Point/Counterpoint: Elizabeth Kolbert

Point/Counterpoint: Elizabeth Kolbert


so good afternoon everyone my name is
Lawrence Douglas and I’m in the department of law jurisprudence and
social thought and welcome to the third of the three-part point/counterpoint
events that we’ve been hosting this semester this is a conversation that was
made possible from a generous gift from the members of the 50th reunion class of
1970 and it supports public conversations in the hope of bridging
the growing ideological divide in our nation and helping us all to think more
carefully about the most important issues facing us today this
year’s theme is progress or a guess I didn’t pronounce it accurately since
there’s a question mark at the end so it’s this year’s theme is progress? and
the series takes place in conjunction with the course of the same name that’s
being taught right now which about one of every five first years at Amherst are
participating in the seminar our first event for those of you who were at the
earlier ones featured a conversation between the Harvard historian Jill
Lepore and the New York Times come this Ross Douthat
our second event featured a conversation between Steven Carter and Nicholas
Christakis both from Yale and this afternoon were delighted to welcome
Elizabeth Kolbert back to Amherst College because she’s been here on a
couple of times in the past and as many of you no doubt know Kolbert’s been a
staff writer at The New Yorker for about 20 years now since 1999 writing
primarily they’re not exclusively on matters of climate change
she’s perhaps most famous for two terrific books field notes from the
catastrophe and the more recently the sixth extinction which won the Pulitzer
Prize in 2015 and I should mention these books even though they might sound a
little bit like downers they’re actually leavened with a lot of really kind of
wonder humor and they are available for
purchase and think-think Christmas, Hanukkah season so nice gifts
with the author who’s also willing to sign Betsy has also received many other
awards and distinctions I won’t embarrass her by enumerating them
or fuel my envy but I’ll mention that she received this year the Pell
Center Prize for Story in the Public Square and perhaps most notably Kolbert
is the mother of Ned Kleiner Amherst College class of 2016
so please welcome Elizabeth Kolbert back to Amherst College Elizabeth, may I call you Bets? you may Laurance.
okay thank you Betsy so Betsy I’m gonna maybe try to defend human beings
for a little bit just kind of thing I could do and one question I just had is
you described these mass extinction events and I just wonder why we should
really even care about them if that’s okay to add to and I’ll tell it in the
following way so yeah I had this friend from New York City who came to visit
this past spring and this is a time where these frogs come out some of you
might have heard them of these spring peepers and we get all very excited when
the spring peepers come out and we were taking a walk in the evening and the
peepers are all peeping and we said to this friend from New York like hey those
are the spring peepers and the firm was like loud and it shook me that like the
spring peepers die off like we’ll be a little sad but who cares I mean so what you know I I actually get asked that
question you know quite quite regularly and I going to confess I was a little
taken aback the first time but I know I am and I think I think there are two
ways of answering it and the first is you know it’s like if you don’t care
about that if you don’t care about the end of all other you know or many other
life-forms on earth what you know what do you care about so that’s one way I
would I would pose it I mean you could say not really solving the problem and
in some level that’s what we’re doing right now you’ll all here always here
we’ll work putting up a lot of wind and we’re putting up a lot of soar and
that’s true but we are also burning a lot of gas increasingly less coal but a
lot of natural gas and we are driving increasingly actually fatter cars and
using more gasoline so you know we need a mechanism to stop that visa vie
everything we would consider that to be ethically in sufficient do you care
about you know this the war in Syria it’s not it’s not considered ethically
acceptable to say I don’t really give a shit I’m not in Syria you know that’s
not considered and I don’t think it should be considered ethically and that
gets to you know speciesism something we can talk about to say I don’t really
care about anything that isn’t human but if you insist on that and you know there
Dallas are people who have you know feel that way just intuitively and there are
probably even people who could construct an argument I would might not I would
probably agree with it but it could be done that that’s all you should care
about you know king of beasts and all that it’s not a good moment you wouldn’t
want to precipitate amassing since you wouldn’t want to be alive during a mass
extinction one of the sort of questions about a math extension is how does it
even happen it’s not really that easy to eliminate you know a large percentage of
life on earth and one of the sort of theories about how it how it could
happen how things can just start to unravel is you get these cascading
effects and you pull things out and you might be able to pull out the spring
peepers there are doubtless many things and I’m not a biologist there are PI
biologists in this room who could tell us what does depend on the spring
peepers you know eating there eggs Dallas and eating the adults so you
know you’re already are seeing many food webs collapse you probably many people
read there was recently a headline a big story about how North America has lost I
think was a third of its Birds over the last 50 years and that’s no one knows
exactly why but it’s probably related to the fact that we’re losing our insects
you know so so there are these cascades that are probably already sort of
beginning and if you are at that very high on the food chain as we are you
wouldn’t want to you wouldn’t choose that as the time to be alive you
wouldn’t think that those are good odds that it just so happens that humans will
survive as everything else collapses now that’s it that’s a gamble I’m you know
to be honest that we seem to be willing to take and the more we sort of push
forward with this project and I use that term loosely obviously because it’s
being done completely unwittingly and well less and less unwittingly but
certainly not purposefully you know the more we are playing this this roll the
dice kind of game and I I don’t want to say you know we’re gonna find out I
don’t want to see even your generation is gonna find out but the longer this
goes on the worse the odds kind of get I think right you know and also just about
the kind of the left Ithaca dimension of things like you mentioned the war in
Syria I mean it’s one thing to have well let me ask the question a little bit
differently you could almost describe Homo sapiens is almost like Homo
extincter from the way you described it in your book I mean we’ve seen very good
about driving things into extinction there were all these you described these
like megafauna these like which I guess if people aren’t familiar with the term
megafauna or what are they like giant sloths or
big rats or no they’re anything they’re really really refers to and I forget the
exactly things anything over 100 kilos right and we’re very good at like any
time like people migrated the thousands of years ago and they found these big
slow animals they died off yeah but the climate
change business it’s not like we’re trying to kill off anyone it’s not as if
I mean it’s just sort of like a little bit like bad luck isn’t it I mean it’s
not like a question of predation right now I mean we’re not we don’t want birds
to die off we don’t want the little froggies to die it just happens to be
the case that all these good things that we have like central air-conditioning
and central heating have these bad consequences so I just again the ethics
of the thing I I don’t there’s there’s a couple things that I I would I would say
I mean first of all I don’t I don’t think that you know eating or predating
you know giant sloths let’s just say or whatever you know Paleolithic you know
people did when they reached you know this continent was was that unethical
