interest in what scientists do and with what science has to tell us.
The first group writes in technical language that is often impenetrable for ordinary folk and sometimes rendered in the arcane symbols of mathematics and physics. They are essential to the development of our civilization, but they communicate mainly among themselves and the financial granting agencies upon whom they largely depend.
The second group includes my personal favourites. They are the embodied refutations of C. P. Snow’s most pessimistic claim about the “two cultures”; namely that intellectuals in our society fit into two distinct and sometimes opposing camps made up of humanists who can’t think and scientists who can’t write. While examples of both exist in abundance, I think Snow was wrong from the start but, without doubt, the last few generations have yielded an ample inventory of scientists who are able to present some of the most profound chunks of knowledge that our species has generated. Moreover, they have done so without ever “talking down” to their readership, but by elevating the understanding of an attentive public.
The third group has it rough. If crafting careful and informative essays in the manner of, for example, Stephen J. Gould is difficult, spreading scientific ideas and information in daily newspapers, mass market magazines and even best-selling books is more so. Too often, people are assigned such tasks without adequate preparation and understanding of their own; however, even those with the requisite background find it hard to get it exactly right. By “it,” of course, I mean the balance between entertainment and information. Needed is an engaging and attractive writing style and a fast-moving narrative replete with personal anecdotes, biographical insights into important scientists and copious “colour commentary” to provide the sugar allegedly needed to make the medicine of difficult concepts go easily down.
In the terms of this little typology, Elizabeth Kolbert is a science journalist, and a good one. She studied Literature at Yale and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Hamburg. She worked at the New York Times for fifteen years, before becoming a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, so she has excellent journalistic credentials. As for science, she has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award, a Heinz Award for writing on global environmental change and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Science Writing―eminent achievements all. What’s more, she can be a very funny lady able to hold her own with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” for a start.
In a much quoted introductory remark in her book, she tells us about the “worst day ever on planet Earth.” It occurred about sixty-five million years ago when a large lump of interplanetary garbage smacked the Yucatan Peninsula with such mass and such force that it altered the planet’s temperature for thousands of years and, in the process, wiped out all but the smallest dinosaurs which eventually evolved into vultures, eagles, blue jays, cardinals, orioles and humming birds. And, yes, incidentally gave some non-Nazified lebensraum to mammals including what became elephants, dolphins, hyenas, rabbits and us. That event, the great Cretaceous extinction, killed off about three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth. As a result, she writes, “this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one.” What’s more this particular contingency “has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.”
The mass extinction that allowed our class of critters (technically, a clade of endothermic amniotes) to thrive wasn’t the first mega-event to re-jig life on the planet. Four other major events had occurred in the last half a billion years beginning with the Ordovician-Silurian extinction about 450 million years ago. This event was significant for our species because the first chordates, progenitors of vertebrates which had evolved in the mid-Cambrian era were among the minority of creatures that managed to survive―a necessary accident on the path that has culminated in Homo sapiens sapiens, otherwise known as us (Gould, 1989: 321-322).
Now, however, as we experience what Kolbert, following ecologist Eugene F. Stormer, calls the Anthropocene Era―the time in which a specific species (ours) has taken over (temporarily) from nature and become the single most influential factor determining the character, quality and properties of the biosphere―something “unnatural” is happening. We live in an era in which planetary life is being denatured in the most unpleasant sense of the term. H. sapiens (I’ll drop the self-indulgent second “wise”), in our vastly increasing numbers and with our world-changing technological devices, is taking upon itself the project of altering basic patterns of botany, zoology and climatology―which influence at least three of the classical elements of earth, air and water and, quite possibly, of fire as well.
In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert takes us on a tour of time and space. She teaches more by example than by precept. She lets her story unfold.
Kolbert begins with frogs and explains how the human facilitation of invasive, exotic fungal species are killing off Panamanian amphibians. She uses the extinction of the North American mastodon to introduce natural catastrophes as an instrument of extinction (it isn’t entirely our fault). But it is largely our fault―a lesson learned from the fate of the flightless North American bird, the great auk, which was destroyed by humans engaged in what we would now euphemistically call “resource mismanagement,” but which was just mindless slaughter. She might, of course, have spoken as easily of passenger pigeons or North Atlantic codfish on the one hand and emerald ash borers and invasive Asian carp or Australian rabbits on the other. Examples of what we might properly call calamities aren’t hard to find. In nature, in Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable phrase, “stuff happens,” but this isn’t just “stuff.” Something unique is taking place: most of the “stuff” is caused by one featherless biped (and I don’t mean Diogenes’ plucked chicken).
The story continues through thirteen edifying and disarmingly entertaining chapters in which we are forced to confront the reality of natural fragility and instability. It doesn’t take long to learn that the reassuring notion of the “balance of nature” at best represents a transient dynamic equilibrium, but is a misleading single frame in a long terrestrial movie. Changes in global temperatures, sea levels and the chemical composition of the air have shifted spectacularly, eliminating some species while enabling others. Whole continents wander around on their underlying tectonic plates creating a Pacific Ocean here and a Himalayan Mountain range there. Nature’s inconstancy is a geological, meteorological constant punctuated by high drama, but generally taking long periods of time on a human scale to achieve noticeable results. Ice ages come and go over thousands of years. It took at least ten thousand for knock the dinosaurs off their perch atop the zoological pyramid. The Oak Ridges Moraine upon which I work and live is a geological formation that took thousands of years to be built thanks to the retreating ice age. Looking out of my office window or my front door, it seems to be doing absolutely nothing and I doubt if it will in my lifetime or many hundreds of generations to come (assuming a certain sanguinity regarding the durability of humankind).
Human agency in creating change is something different. We have messed about with the Earth for barely four hundred years and most of the disequilibrium has been accomplished in the last century, even in the last few decades. Human agency is also different in that it is the product of conscious human purpose, which is mainly a matter of unalloyed hubris. So, as Gregory Bateson (1972) explained, it can fairly be seen as a trait that puts us in an inherently adversarial position with respect to our environment (a truly unsustainable relationship), but it can also be understood as something that irrepressible optimists may imagine that we might be able to control.
Kolbert takes us to the coral reefs to reveal the fact that the Industrial Revolution did not just allow humanity to build more and superficially better “stuff,” but precipitated what Canadian naturalist John Livingston (1990) called “the urban-industrial holocaust in all its forms.” She explains how anthropogenic climate change threatens flora and fauna at the poles and everywhere in between. Yet, she too is willing to allow for a sugary sliver of hope.
She leaves us with the question of whether we are sane. Sanity, of course, must include a willingness to do those things that will ensure or at least allow our survival. So far, we have behaved with what Livingston called “infantile vandalism.” It’s not that we haven’t been warned before. Our problem is that our attention is regularly caught, especially in quiet news cycles, but it is always fleeting. While we may dutifully recycle newspapers and glass bottles and switch off electric lights when we leave a room, we do not take our ecology seriously. All that is needed is for a political leader to warn of lost jobs or, more recently, for a law enforcement agency to prattle on about environmentalists being “extremists” and the plea for ecological sustainability is flushed down our collective memory hole like so much toxic ideological waste.
Still, it is instructive to remind ourselves of the persistence with which the environmental message returns to disturb our obsession with shopping. In fact, it does us no harm to recall earlier diagnoses in, of all places, the musings of an occasional “humanist” who could most definitely think as well (Burke, 1937: 150):
Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of this planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it disturbs the balance of the whole.
Literary critic Kenneth Burke continued:
So, far, the laws of ecology have begun avenging themselves against restricted human concepts of profit by countering deforestation and deep plowing with floods, droughts, dust storms, and aggravated soil erosion.
Then, he went a serious step further:
And in a capitalist economy, these trends will be arrested only insofar as collectivistic ingredients of control are introduced …
Well, there you have it, the next step is one from which most environmentalists, Green Party politicians and random “tree-huggers” shy away. It is one that would certainly dampen book sales in the United States of America and in most countries whose elites are in thrall to neoliberalism, which of course is to say most countries which have achieved success by the measure of economic development. It would also provide fodder for capitalist apologists who are eager to pre-dismiss scientific consensus on the fact of climate change and the primacy of human agency in its growth.
Although she doesn’t seem overly eager to press the necessity of transformative economic change as a foundational precondition for ecological sustainability, Kolbert’s closing quote has been much discussed. It comes from ecologist Paul Ehrlich whose fabulously popular book, The Population Bomb (1968, 2009), helped stimulate a revival of Thomas Malthus’ (1798) concerns about overpopulation. Almost a half-century ago, Ehrlich claimed that “in pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” So, no matter how much we might wish to address or to finesse the economic argument and focus instead on intervening issues such as overpopulation, the question remains: What are we to do?
It would do my tired own heart good to believe that we have finally begun to take that “little fellow named Ecology” to our collective heart. Although our corrective steps have been timid and despite the fact that the overwhelming evidence shows that the world is much worse off today that when Ehrlich sounded his particular alarm, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the petroleum industry (among others) and its political enablers to present a convincing case that the related problems of overpopulation, pollution assorted disasters-in-the-making are the fiendish fantasies of nefarious socialists, eco-terrorists, foreign agitators, frauds and just plain “wackos” eager to destroy the Western way of life. Still, even with the consequences of our industrial and commercial arrogance and ignorance smacking us repeatedly in the face, we worry more about promoting capitalism in its cancerous, predatory and casino forms and thereby privileging indiscriminate economic growth over the environment which is the fundamental source of our material prosperity at any level of development.
The great virtue of scientists, popularizers and journalists such as Elizabeth Kolbert is that their message is still available to be heard. They are giving us yet another chance to assess what we are doing to the Earth and what we need to do in order to ameliorate obvious hazards and impending catastrophes. As the prime agents of the Anthropocene Era, we cannot blame contingency, evolutionary accident or megatons of extraterrestrial rubbish hurtling at us (never mind “the wrath of God”). As the comic strip opossum “Pogo” told us in the 1950s: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
So, Kolbert must be commended for bringing the “news” that humanity is its own worst enemy to the erratic attention of a fickle, forgetful, capricious and indecisive public. At some point, however, those who follow her must go beyond telling us once more that something bad is happening, that it is getting worse and that―absent an almost metaphysical redefinition of what it is to be a sustainable society is―it will not get better … ever. We must now begin to ask what changes can be made in the global political economy to allow for the possibility of human survival and how these changes are to be made. We must also display the political will to follow the obvious path.
It may be that the capitalist alarmists were on to something. After all, absent a near-total societal collapse, the future will be built―if it is to be built at all―on collectivist principles. The choice, therefore, would seem to be between one that plots for private profit or one that plans for the public good: in short, authoritarian corporatism or democratic socialism. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is more likely, and what to do about it.
Bateson, G. (1972). Conscious purpose versus nature. In Steps to an ecology of mind (pp. 426-439). New York, NY: Ballantine.
Burke, K. (1937). Attitudes toward history. Reprinted, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.
Ehrlich, P. (1968). The population bomb. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Ehrlich, P. And A. Ehrlich. (2009). The population bomb revisited. Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development 1(3): 63-71.
Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Livingston, J. (1990). Arrested development: The Oak Ridges moraine. A public lecture recorded York University, Toronto.
Malthus, T. (1798). An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. Retrieved December 22, 2013 from http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf
Howard A. Doughty teaches Political Economy and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org