Speaking to Us, Speaking to the World: Elizabeth Kolbert on the Craft of Environmental Journalism

Elizabeth Kolbert

While many influential environmental texts—perhaps most notably Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—are works of expository nonfiction, the craft required to animate scientific research for a public audience is rarely explored. In this interview, Elizabeth Kolbert, a preeminent practitioner of environmental journalism, discusses how to make the global tangible, how to narrate apocalypse over the long durée, and how to navigate a middle ground between despair and empty hope. Her reflections suggest that writing in—and about—the Anthropocene requires a willingness to turn our backs on entrenched narrative expectations and instead confront the narrative unfolding before us. 

This interview took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on November 8, 2014, just before Kolbert’s keynote address for the Anthropocene Slam: A Cabinet of Curiosities.

Sarah Dimick: Both Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction address global-scale environmental concerns, but both books also address the microscopic, the invisible, and the absent. What are some of the challenges of narrating events occurring on such extreme scales?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Oh, that is a good question, and a new question I want to say. In some ways the challenges are the same across a lot of different scales, but I’ve become increasingly aware of them as I pursue this project—well, really one [book] is a continuation of the other—we live in a world of words. We think in words, we write in words, we communicate in words. That’s saying the obvious, but whenever we write about things and objects and animals and all other forms of life, words are not their medium. So the challenge—and I feel it increasingly acutely the more I write about these things—the challenge of writing about anything for which words are not their medium is that you’re imposing language on them. That’s true of long time scales, that’s true of any sort of global phenomenon, it’s true obviously of microorganisms, but it’s also true of that cat sitting there, it’s true of any individual animal which we would anthropomorphize and maybe give consciousness to and all that. I think this is just a very basic problem to this kind of writing. And storytelling journalism, which is really what I practice, is always about something specific going on. We’re always using something, even if it’s simply supposed to stand in for a larger phenomenon, or if it’s supposed to metaphorize a larger phenomenon. Unlike academic prose, which can attempt to write about a global phenomenon without writing about an individual phenomenon, which I would argue is rather problematic—

SD: Because it’s abstract?

EK: Right. In journalism, we really can’t do that. It’s just not generically possible. I am very much a creature of journalism. I write as a journalist, and I am busy practicing journalism. In order to tell any story I won’t just say I try to find, I have to find some way to tell that through something that’s going on.

SD: Like a specific moment or place or body of research?

EK: Right, right. It could be historical—I should backtrack, it doesn’t have to be going on right now, but it has to have happened. There are two difficulties of having to have an example that is both exemplary of a larger phenomenon and tells a story that you want to tell. Sometimes you find that the example that you set off to tell veers in one direction and the story veers in another and that’s a really serious problem and it occurs a lot. There’s also the problem of voices for those who don’t have a voice of their own and cannot speak to you. Often I am with someone who is speaking for a phenomenon—they’re speaking for this animal, they’re speaking for this fungus, whatever the hell they’re speaking for—some person usually has to serve that function. Whether that’s actually fair to the phenomenon or not, I will let others be the judge. How’s that?

SD: That’s a fantastic answer. Some of my favorite moments in your writing occur when you enter your own narrative as a character. For instance in The Sixth Extinction, you describe sleeping in a hammock near Panama’s El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center and having “vivid, troubled dreams” featuring a bright yellow frog smoking a cigarette. So I’m curious—as an environmental reporter, what’s the benefit of inserting yourself into your own story? How do you decide when to do that?

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

EK: Well, that’s another thing that’s really a product of all my years at The New Yorker. It’s a very New Yorker-ish trick and it’s a very useful one. I try to use it sparingly, but it really comes in handy at moments. I try to put myself in only when something interesting is happening to me or my consciousness might add something to the narrative, because obviously I am present always. There are no rules, but usually it’s something that was very vivid to me—like sleeping in that hammock, which I hated, hated, hated—that made an impression on me. I can speak in a strong language about that as opposed to most of what is happening to me, which is kind of ordinary and not that interesting.

SD: The dream of that frog was such a moving image right at the end of the book’s first chapter. Earlier, in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, you describe how Chris Thomas—the lead author of a study about butterfly extinction in northern England and Scotland—is simultaneously alarmed and fascinated by his discoveries. Do you feel that this combined sense of horror and awe is a common tension for scientists working on climate change or extinction? Is this something you experienced yourself during these projects?

EK: Absolutely. I think that’s a very common response. Maybe less common now because this stuff is just better known, but when I started out—which wasn’t very long ago, ten years ago or whatever—that sense of oh my God, we’re seeing things happening that in graduate school we were taught can’t happen, you’re not going to see this. I did a new edition of Field Notes and—I think it’s in the new afterword—one guy said this is happening like an order of magnitude faster than we were taught to believe is possible. So as a scientist, it is very exciting—it’s like here’s something to publish, here’s an amazing new find—and at the same time obviously horrifying. Definitely I share in that: it’s horrifying but quite an amazing story.

