Human success at the expense of other species is “a pretty awful legacy”

By David Roberts

Author Elizabeth Kolbert challenges us to see human history through the eyes of other animals.

Last year, the Nation Institute launched a Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture Series, in honor of the late environmental journalist. The topic is rather grandiose: The Fate of the Earth.

The first lecture, last year, was given by famed environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, who spoke about climate change.

This year, the lecture was delivered Wednesday by Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of several books, including 2014’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Kolbert’s lecture took on a larger and, if anything, even more difficult subject, namely what the Anthropocene — the geological age of human influence — is like from the perspective of other species. As humans have grown and spread, they have jammed unfamiliar animals and pathogens together in the geological blink of an eye, driving countless species to extinction. In the 3.8 billion-year history of life on this planet, she says, “no creature has ever changed the earth at the rate that we are changing it right now.”

As usual, Kolbert’s message is bracing and free of false-hope homilies. You can watch a video of the lecture here.

Kolbert is something of a hero of mine. Her 2006 Field Notes From a Catastrophe was the first book on climate change I ever read, and its concluding line still haunts me: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

So it was a pleasure to chat with her by phone about the issues and difficult moral dilemmas her lecture raises — perspectives too often absent from our typically human-centric discussions of environmental damage. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“Toughie,” the world’s last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, died in 2016. Are we guilty of murder?

David Roberts

Why did you choose to focus on biodiversity? Is it just because Bill McKibben took climate change already?

Elizabeth Kolbert

[laughs] Well, you know, I don’t want to downplay that. But at the same time, I have come to see — and this was the impetus for writing The Sixth Extinction — that climate change is part of an even bigger issue. So when the topic is the Fate of the Earth, it seemed like you could open it up into this even bigger issue, the way we are changing the planet, for all intents and purposes, permanently. As I say, unfortunately, climate change is just one of those ways, and not even necessarily the most significant.

David Roberts

Climate change is such a huge issue, it’s already difficult for people to fit it in their heads. To put it into an even bigger context … how do you even go about that? Do you feel like you’ve successfully gotten your head around it?

Elizabeth Kolbert

I don’t think anyone does, really. The reason the Anthropocene as a concept really took off since Paul Crutzen first proposed it — which is not very long ago — is that it gives us a framework for thinking about a lot of things that seem disparate but are all pointing in one direction. To look at it in geological terms has been a really interesting and useful exercise.

I’ve been out in the field with people who are trying to look at human impact on the planet in terms of the great history of life — half a billion years of multicellular life. How is this going to look millions of years from now? When you go through that exercise, it tends to wash away everything that we humans are attached to and leaves just these geochemical markers, basically.

You find that, wow, what humans are doing is really significant. It’s significant on the scale of the history of life. It kills your worldview, I think.

David Roberts

One way people have tried to narrow this, to make it manageable, is to frame the benefits of biodiversity in human terms — “ecosystem services” and what they do for us. What do you think of that tactic?

Elizabeth Kolbert

I totally understand it and sympathize with it. And I think there’s a very compelling case to be made that, however independent we think we are from biological systems and geochemical systems, we’re very clearly not. All of our oxygen is biologically produced. We’re still intimately connected — even those of us who live in a high-rise in Manhattan — to this world, even though we may not appreciate that.

So you mess around with these systems, you push them too far, and it’s going to come back and bite humanity in the ass. I think that’s true.

But I also think it’s true that, taking the broadest possible view, humans are just one of many, many species that have lived on Earth. So even if we decided it is possible for us to escape unscathed through a mass extinction, the idea that we would eliminate many of the other species on Earth, including our closest relatives (we’re in the process of eliminating the great ape), is a pretty awful legacy.

A gorilla, one of many Hominidae (great ape) species humans are crowding out.

David Roberts

When we drive a species to extinction, is that like murder?

Elizabeth Kolbert


David Roberts

We assess people’s actions in terms of intentionality and responsibility, but we don’t assess “natural processes” that way. We don’t think poorly of a lion for killing a gazelle. What special obligations do humans have to other species?

Elizabeth Kolbert

I don’t have a straightforward answer to that. It turns out that our ethics are based on humans and human consciousness, so when we look at other species, we often try to do it in terms of consciousness. Are they consciously suffering or not? There’s a lot of talk of ethical treatment of animals, …read more

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