<b>FROM THE TRENCHES:</b> In researching her new book, <i>The Sixth Extinction</i>, author Elizabeth Kolbert (pictured above) traveled to places like the Andes and Africa and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to get up close and personal with the real-time impacts we humans and our habits are having on this planet.

Courtesy Photo

FROM THE TRENCHES: In researching her new book, The Sixth Extinction, author Elizabeth Kolbert (pictured above) traveled to places like the Andes and Africa and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to get up close and personal with the real-time impacts we humans and our habits are having on this planet.

Elizabeth Kolbert on the End of the World

The Sixth Extinction Author Comes to Santa Barbara this Weekend

Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article Tools
Print friendly
E-mail story
Tip Us Off
iPod friendly
Share Article

Like it or not, everything dies. But these days, it seems, things are dying a little bit faster. From disappearing ice caps and bone-chilling polar vortices to historic drought and worldwide super storms, Mother Earth is behaving in ways well outside the norm with an ever increasing frequency matched perhaps only by the speed at which climate-change deniers are learning to bite their tongues.

Enter New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert and her brand-new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. A veteran storyteller from the climate-change discussion, Kolbert manages to do the nearly impossible with her new book by delivering a short, sweet, truly educational and entertaining account of what is really going on in our natural world while simultaneously laying bare just how heavy the human hand has been in all of it. As a lead-up to her visit to the South Coast later this week, Kolbert talked shop with The Santa Barbara Independent, waxing philosophic on her book, the true motivation of climate-change deniers, how she manages to not be depressed by all her work, and what she tells her children about the future they face.

One of the crowning achievements of this book is the fact that it explains fairly complex scientific situations in a way that is quite accessible to the layperson. What exactly is your science background? No science background. Zero. I was a German Literature major in college, and then I went into reporting pretty much right after. I covered politics for a long time, and I do see analogies there ​— ​both politics and science can present complex issues for the general public. I also feel that not really having a science background is an advantage because if I don’t understand something, chances are my readers aren’t going to understand it.

And, in this case, what you are trying to get them to understand is pretty depressing. I mean, you are explaining how we are in the midst of a major global extinction of sorts and the human race is to blame. I prefer the word tragic. A lot of the things that occupy the news are depressing, but this goes beyond that. This is about the whole state of the planet. Ironically, or maybe it’s paradoxically, as part of writing the book I got to go to these amazing places ​— ​the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon, the Andes ​— ​and see these truly amazing ecosystems. I tried to really infuse that and bring those trips and that sense of amazement into the book because I do realize that this is a pretty heavy topic. So in a way it is also an adventure story.

Part and parcel to that, and what is so cool about The Sixth Extinction, is that you take these environmental doomsday buzz phrases like climate change and ocean acidification and such and give them context and discuss them with some refreshingly illuminating historical context and real-world scenarios. You got it. That is really the point of writing the book. People get these dribs and drabs of information, and I really tried to find a bigger perspective. That gets back to your point about it being depressing ​— ​a lot of those dribs and drabs are depressing, and so people end up trying to tune them out. I tried to put things together in a big-picture sort of way. I hope that one of the satisfactions from reading is the satisfaction that comes from understanding and not just getting these disconnected pieces of information that really don’t make any sense to the average person.

Knowing what you know now, how do you see the future unfolding? I feel that we live in this amazing moment. Right now turns out to be just extraordinary, and we turn out to be an extraordinary species. As to what exactly is going to happen, I don’t pretend to know more than the many people I interviewed, but I do think that this is the biggest question of our time: “What are we going to do with this information that we now know?” We have been at this sort of world-altering point for quite a while, but now it is truly accelerating, and most of us know it or at least intuitively understand it just because of the way we see the world changing around us. Every day brings new understanding both of our impacts and of what the geological history of the world is and how extraordinary we are in the context of that geological history. We have all this new information, but what we are going to do with that knowledge? That is what is going to occupy us certainly for the rest of this century.

