Extinction lasts forever: Elizabeth Kolbert to speak at Williams College

The bog turtle is protected under the Endangered Species Act and has suffered heavily from poaching.

WILLIAMSTOWN -- New Yorker writer and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert's recent book, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History," suggests the Earth is in the middle of its latest calamatous mass extinction -- and humans are probably the major factor in its happening.

"We don't have to look into the future, is the point I'm sadly making," Kolbert said. "We can just look around us right now. One of the real major points of the book is if you can see this stuff happening, if you can see a mammal, an amphibian, 10 mammals, 10 amphibians, hundreds, going extinct in the course of a human lifetime, something very, very unusual in the history of life is going on."

Kolbert will speak at Williams College on Wednesday, April 23. The event's organizer, Sarah Gardner of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College, said Kolbert is "one of the most important environmental writers of the day."

"There's no more important message for college students to hear right now: climate change is here, extinctions are happening, environmental changes are unfolding all around us, and the next generation is inheriting this environmental disaster," Gardner said. "We hope today's students will have the good sense to take these messages seriously, as our generation has failed to do, and that they will make saving life on this planet their generational priority."

Kolbert's book has her travelling around the globe, visiting researchers as part of an eye-witness account of the unfolding natural apocalypse. This is science as current events, reporting from the scene as if it were the middle of a war or the aftermath of an earthquake, in an effort to frame the crisis alongside the planet's past and fashion a history of all life, rather than just human life.

"I'd like people to come away with a pretty long view of the history of the world, the history of life and how it's had several major crises," Kolbert said. "What's happening now is analogous to these great crises and the history of life, and those are a very, very hot, as it were, topics of research precisely for that reason, precisely because of what's going on now. People are very interested in figuring out why life very nearly collapses at various moments."

It's not a cheerful subject, though Kolbert writes with humor. Still, the larger point can be gloomy, even hopeless, and Kolbert says it's valid to read the book that way. The event is still unfolding, so she does not offer a positive turn at her book's end.

"This is a sad story," she said. "In the case of this story, we -- and I use that term very, very broadly, all of us, every single one of us, depending on how many people there have been on the planet for the last several hundred years, or several thousand years even -- we all have a teeny bit of the blame."

Her story has as its center the historical capacity of man to destroy his habitat. Climate change is just the latest version of a common theme. Research shows that when humans arrived in new places, large animals disappeared, as well as other humans who already inhabited the land.

"It seems pretty clear they had a very significant effect on large animals that we just don't have anymore in North America," Kolbert said. "There used to be a lot of really big animals on this continent, so, I don't think we can say it's just a product of modernity. Modernity is ratcheting everything up astronomically, slowly, but surely. These extinctions, they were very slow in terms of human lifetimes, over many, many generations, but in terms of the history of life, they were still very fast."

The book asks how much longer humans have on this Earth and what the future holds, but Kolbert is clear that looking ahead is not the point. Anyone who looks can see change and loss happening now.

"I actually think none of us can fathom the scope," she said. "We live in one place and see only a very small part of the world at any given time. I don't even want to claim that I fathom the scope. I think the best you can do is try to get people thinking about things in new ways."

While she cannot answer how far this will go, she said, it's easier to predict in a time when too often people accept feelings instead of facts.

"In general, if you tell someone something about astrophysics or dark matter, they don't say, ‘Well, my gut tells me that's not true, so it's not true,'" Kolbert said.

But in environmental science, often they do.

"Somehow, in these environmental issues, people can follow their gut in this decision," she said, "and [what they feel] just doesn't turn out to be the case.

"Is the problem scientific literacy, or is the problem of psychology, that we trust our sense and our own daily experiences in ways that are not reliable, and that often people are not willing to look at the scientific evidence and make really informed judgments?"

If you go ...

What: Author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert to speak

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown.