Could tinkering with photosynthesis prevent a global food crisis?
This story begins about two billion years ago, when the world, if not young, exactly, was a lot more impressionable. The planet spun faster, so the sun rose every twenty-one hours. The earliest continents were forming—Arctica, for instance, which persists as bits and pieces of Siberia. Most of the globe was given over to oceans, and the oceans teemed with microbes. Continue reading
Today marks ten years since the first post on this platform. Seth’s description of a crab-eating little possum wandering by as he was reading, and a sloth-sighting together with two people visiting Nicaragua from the USA, reads like an entry in a travelogue. A later post about boarding down a volcano was the most viewed post of the first year.
Michael’s first post likewise starts as a travelogue, but veers into different territory as he reads the news about two men who are sacrificing comfort, and even life, for causes they believe in. The post goes on to identify drinking water as a cause worthy of the reader’s attention. Over the course of his time with us in India he wrote some of my personal favorites. He helped me better understand that the value of the internships we offered were as much about personal growth as about work experience.
A decade was set in motion. This is our 10,286th post. Whatever meaning might be drawn from statistics, such as 827,462 views of our posts as of this writing, I find reasons to continue what those two started. Every day a bird is featured, thanks to Amie’s network of bird photographers. And every day I scan the news to share something enlightening, or I jot a note about a new idea we are trying out, always related to causes we care about. Today, on this rounding out of a decade, I mark the occasion by sharing the latest publication of a writer whose work rarely makes me happy but who I nonetheless link to often as a head-out-of-the-sand gesture:
We’ve barely explored the darkest realm of the ocean. With rare-metal mining on the rise, we’re already destroying it.
June 14, 2021
The International Seabed Authority is headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, in a building that looks a bit like a prison and a bit like a Holiday Inn. The I.S.A., which has been described as “chronically overlooked” and is so obscure that even many Jamaicans don’t know it exists, has jurisdiction over roughly half the globe. Continue reading
We have not featured any of her work since this review of H is for Hawk but we are happy to read Helen Macdonald’s work again with this review:
UNDER A WHITE SKY
The Nature of the Future
By Elizabeth Kolbert
A few years ago YouTube recommended I watch a video with the word “carpocalypse” in its title. I clicked the link — of course I did — and stared in awe at what resembled a mash-up of a video game, nature documentary and war movie. I saw a river full of fish leaping from the water like chaotic piscine fireworks and men in speedboats yelling and holding out nets to catch them as if they were wet and weighty butterflies. Fish hitting people in the face, fish landing in boats, fish flapping between people’s feet in a mess of slime and blood. Continue reading
I have not acquired the book yet, but I have heard her discuss it and read an interview with her about it; the author has moved from reporting on extinction and climate phenomena to reporting on human intervention schemes that respond to those phenomena. The stories as told in the article below adhere to a claim Kolbert makes in her discussion with Ezra Klein, that as a journalist she is not in the judgement business:
An Australian project to help threatened marsupial species adapt to avoid predatory cats is among a host of ‘assisted evolution’ efforts based on the premise that it is no longer enough to protect species from change: Humans are going to have intervene to help them change.
Every time I listen to or read an interview with an author who has recently published a book, and want to get a closer look at the book itself, I click the link provided. Nearly 100% of the time the link goes to Amazon. Not good. When I listened to an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert on a podcast I respect, that is what happened. Frustrated by that link, I looked for alternatives to Amazon for buying this book, and found plenty. For example, thanks to Powell’s Books for making the discussion about this book available in the online event above.
One option is Bookshop.org, which came to my attention while trying to find an interview with Kolbert about her new book that did not link to Amazon. It took some effort, after finding the Powell’s links, but thankfully I found an interview given a couple days ago to Audubon for their review of Kolbert’s book. None of our many earlier links to Kolbert stories have featured an image of the author, so I will share here the one that accompanies the Audubon piece. In the middle of the interview there is this exchange:
A: We’re, of course, doing this interview for Audubon, which focuses a lot on species conservation. Much of the work that people do to save various species—and there are so many examples of this in your book—involves altering previous ways that we’ve altered the natural world. How do you suggest that people who care about species protection think about efforts like these?