As a parent, how does this impact you? At any moment in history you can only hope for the best for your own kids and for all the kids of the world. But certainly, as a generation, I’m not very proud of what we are leaving to our children.

What’s the vibe with the scientists and researchers you talked to? Are they panicked or just sitting there watching and taking notes? One of the fascinating dichotomies in all of this is that they will sit there and tell you, “Whoa, this an amazing story. I am watching things happen that I was told in graduate school only a decade ago could never happen.” So yeah, on one level it is incredibly interesting and scientifically captivating, but on another level it is just absolutely horrible, and they know it. But really, the more you know, the more seriously you take it both intellectually and emotionally whether you are a scientist or not.

But still, even here in “aren’t we progressive” Santa Barbara, there are people, high-ranking elected officials even, who refuse to accept that there is anything abnormal going on. How do you respond to that? One of the stories I tell in the book is the story of these two extremes in the history of science when people came to the first theories of extinction and how they were cataclysmic and reoccurring and how that line of thinking was basically discredited and denied even though there was quite a bit of evidence supporting it. It wasn’t until very recently that scientists have confronted the fact that there have been, very rarely, these periods of massive extinctions in our history. So I think the idea now that we are causing a new one is a very difficult thing for people to get their minds around, especially since many of the ways in which we are doing it is by doing the most prosaic things like, you know, driving our kids to school. I mean, there are 20 pounds of CO₂ for every gallon of gas you combust in your car. It is difficult for even me to wrap my mind around. It is not necessarily something you would have expected to happen, but it turns out that this is just the way that the world works.

What we are doing when we burn fossil fuels ​— ​a geological process that took hundreds of millions of years to run in one direction and cause all that carbon to get buried underground ​— ​is running it in the opposite direction and doing it very, very fast. It takes a major backing up from the everyday to see this big picture, and that is exactly what I am trying to get people to do with this book. … We have this responsibility to face up and be accountable even if we don’t have the answer to fixing it. There is something very ethically juvenile about not being willing to face up to that. I think denial is about exactly that; it is about not being able to face up to the consequences of what we are doing because they are very painful. I can understand that, but it is just no longer acceptable.


Elizabeth Kolbert will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on February 18 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit

Editor’s Note: A mistake inadvertently crept into this story, which was revised on February 13, 2014, to state that 20 pounds, not tons, of CO₂ is emitted for every gallon of gas burned in a car.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I think Elizabeth Kolbert's stated lack of a science education is showing here. She says: "I mean, there are 20 tons of CO₂ for every gallon of gas you combust in your car. It is difficult for even me to wrap my mind around. It is not necessarily something you would have expected to happen, but it turns out that this is just the way that the world works."

The reason she has such a difficult time wrapping her mind around these numbers is that 20 tons of CO₂ for every gallon of gas is off by a factor of 2,000. The correct number is 20 *pounds* of CO₂ for every gallon of gas, not 20 tons. The number is easily derived from the relative atomic weights of carbon and oxygen. For the correct calculation see:

chuck43 (anonymous profile)
February 13, 2014 at 6:25 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Sorry, I'm apparently unable to post links here What I tried to post for the calculation of 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of gas (and which the Independent removed) comes from:

chuck43 (anonymous profile)
February 13, 2014 at 6:31 a.m. (Suggest removal)

We didn't remove the link. The filter on our comments sometimes doesn't accept links. We've made the correction in the article.

mike (web content manager)
February 13, 2014 at 12:45 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I was furious when I saw the 2000X overstatement in the print edition! Ridiculous! Why is it changed in the web edition? What does her book say? Too many well meaning bozos make mistatements based Sarah Palin science! Please tell us how this HUGE error got into print!

toto1 (anonymous profile)
February 13, 2014 at 6:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This is what happens when an author and a reporter, both of whom are PROUD to know nothing of science, try to warn the world of an impending disaster! This fiasco is worthy of the SBNP Solvang is Dutch award!

toto1 (anonymous profile)
February 13, 2014 at 7:29 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This short video deals with the end of the world.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
February 14, 2014 at 2:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Elizabeth Kolbert is an excellent author and journalist. I read her "Field Notes" as part of the "UCSB Reads" project:

As an engineer who works in the sciences, I appreciate her ability to identify issues and express complex ideas simply.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
February 14, 2014 at 9:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Is this a joke?