it’s doesn’t is no more unethical than our eating beef I I don’t I wouldn’t you
know accuse people who even you know did in the megaphone I wasn’t accusing them
of being unethical even and and and I don’t think that it is I hard in the
book the six extinction not to turn this into an ethical issue it’s not like us
versus them it’s our good people versus bad people it’s the human project and at
the center of that project with are all the qualities that we value in the human
our you know our inventiveness our creativity our ability to do new things
but if you look at this in the you know it’s unfortunately a very simple
argument you could argue it’s simple-minded but I think it’s pretty
compelling that if you look at you know how evolution works it is requires a
genetic mutation if you want to change your behavior your your you know your
way of living in the world you are reliant on random mutations which don’t
occur all that often that are adaptive and very useful and slowly propagate you
know through a population and through a species get fixed in a species now when
we changed something you know we got Amazon
and order it or whatever you know so and that process has just sped up and sped
up and sped up it it was true right away when people arrived in a new place and
brought weapons with them well animals just don’t have weapons you know you’ve
got to evolve a new way form of predation and that arms race which is
always going on in evolution is a slow process and it tends not to lead to
extinction because if you do in your own prey you’re in big trouble
ok we are a species that can do in one species and go on and move on and do in
another species and that makes us extremely dangerous I mean that’s just a
fact to other species and are we so dangerous to other species that we are a
danger to ourselves I think unfortunately that’s true but that is
definitely open to be right but even that I mean your book is also tells this
kind of very interesting story about I mean the image of humans that emerges
from the book is I think a very interesting one I mean a lot of the book
is talk talking about species other than humans but at the same time that you’re
talking about you know us as a danger you also describe I mean we engaging
these extraordinary efforts to to propagate endangered species I mean a
lot of we describe someone a scientist who is putting her arm up to her elbow
in the rectum of a rhinoceros to try to make it
ovulation its ovulating and I mean not a lot of other species are doing that I
don’t think and coming about that well I I do I mean I think that that is why the
you know I I definitely would like to trouble our view of ourselves you know
that that definitely was one of my goals but it’s not like I have you know an
answer to this I think people are people are complicated that is you know
precisely what makes us so interesting and and so destructive and our empathy
our empathy for each other are the fact that we you know think it’s
you know that there we declare a humanitarian crisis and go in and
provide humanitarian aid for people so they don’t starve to death you know
I think pretty much everyone in this room would agree that that’s a good
quality of humanity now that is also you know the reason there are so many of us
and we’re putting not the reason but a part of the reason putting so much
pressure on planet Earth if you just think of how many resources humans you
know arrogate to themselves this morning those of you who are there this morning
I gave a figure about just you know human biomass and now the figures that
human biomass is greater than all wild mammals put together by a ratio of eight
to one so you know that’s a pretty astonishing figure and the reason for
that is we just use a lot of resources if you just think about it pretty
logically well there’s just that much left for less left for other species so
is that you know where does that fit into ethics I think it’s extremely I
don’t think it’s clear-cut at all but you know these are unfortunate
consequences and so it should be constantly patting ourselves on the back
you know and not being cognizant of the you know collateral damage here that’s
really all that I’m trying to bring interview right right and in fact one of
the one of the lines of your book which I really thought was quite extraordinary
which maybe gets at this whole nature of your understanding of humans is you
write this towards the end of the book and I’m just gonna read this aloud you
write if you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species
you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying ak-47 or a logger in the Amazon
gripping an axe or better still you can picture yourself holding a book on your
lap now I thought that was an extraordinary statement because I think
a lot of us would be like oh yeah carrying it a poacher with an ak-47 got
it I got that a logger in the Amazon got that
picture of yourself holding a book in your well I’m holding your book on my
what happened and now this is an invitation for me to think I’m a pretty
dangerous dude so I wonder if you could unpack that well I’m glad you were
charted to that line it’s what I was what I was trying to get at obviously
yes obviously that’s you know a dig at my reader and it is trying to I mean
what why are humans humans transmit knowledge right so if we had to start
all over again what distinguishes a human one of the distinguishing things
I’m not going to get into the whole thing
what is the characteristic that distinguishes a human but a culture they
can transmit knowledge over generations that’s extremely powerful and there are
animal cultures absolutely I think that that’s clear in some species but they
have very very limited amounts of knowledge that they’re transmitting and
they very it has to be transmitted directly from one animal to the other
you know there’s no like go look over there in that book and you can figure it
out and so the idea that we have built up these in this enormous cultural
apparatus that can transmit knowledge is unbelievably powerful that’s why we’re
all here today that’s why I am ecology exist to continue that that project and
you know expand on it but once again it just gets to that imbalance between
ourselves and every other species there’s simply no other species that can
do that so you know once again when you just think about it it’s not you know
rocket science it’s gonna be a problem for a lot of other species that have to
deal with the consequences of that and one thing is I mean I suppose you could
say that technology has kind of gotten us into this particular mess I think one
of the things that might have come up in the course of the semester in this
course on progress or progress is to kind of point to figure maybe at
something like capitalism like one of the reasons that were
happier than we are is we have these very productive forces but they’re
tethered to a system of inequality but it doesn’t seem like it’s really
capitalism’s fault that has gotten us into this bind you’re really does seem
like an issue of Technology I mean so I mean is do you have a kind of vision of
technological determinism I mean it’s part to play a game of historical
counterfactual but is there any other way to to run this program and not to
get where we are now I mean I think that’s a really good question I think
that is a question you know sort of at the heart of you know progress progress
and and the question of you know a lot of what we think of also as our own
achievements as it were are the achievements of especially over the over
the last of using energy okay what we what we consider to be the normal you
know course of life and since the start of the Industrial Revolution and even
before that I mean really we think of fire right fire is using some other you
know organism as energy and you know obviously all organisms are exchanging
energy that you know that’s really what the college is exchange of energy
through these systems but we figured out ways to get at more and more energy when
we figured out how to get at fossil fuels that was that was absolutely huge
you know there’s just that’s just basically you know fossilised sunlight
so we’re going through you know hundreds of millions of years of plant matter
that happened to not decompose turned into fossil fuels and now we’re you know