K: Well, that’s a really profound question, and to be honest that is the question at the center of the book. One of the points is, what do we think of as conservation, right? Continue reading
I have been reading the reviews, and interviews with the authors of this and two other important recent books covering similar territory. I have stopped worrying about overkill, because this is overkill territory. You cannot get too much perspective on this; the worry is too little, too late:
While the political tide could be turning on climate change, both writers worry that it is too late.
After years of languishing far down the list of voters’ priorities—for Democrats and even more so for Republicans—the desire for action on climate change has brought this issue to the top of many voters’ concerns, according to a CNN poll. Now Presidential candidates are competing to establish themselves as leaders on the issue, while children are making headlines for striking from school.
Bill McKibben, whose book “The End of Nature” brought the idea of global warming to public consciousness thirty years ago, tells David Remnick that the accumulation of weather catastrophes—droughts, wildfires, floods—may have finally made an impact. McKibben joined Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation about the U.N.’s new report on species extinction. It finds that a million species could become extinct within a few decades, and that human life itself may be imperilled. While the political tide could be turning, both worry that it is too late. Continue reading
Two luminaries on climate, in conversation:
The world has done little to tackle global warming since Bill McKibben’s landmark book on the subject was published in 1989. In ane360 interview, McKibben talks about the critical time lost and what can be done now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Three decades ago, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first book on climate change aimed at a general audience. McKibben went on to found the international environmental group 350.org, help launch the fossil fuel divestment movement, and write a dozen more non-fiction books, as well as a novel. In 2014, McKibben received the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes referred to as the “alternative Nobel,” for mobilizing popular support for “strong action to counter the threat of global climate change.”
McKibben’s latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, was published this month and debuted last week on the New York Times bestseller list. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 , McKibben talks about why the critical time for action on climate was missed, where he still finds hope, and what the world will look like three decades from now.
“Thirty or 50 years out, the world’s going to run on sun and wind, because they’re free,” McKibben says. “The question is… what kind of world will it be?”
Yale Environment 360: It’s almost exactly 30 years since you published The End of Nature. One way to read that book is as a warning. How you would characterize Falter? Is it also a warning, or are we beyond that?
Bill McKibben: Look, 30 years ago this was all still prospective. You couldn’t really take a picture of climate change yet. Now, having wasted 30 years, we’re at the point where it’s a dominant fact of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people and promising to be the overwhelming fact of our time in the years ahead. It’s too late, obviously, to stop climate change. I hope that the book gets across that it may not be too late to keep it from getting absolutely out of control. It’s not a warning. It’s some combination of a report and a chronicle and a plea, I think. Continue reading
As negotiators from around the world gathered in Poland to discuss how to lower carbon emissions, the Trump Administration unveiled two schemes promoting fossil fuels.
Last week, representatives from around the world gathered to begin another round of climate negotiations in Katowice, a city in the heart of Poland’s coal-mining country. Delegates arriving at the meeting, known in United Nations-speak as a Conference of the Parties, or cop, were treated to an outdoor performance by a Polish coal miners’ band. Inside the convention pavilions, they found mounds of coal displayed behind glass, like objets d’art, as well as arrangements of coal-based cosmetics and coal-encrusted jewelry. Poland gets about eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, the most carbon-intensive of carbon-based fuels, and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, noted in his opening remarks that the country had enough as yet unmined supplies to last another two centuries. “It would be hard not to use them,” he said.
Depending on how you look at things, a coal-stuffed climate summit is either completely absurd—“beyond parody,” as one commentator put it—or merely appropriate. With each passing month, the threat posed by global warming grows clearer. And so, too, does the world’s failure to take that threat seriously. “We are in trouble,” the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres, said at the cop’s opening session. “It is hard to comprehend why we are collectively still moving too slowly—and even in the wrong direction.” Continue reading
I was not aware that Elizabeth Kolbert has been writing for Yale e360 for the entire time we have been linking to her New Yorker work on this platform. And then some, because she started publishing there ten years ago. This is her 17th publication for Yale e360 and it can help a layperson understand in a relatively short read whether technology has any chance of accelerating our progress on climate change mitigation:
A U.S. scientific panel reports that technologies that take CO2 out of the atmosphere could be a significant part of a strategy to mitigate global warming. In an e360 interview, Stephen Pacala, the panel’s chairman, discusses how these fast-developing technologies are becoming increasingly viable.
