One Book author visits campus, talks climate change, extinction, and journalism

Catherine Hamilton

This past Thursday Elizabeth Kolbert visited the University to deliver a speech for the One Book Celebration. One Book is a campus wide effort that continues throughout the year. 

The program includes faculty, staff and students and initiates close reading and discussion throughout campus. This year’s book is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, one of New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year and a National Book Critic’s Circle Award Finalist. Kolbert has also appeared on the “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart to discuss her novel.

“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” discusses the global extintion phenomenon. The last five extinctions drastically and dramatically altered the diversity of life. Scientists expect the sixth extinctions’ events to surpass those of the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. 

Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines and descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human (Amazon).

Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. She previously worked at the New York Times where she wrote the “Metro Matters” column. She periodically contributed to Times Magazine, writing about various topics, such as the use of focus groups during election season to the New York Water supply.

 Kolbert studied at Yale University and traveled to the University of Hamburg in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. In addition to her time spent in Germany, she has traveled all over the world to observe and study various species at risk of extinction. 

In an interview with Kolbert prior to the talk, she revealed some additional insight and takeaways for Villanovans. 

“I think the big take away from the book in my mind is the ways in which humans are changing the planet right now by doing things that we consider really ordinary like driving our cars, taking trips across the country,” Kolbert said. “They are really significant; they are having significant and permanent impacts on planet earth.”

She also discussed the various factors that initiated her interest in the sixth extinction. 

“I wrote a book about climate change about 10 years ago, and then after that I wrote some things on the oceans,” she said. “I was interested in these big global changes that we are in the process of unconsciously producing and  it all seemed to come together in the idea of Sixth Extinction just kind of came together.” 

Although the human species has already created some irreversible damage, Kolbert believes that are still things we can do to help the earth and ease the affects of the sixth extinction. 

“If you are extinct, you are too foregone,” Kolbert said. “There is a lot of climate change and warming built in the system. It is too late to say we are going to stop global warming but it is never to late to say things could get worse. We could still do more damage. We still have a lot of really significant choices to make. We should be making these choices consciously instead of just sleep walking through them.” 

During her talk to the students, Kolbert went through a PowerPoint presentation during which she discussed different species who are critically endangered. One of the species she mentioned, elephants, has been gaining the attention of people throughout the world as poachers have been coming under fire for murdering the creature and selling its tusks. She told the crowd how the elephant population has drastically increased by over 90 percent. 

She also taught the crowds about multiple endangered bird species in New Zealand and Australia. The citizens of New Zealand and Australia value these birds highly and have been taking active initiatives to prevent further endangerment. 

For example, rats, cats and other small creatures regularly hunt these birds, resulting in critical endangerment. The citizens set up traps across the land to eradicate these creature to ensure the birds safety. 

The last chapter of Kolbert’s book is called “The Thing with Feathers.” This title also happens to be the name of a poem about hope by author Emily Dickinson.  The chapter chronicles a Hawaiian crow named Kinohi. 

There are only about 100 of Kinohi’s kind left. Scientists have been trying to force him to bree but have been unsuccessful. Because humans raised the bird, Kinohi does not realize he is supposed to breed with other birds.

The ending of the book, however, remains up to the readers’ discretion. Because the book ends on a hopeful note, the reader might take this on to believe in hope for the world.