really rapidly running through that so you know we’re sort of just running
geological history backwards in that sense and releasing all that carbon back
into the atmosphere now could we have ever reached the state of you know
advanced civilization we’d like to think of ourselves right now in 2019 without
using that form of energy I don’t I don’t think that I purse
don’t think that would be possible though I’d be certainly having it if
anyone wanted to argue if you want it are you that it seems pretty clear that
we are very much a product of we all use you know if you think of what what was
possible to do and we were only using the calories that humans or maybe draft
animals could consume we were extremely limited by what we could do and we did a
lot less you know damage to the to the planet at that point and as soon as we
found that we could use these sources of energy well then then we Unleashed
forces that were men many times so even though I would argue there is a
continuity of human history I do think the last 200 years there’s a very good
book by a historian called Jeremy Neil called something new Under the Sun and
it talks about these last since the Industrial Revolution something really
new has happened to Planet Earth and do you have any kind of I mean if
technology in a way has sort of gotten us into the fix and we can always talk
about kind of the absence of political will which I’m gonna kind of bracket
that is another but if for example you were made you know master of the
universe right or just master of the planet I mean are there ways right now
where we could walk this but I mean not made me walk it back because one of the
things you talk about is the effects are gonna continue to be sort of like
turning an ocean liner around we’re but I mean are there is there hope for these
people out there and and are there things that you can say – well there’s
technology that’s out there the question is the political will well I think that
that also is I mean I do think that that is the one of the great you know
questions of our time on the one hand of the political will and on the other hand
do we have the technology now we do have a lot of you know amazing technology as
a solar panel is an amazing technology it’s a way to take the current output of
the Sun and use it to make energy as opposed to the fossilized output of the
Sun and you know way more sunlight I forget what the figure is but it hits
the earth every day then even we can consume so you know that’s a miraculous
technology we should obviously making a lot more use out of it but the
question of I think as we move forward and in fact I’ve been think about this a
lot recently in the context of a book I’m trying to write there are a lot of
technologies on the horizon there’s genetic engineering
you know there’s species that are potentially you know at reached very low
numbers and this is happening you know even as we speak
you don’t have to get to the point although doubtless I shouldn’t say
doubtless but quite possibly we will where we will resurrect animals that are
extinct but where you could you know it basically expand the population the
genetics of a population a lot of animals when they get down to very low
numbers they’re they’re you know it’s called a genetic bottleneck you have
traits that you that are deleterious but they’re that’s all that’s left so you
know right now even as we speak there’s an effort for example in the
black-footed ferrets and people do people know the story of black footed
ferrets they were really decimated in this country in the West there Western
animal they were down to like 22 individuals many many millions of
dollars have been spent to try to bring them back but they have a there they
have a disease so that ik plague that they get and be this bottleneck is a
real problem so right now there’s a couple of individuals whose tissue is
frozen and they’re trying in the very earliest stages of this to see whether
those individuals could be cloned and then impregnate a living ferret
eventually and try to bring those genetics back into the population and
that is that is a brave new world and these technologies genetic engineering
technologies people are talking about you know counteracting climate change
with other ways of changing the atmosphere geoengineering there are a
lot of there’s a lot of talk and there’s a lot of things on the horizon that I
think in the next generation or two will become you know huge battles because
they really really challenge our notion and they
will become more and more acceptable right now you can’t take a genetically
modified organism just put it out into the environment there’s huge resistance
to that but I think that’s gonna decline as we find that you know we can look
around and everything and potentially solve some problems and potentially
create a lot of new ones these are these are really interesting questions what
about the mammoth that’s how our you know our I mean the idea of like deep
stinking the man yeah let’s see yeah well there’s always there’s a lot of
talk about this there’s a guy named George Church at Harvard and I I do on
emphasizes there’s a lot of talk but we could get one of the problems is when
something’s been dead for a long time like the mammoths you could sequence its
genome but you’d have a lot of holes in it you know you you couldn’t sequence it
the way you could take your DNA and just run it through so you have to get a sort
of jury-rigged version of it but you know it could be done and and true
Sorenson has been done and then you could try to reverse-engineer a I think
it’s an Asian elephant it’s closer to a mammoth than actually an Asian elephant
is to an African elephant and then you could try to you know get an Asian
elephant to carry this embryo but that the changes are our thousands we’re
talking about many thousands of generations and we are not at the point
where we can do that yet but will we ever be there it’s it’s not impossible
and a mer should be the first place and yeah I don’t know if you have you know
you’re I don’t want to put you in the position of a sage or something I mean
one of the things is I think we all have to make these decisions about how we
live for example at my wife insists on keeping our house around 62 degrees – as
a way of fighting against climate change so all that means is I’m chronically ill
and I’m not sure if I’m really making a contribution to the environment or not
and then there are these cars getting you and your wife yes yes
and you know their questions about you know do I fly or do I not fly at some
place like Amherst College I mean I think they’re interesting issues that
always the college declares itself as you know dedicated to reducing its
carbon footprint but never at the expense of divesting from you know firms
that petroleum firms and do you have any kind of like any like practical advice
or or how to negotiate those kinds of issues well I mean I think we keep we
keep going around and around on these questions because we are incapable as a
society as a country of you know deciding that we need to reduce
emissions which we I really can’t exaggerate how drastically and
desperately we need to do this I mean emissions right now globally are
tracking a scenario the International Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change I’m not gonna get a big climate change people but it it created these
scenarios are called representative concentration pathways and we are now
tracking the very highest which is called our CP 8.5 and it ends up in 2100
when you know very few of us will be around but hopefully you know the
children of today’s Emmer students will still be around ends up with almost a
nine degree fahrenheit temperature increase okay now to give you you know a
sense of how dramatic that is I mean probably temperatures have not been that
high on planet Earth for many many many millions of years and that would be an
you know completely ice-free world it would be a world where we had you know
definitely doomed the Greenland ice sheet the Antarctic Ice Sheet sea levels
you know Boston every coastal city in the world completely inundated parts
many parts of will unlit inhabitable by humans so that is a very very very
dramatic outcome we are on that it’s 2020
you know we really really really need to get our act together now not doing that