SD: Do you view climate change and rapid extinction as apocalyptic scenarios, or do you think the framework of apocalypse is perhaps too dramatic or sudden to capture what’s happening?

EK: I think it’s an interesting problem and it also gets to what we were talking about this morning and the problem for fiction—in fictionalized accounts we need some Day After Tomorrow apocalyptic scenario. Now, what is going on is apocalyptic, it’s just happening at a slightly too slow timescale for humans to appreciate. That is precisely what I am trying to convey in The Sixth Extinction: okay, this doesn’t look so dramatic to you right now, but this sliver of history is such a tiny sliver of history in the grand scheme of things. I try to reanimate as it were—I think people are really habituated to “oh this went extinct, that went extinct”—to try to sort of flip the switch on that again and say okay that one extinction actually is the sign of the apocalypse, you just have to know how to read it. But I do think that is a big problem right? Like, “Well wake me up when the world ends, I really want to be there for the end, but the rest of this stuff is really boring.” I think that is a huge problem—it’s a huge political problem and it’s why there’s so much emphasis on storms and disasters, which are really just one—I would argue not at all the worst—impact that climate change is going to have.

SD:   And yet they fit that apocalyptic scenario so neatly. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the final chapter in The Sixth Extinction is titled “The Thing With Feathers,” which alludes to an Emily Dickinson poem about hope. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Dickinson writes, “that perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.” As an attentive observer of current extinctions, did your own sense of hope dwindle during the course of this project? In other words, is it possible for Dickinson’s metaphorical bird to survive the sixth extinction?

EK: That was a very conscious sort of joke. In that chapter I am playing with that idea that you have to end on a hopeful note. I think that any halfway conscious reader realizes that I’m not ending on a hopeful note. I think Kinohi1 is hopeful only in a very fucked up world. You have to look at the world through a very perverse lens to see him as hopeful, and yet we do persist in seeing things like that as hopeful. I think that that speaks to us, it doesn’t speak to the world. That need—and the end of the book—was something I struggled with, because there’s this trope of ending and saying something hopeful. It’s something that all of these books, all the great works of environmental literature—as you know—partake of. It speaks to literature, or not even literature—literature’s often not very hopeful—

SD: It’s full of bleak endings.

EK: It speaks to this psychic need that we have, I guess. It’s something that environmentalists, the environmental movement, environmental storytelling, they all suffer from. I also didn’t want to end on a note of utter negativity. I wanted it to be more . . . my kids had these books called Choose Your Own Adventure. . . . I wanted it to hover in a more ambiguous, more ambivalent place. I am toying with that idea.

SD: As you were deciding how to conclude, did you debate whether ending on a hopeful note or a dire note—or somewhere in the middle—would be more likely to prompt readers to act? Or were decisions about the ending more internal to the book itself?

Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

EK: That is exactly why it was a struggle, because the justification for most environmental books is okay these are very painful facts but by reading them you become conscious of them and you can do something about them. You could argue that is why they end that way, because from a political standpoint what is the point of telling you this information if it doesn’t spur you to act? That definitely troubled me—troubles me—and I don’t want to be in a position of discouraging action, because obviously I think people should be acting. But at the same time I don’t have…when you lay out a problem of this scale and this scope, it’s very hard to say therefore you should do X, Y, and Z. Or change your lightbulb. It’s incommensurate. I find that that whole thing has just gotten very tired. Every book you read is like all the apes are dying and it’s a disaster, but here’s what you can do!

SD: Quick checklists to halt the apocalypse.

EK: And the prescriptions are often self-contradictory, I find that’s a problem too. For example, there’s all this—not to put too fine a point on it—BS about ecotourism. Go support the apes by going to visit them. That is the last thing the apes need. There’s all this grasping at straws, and I did not want to participate in that. Nor do I have anything. Stop global warming. Stop deforestation. Stop moving species around the world. If you listed what you would actually have to do to deal with these problems it would be laughable. Everyone would just say that is not happening. That was what I was faced with—this complete jam up—at the end. I needed a way out of it that was not on the one hand just throw up your hands in despair and on the other hand was not “here, don’t worry we can fix it.” I opted for that ambiguous space because neither of those options seemed—to use a bad pun—viable for the book.

SD: I think it’s a more honest ending. Thank you so much.

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006) and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014). After working as a political reporter for The New York Times, Kolbert joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1999. Her journalism has garnered awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the Lannan Foundation, the Heinz Foundation, the Sierra Club, and the American Geophysical Union. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Sarah Dimick is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her interests span contemporary American and global literature, concentrating on environmental writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her research explores representations of climate change and the Anthropocene. Contact.

Photograph of Elizabeth Kolbert taken by Barry Goldstein.

  1. As one of approximately a hundred living Hawaiian crows, Kinohi is kept in captivity in the San Diego Zoo. His cameo in the chapter titled “The Thing With Feathers” makes it difficult to read the allusion to Dickinson as anything short of ironic. 

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