Is there still time to avoid runaway climate change? To a large degree, the answer depends on the feasibility of “negative emissions” — techniques or technologies that suck CO2 out of the air. In the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius depend on negative emissions technologies, or NETs. Most 2-degree scenarios also rely on negative emissions; many call for removing billions of tons of CO2 per year by mid-century.
Yet most NETs remain either untested or unproved. To help bridge this gap, the National Academies convened a panel of scientists and asked it to propose a research agenda. The panel considered several possible techniques, ranging from the low-tech — planting more trees — to the high-tech — developing machines to scrub CO2 from the sky. It also looked at a hybrid technology that has become known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS. The panel recommended several billion dollars be directed to research on NETs. Such technologies, it suggested, ought to be viewed as a “component of the mitigation portfolio,” rather than as a futuristic, last-ditch effort to reduce atmospheric CO2.
Stephen Pacala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, chaired the panel. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why NETs are needed, what should be done to advance them, and why he believes that “direct air capture” technologies could come into widespread use within the next decade. Continue reading
She has chosen to focus her work on the existential environmental challenges created by mankind, and unflinchingly reports on what we collectively are, and more often are not, doing about those challenges. The word doom always comes to mind when I see her name or think about her work. Today I am recommending this rare interview with her, in which she shares personal reflections on what it is like to do the work she does, and about 40 minutes in touches on how and why she persists with her work, even knowing that most people simply cannot bear to face the facts she is presenting:
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
“I still nurse the idea in my heart of hearts that something you write, that there’s some key to this all. Continue reading
Finally, the author we link out to with frequency (respectfully and affectionately noting her role in highlighting doom on the horizon), has offered a photo of herself in the setting of one of her stories. It is a cave with a story to tell, and while the story is not one we want to hear it is one we must ponder. That is why we keep linking out to her writing.
This is among her best short offerings, written originally to be a speech, with the creature below featured in compelling manner:
Humanity’s survival on this planet seems more uncertain than ever. But what happens when we look at ourselves through other creatures’ eyes?
Yesterday evening, at Manhattan’s New School, the New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert delivered the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, an event established by the Nation Institute in honor of the late Jonathan Schell, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, and named for “The Fate of the Earth,” a series of articles that Schell wrote for the magazine in 1982 and later published as a book. Kolbert’s remarks have been edited for length. Continue reading
I committed myself to not name the name, because it adds fuel to a flame that is already out of control. But if you have read any of the posts in our model mad series the name is clearly implied. Plenty of others name so well that it is best just to link their work. One of the best namer of names when it comes to our environment, and failure to protect it, is Elizabeth Kolbert. She occasionally points out that we do not simply fail to protect, but willingly allow the named to dismantle critical protections. We are sadly impressed that Dame Doomsday doesn’t disappoint with her latest contribution:
Next week, millions of Americans will celebrate Earth Day, even though, three months into Donald Trump’s Presidency, there sure isn’t much to celebrate. A White House characterized by flaming incompetence has nevertheless managed to do one thing effectively: it has trashed years’ worth of work to protect the planet. As David Horsey put it recently, in the Los Angeles Times, “Donald Trump’s foreign policy and legislative agenda may be a confused mess,” but “his administration’s attack on the environment is operating with the focus and zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.” Continue reading
Elizabeth Kolbert has appeared in these pages about as frequently as any other individual we admire (McKibben, an activist and a writer, wins the race with a few more posts pointing his way), or any other topic (take your pick between libraries, entrepreneurial conservation or a few others that nudge past EK in the same race) we care deeply about. She is an activist through her writing, advocating on behalf of our better understanding of the challenges facing the next generations. Epochal challenges that we have some ability to influence the outcome of. So, when she delivers biblical proportions of reporting, we read every word and pass it on:
The shrinking of the country’s ice sheet is triggering feedback loops that accelerate the global crisis. The floodgates may already be open.
Not long ago, I attended a memorial service on top of the Greenland ice sheet for a man I did not know. The service was an intimate affair, with only four people present. I worried that I might be regarded as an interloper and thought about stepping away. But I was clipped onto a rope, and, in any case, I wanted to be there. Continue reading
Mr. Anderson’s work is often, like his colleague Elizabeth Kolbert’s, unusually thick in detail, and often kind of heavy. This item is heavy, detailed, but fascinating. His writing is often without illustration yet this piece is reported with abundant and excellent photography. Read a snippet below to get a sense of the interior of the article:
In Peru, an unsolved killing has brought the Mashco Piro into contact with the outside world.