we are constantly leaving it to individuals you know to make to make
choices and it’s very difficult and I feel this in my own life so I’m
completely empathetic to say well I should be the one to make these
sacrifices now I that being said I think it’s fair I do think it’s very important
for institutions like Amherst to you know lead by example
and whether that is you know divestment I’m not gonna you know get involved in
that right now or whether it’s reducing campus emissions and really looking at
you know what travel is necessary what is necessary what emissions do we think
are serving our mission and what or not I think all those conversations should
be had in preparation for the day when I hope and pray that we will get our act
together and decide as a country and even as a globe that we’re gonna do
things and then people will have have to and I don’t know how we’re going to
compel that if some price mechanism or what make different choices I mean one
thing I thought in terms of I mean now getting to the issue of kind of
political will is you probably saw that I think among Democrats very
interestingly the number one concern is climate change I was actually surprised
by that result it’s a higher than health care it’s higher than anything has it
persisted there that was just that one what was it just one pie I don’t know
but anyway it certainly has risen yeah substantially and I think that that I
can’t I can’t exactly explain it I don’t know why it hasn’t been higher on
people’s radar before but I think that you know the fires in California all
sorts of things have have focused the mind on you know what’s going on I just
was hearing a piece on NPR about you know real estate values in coastal Miami
I mean all these things are hitting people impacting people increasingly
impacting people you know right now this is a kind of a question just
reflects my own scientific naivety um what if things were going the other way
what if we were getting colder I mean is that would we be facing the same problem
is it just sort of bad luck that you know burning fossil fuels makes
everything hotter that if everything we’re getting colder we’d be like hey
that would be like get some more Patagonia and then well there’s there’s
two questions here and one you know one is direction and one is rate of change
so we you know there’s a certain amount of question and you may have heard and
this gets trotted out by the write all the time you know are we looking at
another you know people in the 70s predicting another another Ice Age or in
the 60s or 50s or whatever and now now you’re saying it’s gonna be global
warming so you know there are you know we there are glacial cycles Amherst
College you know Amherst College sits on a piece of ground if you’ve been here
you know twelve or go to the geology Museum and read all about it you know if
you’d been here 15,000 years ago you would have been under under a mile of
ice so obviously the climate changes you
know duh you know and these are orbital cycles and there’s a it’s unclear
unclear whether and when exactly we would be heading into another glacial
cycle had we not decided to intervene very very dramatically so you know the
good news is you’re not getting another Ice Age okay don’t don’t worry about
that but then for quite a long time and you
know that’s another question that I’m sure people are modeling right now like
if and when we ever stopped emissions when we we will you ever resume that
glacial cycle but those changes you know and if we were heading into another Ice
Age people would be taking that you know fairly seriously but it would be a very
a much much much more protracted process before Amherst was you know
buried under a mile of ice we are changing the climate it’s an
extraordinary rate once again it may not you like it to us cuz we you know
weren’t around through other things and to us you know life is life but once
again in a geological sense this is extraordinarily rapid change and one of
the things also just in the book that I found pretty fascinating is not only
you’re giving a kind of a history of these other extinction events but you’re
also giving a history of the knowledge of these extinction events like when
people first became aware of it and you kind of linked the two in this early on
in the book you say in what seems like a fantastic coincidence but it’s probably
no coincidence at all the history of these events is recovered just as people
come to realize that they are causing another one so that again was a very
interesting observation I wonder if you could maybe talk about that
well the idea there was simply our our knowledge of the history of earth and
you know all of the things that come along with being you know what we think
of and once again maybe a hundred years from now or traditional we won’t be
thought of as an incredibly sophisticated society but you know what
we think it was an incredibly sophisticated society and and unlocking
I guess you would say or solving a lot of these questions that really puzzle
people for you know a long time for quite a long time they didn’t puzzle
people because they didn’t know as they were puzzle and then after you know the
beginning of the Scientific Revolution you know people puzzled over this how do
you get species obviously Darwin you know solving that after more sort of
solving that after much much cogitation by many many various more people and
extinction was one of those was it was it was a puzzle like what why would it
happen how would it happened and extinction actually as a concept
interesting enough predates evolution by about two generations so people realized
that animals went extinct in one of the the new world you know this area in New
England New York was key to that because people
started to unearth mastodons in particular not not so much mammoths who
were whose fossils were look a lot like elephants and Mastodon teeth went once
again you can go to the geology museum and see that NASA don’t eat madness
teeth are very much like elephants so they were just there are a lot of
mammoths you know in Siberia mammoth bones they were just categorized as you
know elephants that had been washed north in the flood so that was how that
was explained for quite a long time but then people in in North America started
to find mastodons and Macedon teeth which are very different from mammoth
teeth and and elephant teeth and they were a tremendous mystery and that
actually it was on the basis of that that people began to sort of realize
there are war animals out there that no longer existed mm-hmm and again this is
another quote maybe you’ve already answered this but I thought again it was
interesting extinction finally emerged as a concept again probably not
coincidentally in revolutionary France yeah so so the guy who you know
quote-unquote invented extinction will really solve this growing mystery of
like what were all these weird bones of things that didn’t seem to be around
anymore and once again the megafauna played a very big role in this because
they are big and that hard to think that there was like a mastodon lurking out
there although Thomas Jefferson famously thought there were mastodons they
thought Lewis and Clark would find them because he did not believe in extinction
it was a very active debate at that moment and this guy George Cuvier who
was the most famous naturalist of his time and until Darwin really the
most famous naturalist in Europe but has really been forgotten because he has
some of his ideas were right and many of them were wrong and now it’s tokay
extinction exists it happens and it happens because of these catastrophes is
he he called them revolutions on the
surface of the earth and he was very much a product of the French Revolution
he lived through the revolution he lives in the terror and you know as as you all
know a lot of ideas were on the table in the French Revolution and it seems you
know once again I can’t I certainly can’t prove it but it seems like that
moment of rethinking things was key to key to his insight and I think you also
mentioned that that Darwin actually was quite resistant to this idea well Darwin
and and once again there’s actually really interesting you know Amherst
connection here with with Hitchcock and the dinosaur footprints and all those
people who understood extinction so that was the moment you know the Hitchcockian
