It was a Monday night last month. Williamstown’s Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was in a hotel room in a small town in Bavaria, where she had gone to report a story. She was watching “The Simpsons,” in German.
Ding. An e-mail. Her computer was open. Ding. Ding. Ding. OK, a lot of e-mail. “So I knew something was going on,” Kolbert said. As it turned out, it was the sound of a flood of congratulations from across the Atlantic, where Kolbert’s third book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” had just won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. The next day, she went back to reporting.
“It doesn’t get any easier, whether or not you have a Pulitzer Prize, right?” Kolbert said a few nights later, speaking by Skype from Bonn. She was soon to return to Western Massachusetts after spending the academic year in Italy with her husband, John Kleiner, an English professor at Williams College who was a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. But wherever she lands, Kolbert spends much of her time lately on the road, chasing down the far-flung symptoms of a global problem: the damage we humans are wreaking on the natural world.
Kolbert, 53, a former Albany bureau chief for The New York Times, joined The New Yorker in 1999. “Betsy came to The New Yorker with the understanding that her dominant subject would be New York City,” said editor David Remnick, who hired her and who, in a phone interview, described himself as “over the moon” about the Pulitzer win. In Kolbert’s first years at the magazine, she profiled such political figures as the junior senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But a turning point came when Kolbert proposed a piece on how humans were altering the climate. “I was making such a big case about why this was an important story,” she said. “David Remnick said, ‘Well, if it’s such an important story, why don’t you do a series on it?’ ” The 2005 series became the basis for Kolbert’s 2006 book, “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” and the beginning of a new beat covering the impact of humans on the earth.
She found herself invigorated. As a reporter in Albany, “you spend a lot of time sitting in a hallway waiting for people,” she said — specifically, for often uncooperative politicians. For “The Sixth Extinction,” by contrast, many of Kolbert’s subjects were scientists yearning for coverage of their work.
“They took me to amazing places, truly the most amazing places I’ve ever been,” Kolbert said. She visited the ultra-rich mountain habitats of the Peruvian Andes, the kaleidoscopic Great Barrier Reef, and a rocky island off Iceland once populated by fat, flightless great auks. Closer to home, Kolbert crunched through a Vermont cave littered with bats dying from white-nose syndrome, caused by an invasive fungus — “The poor bats!” she said. She traced evidence of the five mass extinctions of the past, such as the asteroid strike that apparently killed the dinosaurs and “on land, every animal larger than a cat,” Kolbert writes. And she also talked to the scientists studying what may be the early stages of a sixth mass extinction, caused not just by us gas guzzlers but by our clever, voracious, globe-trotting forebears.
So far, extinctions in the human era — the quagga, the passenger pigeon, the Pinta Island tortoise — number nowhere close to the 75 percent or more of species that have died off in mass extinctions.
But Kolbert says there’s scant doubt that something big is underway. Evolution is normally a slow affair. “You should not be able to see a single extinction in a human lifetime. That should not be visible to us,” she said. Today, she said, every field biologist she talks to has seen an animal’s population plummet. Rising temperatures, acidifying oceans, habitat loss, and diseases carried by global trade could radically speed those declines.
That message “is absolutely on target scientifically,” said Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at University of California Berkeley who was first author of a 2011 Nature paper titled “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” He is slightly more optimistic than Kolbert — in a book she blurbed last year, he suggested that we have 20 years in which to head off a mass extinction, through tactics such as population control and wiser energy use. But, Barnosky said in a phone interview, “What it takes to create change on these issues is to get it into the popular perception. And that’s what Betsy’s book has done, in a very big way.”
Kolbert herself is more Cassandra than activist, refraining from advocating any course of action or even offering many words of hope. “I don’t feel that’s a journalist’s job,” she said. Despite that, or maybe because of it, the book was a bestseller last year. After the Pulitzer, sales of the paperback quadrupled at Harvard Book Store, said general manager Carole Horne.
What helps is the black humor that peppers Kolbert’s book, amid the gloom. “There’s a very sharp, dry, mordant wit in what she does,” Remnick said. Yet he described her as “merciless” in not offering an easy out. “She refuses to tell herself or her readers fairy tales about how easy it might be to deal with this problem. I think she’s very much of the belief that even in the best of circumstances, with the maximum coordination of governments and interests and discipline, it’s still in many ways too late.”
That potential for disaster means that, whether or not we pull back from the brink of a true mass extinction, the fate of the natural world over these next decades will be a tale worth telling. “I do feel like I will probably be with this story forever,” Kolbert said. “There will never be a moment when it will cease to be a story, I’m afraid.”