By Jon Lee Anderson
…The Ministry of Culture’s team gathered a few months ago in Cuzco, high in the Andes, where a van was loaded with provisions. The leader was an anthropologist named Luis Felipe Torres, a slim man in his early thirties with an aquiline face and the unassuming manner of a professional observer. He was joined by Glenn Shepard, an American ethnobotanist. A youthful-looking man of fifty, Shepard had lived for a year in the nineteen-eighties among the Matsigenka people, who shared territory with the Mashco; he had learned their language and returned many times since. Shepard worked at the Emílio Goeldi Museum, an Amazonian-research center in Brazil, but he travelled to Peru frequently as an informal adviser to Torres’s department.
Mass-mortality events are sudden, unusual crashes in a population. If you think that you are hearing about them more often these days, you’re probably right. (Elizabeth Kolbert described frog and bat die-offs in a 2009 article; her subsequent book won a Pulitzer Prize recently.) Even mass-mortality experts struggle to parse whether we’re witnessing a genuine epidemic (more properly, an epizootic) of these events. They have also raised another possibility: that we are in the throes of what one researcher called an “epidemic of awareness” of spooky wildlife deaths.
Thanks to, Michelle Nijhuis in general, for her science writing and environmental journalism–making these topics simultaneously fun and fascinating, if also sometimes depressing; and to the New Yorker for making space for this note in which she briefly explains the naming of the epoch we live in:
The duties of the Anthropocene Working Group—a thirty-nine-member branch of a subcommission of a commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences—are both tedious and heady. As the group’s chairman, Jan Zalasiewicz, whom Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about, in 2013, says wryly, “People do not understand the very slow geological time scale on which we work.” Yet the A.W.G.’s forthcoming recommendations may bring an end to the only epoch that any of us have ever known—the Holocene, which began after the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago, and lasts to this day. The group’s members are pondering whether the human imprint on this planet is large and clear enough to warrant the christening of a new epoch, one named for us: the Anthropocene. If it is, they and their fellow-geologists must decide when the old epoch ends and the new begins.
Since the early days of this blog we have been hungry consumers of environmental long form journalism, of which Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker chronicles are best-in-category. They are also, frankly, almost always depressing.
Nonetheless, they put humanity into its natural context. This not-at-all-depressing chronicle demonstrates the value of that contextualization well:
The first day I put my family on a Paleolithic diet, I made my kids fried eggs and sausage for breakfast. If they were still hungry, I told them, they could help themselves to more sausage, but they were not allowed to grab a slice of bread, or toast an English muffin, or pour themselves a bowl of cereal.
Not everything we read pleases us. So not everything we post on this site, in spite of our overriding mission to report positive news about conservation wherever we can find it, is meant to draw a smile. Wouldn’t be prudent, as someone once said. Nor would it be prudent to assume someone, somewhere, or anyone anywhere, has taken appropriate measures to even catalogue ways in which we should be preparing for the consequences of climate change. Not if, as some greedy doubt-mongers want people to wonder, but when. Thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert, our favored dismalist on climate change, for this Comment on the New Yorker‘s website:
Late last week, a Web site that claims that there is no scientific consensus on global warming published a leaked draft report on the impacts of global warming. The leak was apparently intended to embarrass the authors of the report, which is the latest installment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, it seems mostly to have had the opposite effect: Continue reading
Reading this post from Elizabeth Kolbert, a familiar cloud of doom came over me. Read almost anything she writes, and you will know what I mean. She writes most frequently about seemingly intractable environmental problems, and those about climate change have the most intense effect on me. But ignorance is not an option, so I read. The cloud lasted about seven hours, and parted just now in a most interesting manner. As if my head were just lifted out of the sand. First, the portion that stuck with me:
Since we can’t know the future, it is possible to imagine that, either through better technology or more creativity or sheer necessity, our children will be able to find a solution that currently eludes us. Somehow or other, they will figure out a way to avoid “a 4°C world.” But to suppose that an answer to global warming can be found by waiting is to misunderstand the nature of the problem.