moment was was the moment when people knew that things had gone extinct we had
these you know wacky footprints and those animals didn’t exist anymore but
what had happened to them and Cuvier’s theory which dovetailed nicely with the
theory of the deluge was a bit you know sort of catastrophists theory and then
while who’s the key figure in the history of geology those newton geology
will doubtless bump into him who are you things only change gradually and it
wasn’t like things mostly changed graduate is things only change gradually
so that was his answer to this unscientific sort of religiously based
catastrophism and when dot when Darwin came along Darwin is is really awhile
applied to biology and he was a big Darwin nut Lyle was really his mentor
and Darwin adopted the Lyell in view catastrophes cannot happen it’s not just
that most things are explained without catastrophe as they simply cannot happen
and that was the gospel and if you talk to someone who studied geology as
recently as the 1970s they will tell you that and then along came the impact
hypothesis which you guys are all familiar with that you know it was an
asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs and that really shifted that
paradigm that was a real paradigm shift so while we believe I think geologists
would say generally in no earth history change is very gradual
but not always and that’s sort of where we are right now and the question of you
know where we fit in that you know how do we relate to an asteroid is you know
that that’s the issue of our time we are changing things about as fast as
anything except an asteroid it is interesting about the ash because the
asteroid theory that took a while for it to be adopted as well I mean there’s a
lot of pushback against that and it wasn’t pushback that was coming from
ExxonMobil or something like that it was just kind of I thought it was
interesting the way in which people are so invested in their scientific
understandings that they will really really resist evidence yeah I think that
is a really interesting case in the history of science of a theory that was
you know absolutely reviled it was a had got a lot of popular press it was such
an amazing idea so you know but it was in paleontological circles it was
considered complete her you know it’s heresy it was a form of heresy and that
I think is yeah that that you know gets to this question of of how you know
scientific revolutions I don’t I don’t know really I don’t want to elevate it
to a scientific revolution but it wasn’t it was a new concept that had took a
long time for people to buy into yeah I mean it wasn’t I’d I want to say wasn’t
that long I mean in the history of you know it wasn’t like you know the earth
and the Sun the impact hypothesis was first proposed in 1980 and then the
impact crater so the Chicxulub crater which is off the under the Yucatan and
parts of the Gulf of Mexico was just discovered in the early 90s and when
that creator was discovered that exactly match the timing of the end of the
Cretaceous a lot of people you know a lot of scientists who
or hesitant to embrace the theory cuz you know there’s a saying in science
extraordinary you know extraordinary theories demand extraordinary evidence
but that was extraordinary evidence I mean it’s interesting because that kind
of because on one level I mean maybe it’s hard to tell a good story about the
the adoption or the acceptance of the theory of climate change or the fact of
climate change but it seems that you know in the case of the impact I mean
you don’t have material forces aligned who are deeply invested in disputing it
and still you had people disputing it and here with climate change I mean you
can almost tell a good story that well it’s been pretty widely adopted I mean
obviously there’s some very serious outliers and some of the serious
outliers are in very powerful positions and our government today and some other
leading governments as well yeah but at least the theory seems to have been
adopted pretty quickly in the face of a lot of material opposition to its
acceptance does that make yeah but I think climate there’s a couple things I
want to say about climate change and and if you go back to the climate change you
know literature I mean there there were reports to to Lyndon Johnson about
climate change as a problem okay so so we are now going back over 50 years so
you know the that that idea you know that it was accepted climate changes is
not a challenge to anything you know except our economic order as it were
climate change is very basic you know geophysics and I think that any
scientist who you know was was sort of it didn’t really challenge any one
scientific understanding you know it’s you know a variation of you know
blackbody radiation we have understood that greenhouse gases determine the
temperature of the earth since 1850s okay so it was very established science
that if you add a lot of co2 the insight that brought people to the idea that oh
my god we’re changing the climate was not the physics of climb
change which were understood and calculated already in the 1890s it was
how fast are the oceans there was a theory that the oceans were gonna be
absorbing most of the co2 that we put up there and as soon as people started
measuring co2 and this was back in there this was in the late 50s in the
atmosphere they realized oops that’s not true the oceans are not
gonna absorb all of our co2 that fast it’s going to and then as soon as that
happened people realized this could have significant consequences so we haven’t
exactly jumped on this idea but it doesn’t have the same scientific dynamic
that I think is a much more political dynamic if you if it needs to I mean
this is again maybe there’s a specular question I don’t know if you have many
opportunities to actually talk to climate deniers climate change deniers I
mean I and my own work I sometimes have contact with Holocaust deniers and
people sometimes ask me do they actually believe what they think and my basic
answer is no they don’t it’s actually bad faith and I don’t know if you have
any kind of insight into that I think that’s a really interesting comparison
and I think that I I don’t have a lot to do with climate deniers which is except
you know to the extent that of a very garden-variety
you know in some sense you know we’re all climate tires we’re all like living
you know going on living as if you know this somehow is gonna get solved but I
don’t I think it’s a little bit different in the sense that even though
you could argue it’s you know very basic science blah blah blah I think that you
know look that there are a lot a lot of people who don’t you know don’t believe
in evolution okay now is that good faith good faith I don’t believe it you know
that’s my faith I don’t believe in evolution so I think it’s a lot I think
it’s a somewhat different I think that the professional climate deniers are
we acting in bad faith at this point yes but you know Uncle Joe who thinks we’re
heading into another Ice Age and he’s you know basically scientifically not
the most sophisticated person is that good faith or bad faith I I don’t I
I’m not gonna call it bad faith it’s a bit of a fog maybe but I don’t know that
it’s truly bad today I’m gonna open it up in a moment to the audience ask give
all of you an opportunity to ask questions I’m gonna ask one last thing
which is basically for the students in who have been in the seminar and I think
the point of departure for the seminar was a quotation from Barack Obama and
I’m just gonna read you this quotation and I think this again was shared with
the students on the very first meeting of their seminar and Obama had said the
following he said if you had to choose a moment in history to be boring and you
did not know ahead of time who you would be you didn’t know whether you were
going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family what country you’d be
born in whether you’re going to be born a man or woman if you had to choose
blindly what moment you’d want to be born you choose now and I was just
wondering if you had any kind of thoughts about that I mean I think it’s
a very it’s a very interesting quote and I think it shows a certain kind of a
slight you know America centrism or whatever I mean I I think it shows a
