Skip Links

Cheat sheet:

Elizabeth Kolbert

Essential writing from New Yorker staff writer, author and Antidote headliner Elizabeth Kolbert

Dominic Ellis

Elizabeth Kolbert is one of the most important science writers in the world. As hyperbolic as that sounds, it’s true. She’s been on the cutting edge of environment discourse since the 90s and is now leading conversations about technological interventionism and the hubris underpinning quests to ‘solve’ environmental problems. She’s also a profoundly human storyteller, darkly funny and committed to getting her hands dirty. In September, she’ll be among friends at Antidote, a line up of inspirational thinkers, where she’ll be speaking to Paddy Manning about Racing to the End of the World. You can catch the talk on Stream. Before that, here are the essential things you need to know (and read) about Elizabeth Kolbert.

New Yorker reporting & Field Notes

Kolbert started work as a ‘stringer’ for The New York Times in Germany in the 80s. A stringer is a freelancer who assists foreign journalists with stories, or goes out and digs up their own. It's no coincidence that since then, her career has been defined by a willingness to go out onto the figurative street – to find the little stories that tell the big stories, and to translate expertise to a wider audience. “I was trying to find stories that were narratable,” Kolbert told The Oberlin Review.

In 1999, Kolbert became a staff writer for the New Yorker, writing mostly on politics, including profiles on Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani. But it wasn’t until 2005 that she found her true calling, publishing a three-part series called ‘The Climate of Man’ about “how the earth is changing” – a euphemism for a term that was just starting to penetrate the popular vocab: climate change.

‘The Climate of Man’ was an eye-opening account of the state of the planet. Kolbert would directly visit the places at the forefront of the climate change discussion: from an Inupiat island village on the verge of relocating to Alaska’s mainland due to rising seas, to the Netherlands, where lowland farmers had to be bailed out by the government because of tributary flooding.

A year later, Kolbert would make waves (excuse the pun) by extending the story into a book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe. In it she would start engaging with a term that would define her work for the subsequent decade and a half: Anthropocene – the concept that humans, above all else, are directly defining the fate of the planet.

The Sixth Extinction

“This time, we’re the asteroid.” That’s how popular YouTube channel ‘It’s Okay to be Smart’ summed up Kolbert’s groundbreaking (excuse the pun… again) 2014 book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Here she takes her engagement with Anthtropocene to the next level, equating human’s innate environmental destructiveness to historical mass extinction events that often involved things like asteroids, tectonic shifts and volcanic eruptions.

It’s a harrowing account, made readable by Kolbert’s ability to convert deep science into digestible prose, in which she talks about the dwindling populations of natural life in the world’s most diverse habitats. She travels around the world, including, most troublingly, to the Great Barrier Reef, where scientists explain the detrimental impact that increased temperatures and acidity have had on life in the famous coral reef, concluding that it could be reduced to rubble by 2050. 

Cataclysm aside, the book was a sensation. In a lengthy New York Times review, Al Gore deemed it “an invaluable contribution to our understanding of present circumstances”. Kolbert would also win the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015. Which is all to say: this is an essential read for all inhabitants of our crumbling planet.

Under a White Sky

Speaking of Al Gore, there’s an apt quote from his dear rival George Bush. While discussing An Inconvenient Truth and calls for great political action on climate change back in the mid-2000s, Bush said:

“ my judgment we need to set aside whether or not greenhouse gases have been caused by mankind or because of natural effects and focus on the technologies that will enable us to live better lives and at the same time protect the environment.”

It’s this techno-solutionism, the naive idea that some sort of grand intervention will come along and stave off global disaster, that underpins Kolbert’s latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. It is, as she describes in the final chapter, “a book about people trying to solve problems caused by people trying to solve problems”.

The title refers to a ‘solar geoengineering’ strategy to dim the sun – a macro example of the sort of good-intentioned technological interventions that are scattered throughout the book, many of which are characterised by absurd attempts at human control. And yet, as absurd and theoretical as they may seem, Kolbert admits that some of these interventions are necessary. As Andy Parker, a project manager for a Solar Radiation Management NGO, puts it: “We live in a world where deliberately dimming the f***ing sun might be less risky than not doing it”.

As always, Kolbert dives headfirst gonzo-style into the subject, interviewing experts like David Keith (one of TIME magazine’s ‘Heroes of the Environment’) and once again discussing the Great Barrier Reef and how “assisted evolution” projects might affect the reef. 

Hear from Elizabeth Kolbert at her ANTIDOTE talk Racing to the End of the World, alongside host Paddy Manning.

You may also like...