kind of you know many of the things that are attractive about Obama you know
optimism etcetera but I I mean you know would most of the
people in this room probably you know say well I I’ve you know it’s been
pretty good for me so far yeah but if you were you know peeking through
you know if you were living off I have it has anyone seen the movie
Anthropocene okay well anyway there’s a I recommend it it’s a really it’s a
really good beautiful photography and there’s a scene of you know many many
people and I forget exactly where this this dump is I think it’s in India but
you know people living living off that and there are many many thousands
hundreds millions of people whose livelihoods now if you compare you know
that as your way of making living to you know ten thousand years ago when all of
our ancestors were you know hunting and gathering and buy all you know accounts
that we can think of were actually living in pretty egalitarian societies
because there simply weren’t a lot of excess you know resources in the whole
you know history of civilization I’m not gonna for count now I hope you’ve talked
about that in progress but I you know I don’t know that I would I don’t know
that I would agree with that you know I could certainly say your odds of living
longer are probably better but I’m I don’t know of your odds of living better
I think that’s a there is somewhat subjective and somewhat I think that
there are many people living in a kind of misery that you know maybe didn’t
maybe didn’t even wasn’t even comprehensible ten thousand years ago I
don’t know I wasn’t around and I am NOT living off of you know a garbage dump
and maybe there is our joys and satisfactions and that I think that all
no I am serious I think that all of these you know value judgments that is
exactly you know what you all are at Amherst to examine okay it questions
from from y’all don’t be shy yes and do we have any a medium mic to go
around just so they don’t want to scare anyone um can you explain can you explain why
climate change has become such a politicized issue in this country and
why globally it hasn’t been accepted as an issue that we all need to
collaboratively address that is a really good question I mean the simple answer
which is you know as a close and approximation to the truth as I think we
need how’s that is that it there are huge vested interests and by
by that I want to extend that once again you know to a certain extent to all of
us I mean living the way we all live right now is completely dependent on
fossil fuels there’s there’s just no getting around that
and there are huge industries in this country and in particular I mean the
u.s. is now an oil producer again one of the world’s major oil producers we that
happened you know under Democratic and Republican administrations alike that is
completely you know antithetical to solving or redressing climate change
so it became politicized I think very very purposefully by fossil fuel
interests and you know there’s tons written on that that if you’re
interested in reading I’m happy to you know cite you chapter verse but you know
it’s a very conscious attempt to make it a political issue in this country okay
and then that was seized on it has now become a ridiculously polarized you know
where you have one party that says climate change is a big problem and
another party that says climate change doesn’t exist that really should not be
possible but here we are and then you have if you were to take the next step
we would all acknowledge that climate changes to be a problem we all and say
we need to address it you would then face a huge global problem a huge global
equity problem which we never quite get to because we never take that first step
but then the question is well the US has blown through we personally in not
personally but in the u.s. u.s. is still responsible for more co2 that’s up there
in the air right now than any other country right and if I’m a very you know
the least developed countries as their as their officially known official block
of you and say you know I should cut down on my co2 might fossil fuel
consumption because you guys already you know screwed up the planet you know it’s
we’re you know and so that global equity issue which i
think is is huge it we never even reached the point of having that
conversation because we keep getting bollixed up in whether or not this is a
problem or not so it’s a very difficult issue to solve even if you’re
well-meaning and we are not well meaning at this point um I was wondering how you
would respond to claims by governments of some developing countries that say
that countries like the US had their economic power and influence in the
world largely powered by or influenced by their use of fossil fuels and that
now it’s the turn of these governments to use fossil fuels to gain that same
sort of economic influence I mean how would you reply to that yeah I mean I
think I think that’s a very difficult argument to counter I think that it’s
very hard to say well you know don’t do what we did do what we now say I think
our moral standing to say that is is approximately zero but you know that
being said and you know once again the only hope here if we must have hope is
that you know if I’m let’s say India which is soon will be the most populous
country in the planet and has a huge huge coal reserves and uses huge coal
reserves and is ramping up its coal consumption I’m
gonna be hammered by climate change so I do have an interest in addressing this
and you know many many many gazillions of man-hours you know have gone into
trying to come up with a way forward that is both acceptable you know to
developed countries and developing countries and one of that has always
been you know technology transfer money transfer we’re not doing this by just
you know telling other countries what to do now as I say we keep taking you know
one teeny step forward and then several steps backwards and that’s what you know
I’m not gonna go into the whole you know Paris Accord but Paris was a teeny step
forward and now we’re taking a big step backwards what do you think nuclear
energy has what role do you think it will play in the future of our planning
that’s another really good question that is there are some people who might have
a lot of whom I think are very smart who would say this there’s no way we’re not
we’re not solving climate change I have to make that point because it’s already
you know we’ve gone down too far down the road but dealing with it without
nuclear and there’s some people who would say you know there’s no way we’re
doing it with nuclear and there is a lot of nuclear going up around the world but
not in this country it’s a not generally in the in the in the West Germany is
actually closing its nuclear power plants there’s probably no so after
Fukushima there’s a lot of reluctance to say let’s just go full bore into nuclear
and one thing that really right now the u.s. is closing also closing nuclear a
lot of our nuclear plants are very old and they’re actually so we’re actually
shutting them down and we’re not building new it because it’s it’s
extremely expensive so right now it’s just not
but potentially you could get a lot of power out of nuclear power and you can
get a really a lot of power out of breeder reactors where you you know
recycle the fuel but most countries have that even have done it are it’s it’s
quite dangerous it it it produces plutonium bomb grade plutonium so it’s
it’s it’s a these are very very tough geopolitical and environmental questions
to answer and another point that I would just raise is that the US has never come
up with a place to put nuclear waste so all of the nuclear waste that has been
the radioactive rods the rods that we pull out of the power plants that are
still extremely radioactive hot sit at the power plant today we’ve never found
a repository for them and the Trump administration was gonna go back to an
old plan that had been abandoned but I don’t think they’ve done anything
because they are incapable of doing pretty much anything
so we’re there we sit we just sit we just sit there and we don’t know what to
do questions you’re not going anywhere so who’s that yes also in our class we are calling reading
about vapor and he said all the leaders and scientists have our teachers have
completely different you know roles in society because those who are engaged in
teaching or academics are alike expected to provide a true story now if you
wanted to this thing then does this thing like that but those leaders are
kind of liking and having arguments or some ideals however teachers are not
allowed to provide ideals or you know something like personal opinions in the
classroom so what do you expect yourself to do as you know as we write as a
person who writes books or as we influence to other people I I set the
bar pretty low and what I’m trying to do in general is raise quite you know
progress is raise questions is get people to look at things that they might
think they understood or have settled ideas about and and and trouble that in
a way so I am a troublemaker that’s that’s sort of how I see myself but I
don’t see myself as as and this you could argues a cop-out and I accept that
I don’t see myself as providing you know grand theory or a grand argument or a
grand answer I just would like ya to get under people’s skin a little bit next
question is she so I think one way it’s sort of tempting
to think about issues about our role and climate change and extinctions I think
we all sort of slip into this is to think that what’s really wrong here is
that we’re messing with nature but that we’re intervening in nature but I worry
that there’s not a notion of nature there that can really sustain that
thought because well I guess to put it bluntly either we’re part of nature or
we’re not and if we are then everything we do is also part of nature so we’re
not intervening or messing with nature in the other hand if we’re not part of
nature then even the benign things we do or are things that are intervening in
nature that we’re messing with with nature even with the benign things we do
so I wonder whether you think there’s a notion of nature that will sustain these
thoughts or whether you think there’s another way we should be thinking about
the bad things we’re doing here well I think that’s a really really good
question you know and I mean I to a certain extent what I one answer I could
give and and it might sound flip but I think it’s it’s it it’s it’s important
is to a certain extent that’s a semantic thing that’s once again saying that is
in our own heads right you know what what we define as nature what we don’t
define as nature you know nature nature doesn’t give a shit so you know could we
do we imagine the nonhuman world let’s say we just take the nonhuman world
which in the presence of humans has a certain trajectory and in the absence of
humans has a different trajectory can we can we agree on that and then the
question becomes so you know there was a pre human world and there will be a post
human world and the post human world will look you know radically different
for our having been here and you know once again I don’t necessarily think
that it you know I think bringing human ethics to bear on this is not
necessarily even even productive though on some level we can’t help it but I
don’t think it’s I guess I somewhat take issue with the
idea that we can’t at least imagine in a theoretical sense a nonhuman world the
humans haven’t intervened in now as a practical matter there is no such world
anymore and that’s what we’re dealing with right now and it’s still the case
that you know we can’t make nature do it we launch right it’s still the case that
you know we are changing the climate and we’re not doing what we want you know
we’re not mean we do what we want when that when that hurricane comes on it
we’re not Indian you know it’s not it’s not our product so there’s a lot of
things that we’re doing and this is where things get you know super super
messy right where we’re having an influence but we’re not determining it
and there’s a lot of cases where we are determining it you know we when we you
know mow down the rain forest and plant a soybean plantation and you know feed
it fertilizer and pesticides and all the things that that’s it I would argue a
very human created you know landscape but there’s all sorts of intermediates
and that’s increasingly you know the nature that we’re dealing with is that
which can survive alongside us and you know what you call it or don’t call it
is does that matter as much as you know what’s happening and I think one of the
also other things I would say is is that we’re realizing that even as we have a
tremendous impact on everything we don’t understand a lot of things I mean that
that non-human world we only have access you know to what we what we look at and
what we can imagine try to imagine is going on but most of
it is going on imperceptibly to us you know it’s just it’s just happening and
it’s still carrying on in this degraded or whatever word you want to use once
it’s it’s a word that humans are playing but it’s still carrying on in some
fashion I don’t know if that answers the question but but I think it is a very
profound question Lee some wondering if you have any ideas for
technological interventions that might not be that commonly discussed ones if
anything in your writing and talking to people gives you ideas about unexpected
areas where a technological advance could make a big difference if somebody
wants to take a longshot bid at working on some kind of technology that will
have a large impact Wow that’s a good question I would say I I you know I’m
not I’m not a technologically particularly talented or savvy person
and I would say anything that I could think of someone is working on you know
people are tinkering with everything right now the most amazing you know
things are going on I mean you know people are trying to you know for
example rejigger photosynthesis photosynthesis is extremely inefficient
process developed over several you know billion years of evolution but it
doesn’t work it was just chance and you know well we got the best we could
jury-rigged let’s try to let’s try to let’s try to work that one out you know
so anything you can think of anything I could think of I shouldn’t say you could
think of I said I only get my ideas from from people who are out there working on
them and and I’m all the time just a minute so I just read a story yesterday
that people had scientists had broadcast sounds of fish on a reef to try to
attract fish back to a degraded reef because they thought that the noise
might help and they claimed that it did so you know anything I could come up
with after let me just follow up on these question because maybe the
question is less about what you yourself would come up with and just more that
because I think maybe there’s a fear that we almost get paralyzed that you
know I can keep my thermostat at 62 degrees I’m not sure if that’s really
gonna have effect on anything I know it’s gonna make me have a head cold for
most of the winter months but there’s also this kind of fear that
you know like if we can’t change anything then we might as well go ahead
and just live our lives the way so I just wonder is there technologies out
there that look really really promising that we just haven’t heard a lot about
that you might have read about that ooh that sounds like that could really be
very very promising well I mean III think that the the lesson is you know it
depends it depends what you’re talking about right so one point you know if we
came up with a source of energy so the sort of holy grail of energy right now
in the energy world is fusion right so we would imitate you know the Sun now
Fusion has always been just above over the horizon there many people have
concluded it will always be just over the horizon but there are some people
who feel it will one day be harnessed and that would provide you know really
basically limitless energy for you know potentially very low cost it would also
as people point out would provide the means technology for making a
thermonuclear bombs to a lot of countries but you know there are
trade-offs so so you know let’s let’s just imagine for the sake of imagining
and there’s a big project under underway in France it’s hideously troubled and
blah blah blah but it is under way you know we get fusion we have limitless
energy we non-carbon sorts of energy so we you know sort of arrest climate
change or at a certain point and it’s slowly as the oceans take up co2 you
know the climates are eventually revert the question then arises in my mind vzv
you know the other occupants of planet earth what do we do with that energy and
it seems to me that you know if we continue to you know mow down the
rainforests and all the other things a lot of the things that we currently are
doing with our energy we might well be better off but the other species with
whom we share will not necessarily be better off so I
don’t think that there is a simple you know straight line here but you know
humans and from a human perspective infamous should have short to medium
term perspective obviously the big question is can we come up with
non-carbon sources of energy and that gets back to nuclear and so you know
nuclear fission next generation nuclear people talk
about and then and then they ought that absolutely you know gold standard would
be fusion energy it seems like you know a lot of us know things about climate
change find it devastating I just wonder as someone who spends so much of your
time and after learning about this how do you deal with their just unbelievably
devastating reality like on an emotional level how do you deal you know I I don’t
think I I don’t have it I don’t have a good answer for that you know I think
that it’s it’s really hard especially now you know I’ve been writing about
this for you know almost twenty years and the world has gone you know it’s not
like just there wasn’t made progress that what was done very dramatically
you know backward I mean emissions are way way up over that period and the
politics really in this country you know haven’t I would I would guess you on
some level you say we’ve gotten better and some little they’ve gotten worse so
you know it’s not a it’s it’s a very unhappiness inducing situation but I
don’t I don’t have like you know the routine I do in the morning I psych
myself up you know there get through another day
you know as Lawrence would tell you I’m a pretty gloomy person so you know maybe
I just started with a baseline of gloom and this is just sort of but it’s it’s
very you know and it doesn’t reflect well on humanity right and you know this
gets back to you know we were talking this morning about you know reason and
all that it doesn’t doesn’t make people seem very rational people do not at this
moment strike me as behaving the way you know a enlightened rational society
would when you’ve been told four hundred gazillion times that what you’re doing
is not safe and you can see it you can see the sea level rise and you can see
the temperature rise and you’re just like you know trilling your thumbs thank you I have an additional response
to the last two questions which I was in despair about climate change and
environmental destruction throughout my whole 20s and couldn’t get out of bed
some days and I just find that being in action about it really really makes a
huge difference and we don’t have one solution there’s never going to be one
solution to climate change but there are already like dozens upon dozens of
solutions to climate change and we have to do all of them to make a difference
and some of them are very simple you’ve mentioned so many of them but and
some of them are very simple like planting trees is one of the biggest
things we can do I’m switching to sustainable agriculture because we can
sequester carbon in the soil there’s so many things and we just need to start
doing them and as you mentioned what really is in the way is um the fossil
fuel industry who’s buying our government so one of the biggest things
we can do is pressure our local officials and our federal government to
make change thank you this question is kind of piggybacks on that in terms of
personal action I mean we often read or I’ve read the some of the biggest things
you can do I already you know have had my kid but you know just have one child
or not to have children or to eat a plant-based diet to make a choice like
that and then my son gobbled up the turkey that his father cooked you know
with great Glee and he would say it makes no difference what you’re doing
mom you know and you’re just making yourself feel good because I made these
choices years ago and it feels right to me and might just do you feel do you
tell young people do you tell your child that it makes a difference and if
millions of people made these choices it does make a difference even if the
government is slow to make change I think I think once again it’s not like
it’s it’s not a separate category of ethical action right I mean you know
does it make a difference you know if you don’t cheat on your tax returns
let’s say I mean leaving aside the question of getting audited which is
very very unlikely these days you know you there’s certain things that you know
you you don’t do because you consider them unethical and you don’t say to
yourself well is is this really changing the course of history right and I think
that you know why do we always ask that about about climate change I mean of
course it’s true that if your choices were if you’re making a choice that if
Universal I write the content and you know imperative if you’re really
interested if you universalize was make a difference that seems to me to be an
you know an ethical choice and what you should do regardless of whether it does
become universalized right you can’t control that so I don’t I think that’s a
non-unique problem to climate change but I certainly do urge people to do to you
know behave ethically with regard to climate change now that being said you
know I I you know I’m in a tremendous bind I mean I I travel a lot for for
work and do I justify that by saying you know well this is you know going to do
so much good for the world that it’s worth the carbon I’m staring into the
air I find that harder and harder to do to be honest so you know I don’t I try
not to preach to be honest because I my carbon footprint is as you know bad as
you know the point whatever percent on this planet so I I’m in no position to
do that but that being said I don’t think that you should let your son
browbeat you yeah we have time for one more question if there yeah it might be
a little bit um maybe bringing a couple of things together as far as like what
should we do and who gets to do it who gets to decide but I guess I wonder
maybe not on a maybe not on a can it have
in level but more in a policy level like what’s your view of the green New Deal
or the Green Industrial Revolution which is the platform for labor in the UK or
even in China the goals that it set out in a completely different non democratic
way but these large sort of policy advancements I guess or being put forth
before voters are not being put forth before Florida’s in this case of China
what’s your take on those policy wise well that’s a very that’s a very
complicated question so I’ll try to address sorry
pretty simply I mean the green your deal is unfortunately you know fortunately or
unfortunately it’s a political document it has no policies attached to it no
legislation and I’d you know sort of defy someone to write the legislation
that would result in the green New Deal so it was very consciously a set of
principles that we should you know aspire to I am on some level you know
heartened by that and a lot of people getting behind it and I say you know if
it feels good to do it no I mean if he unites people if it unites labor and the
environmental movement you know great and people fighting for social justice
all of those forces it was very consciously designed to bring people
together so great what really worries me is it has rejected the last generation
of thinking which is we need a price on carbon and we need it now and no one has
come up I mean if you do all these great things you know install a lot of energy
solar power etcetera and you don’t back out the fossil fuels that you’re using
you are just up what’s bad and encourage what’s good and economists whom I don’t
place all my faith in by any stretch of the imagination would say the only way
to do that only way to influence behavior on a mass scale in a capitalist
country is with a price so I worry that having turned against a carbon tax we’re
just now going to fight about you know that so that’s my worry about the green
New Deal and maybe it’s just the very final
question is would you be prepared to sign copies of your beautifully written
and price to move better yes makes an ideal stocking stuffer absolutely well
again thanks so much for this

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