No science background and a free trip around the world to journal climate change and life and death.

Climate change = normal and seasonal.
Life and death on Planet earth = normal and expected.
A sucker born every day to buy this book = classic.

And somehow she's taken seriously by... anyone?

This is Mayan calendar stuff - a total joke. Moving on...

realitycheck88 (anonymous profile)
February 14, 2014 at 2:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It's tragic that UCSB has her visiting and sells her lecture for $10! She's sensationalizing possible problems without any background of scientific judgement. When silly people said vaccines contain mercury and cause autism (since totally retracted, even by the author) thousands of parents failed to vaccinate and we lost hundreds of children to a whooping cough epidemic. Ask our Nobel laureates, not some uninformed journalist!

toto1 (anonymous profile)
February 14, 2014 at 3:08 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Elizabeth Kolbert is a responsible journalist, with a strong science background. I read her Field Notes of a Catastrophe -- it's terrific. Hey, reality, have you ever looked at her book, honestly now?

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 14, 2014 at 5:59 p.m. (Suggest removal)

She says she has NO SCIENCE BACKGROUND and that makes her perfect for interpreting science/technology to the common man. Like asking the buss boy to explain a gourmet dinner - or having Geo Bush2 in Washington.
Science is serious business with rules and discipline. Science won WWII. Capricious interpretations by unqualified people can bring disaster. This woman is PROUD that she has no science training. She should learn to sew!

toto1 (anonymous profile)
February 14, 2014 at 7:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

my buddy's step-aunt makes $82/hr on the computer. She has been out of work for 10 months but last month her paycheck was $18010 just working on the computer for a few hours. read this….

ninavikey (anonymous profile)
February 15, 2014 at 11:34 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I wonder if toto1 and realitycheck88 realize and take great pride in being mentioned in the last 4 sentences in this article. I know there are still a lot of toto's and 88's out there but lucky for us they are also on that extinction list.

rblacumbre (anonymous profile)
February 15, 2014 at 10:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

yeah, they ARE "ethically juvenile" whilst yet not knowing it!

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 12:16 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am channeling Y2K all over again. Good grief, what a scam artist. PT Barnum for a new generation.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 3:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am offended at being smeared by know-nothings who follow a sensational journalist who also has no scientific education and is proud of it!

toto1 (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 4:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

thank you, toto1, for the correction. Kolbert is a fine science writer, however, and much of the climate data and that of the prior 5 mass extinctions on earth is pretty complex....since I am not a geologist or meteorologist or scientist myself in these subjects, I do rely on gifted science writers and interpreters.
However, a highly noted scientist, E.O. Wilson, states that the present extinction rate in the Earth's tropics today is "on the order of 10,000 times greater than the naturally occurring background extinction rate." This reduces biodiversity, which is falling across the entire planet. We have had an unparalleled rise in human population: quadrupling our number in less than a hundred years. Face the facts, guys, we're wrecking the planet!
Led by DON'T FACE THE FACTS ignoramuses like you (plural), too many of us are letting ourselves be tricked by those who have a stake in convincing us to ignore reality. Like boardroom profits, short-term thinking rules the day. For those of us with grandchildren, what about them in 50 years?? I know, I know, either you do not care OR you have already drunk the kool-aid of the scientific Know-Nothings. Pity.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 4:49 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Eat dessert first. Then learn how to make a yurt and living on quinoa.

Public employee pensions will bankrupt us faster than global climate change will even matter. Then we will all be able to live more simply.

If you can't get your message across, keep on the path the Democrats are taking us: taxing the system the Cloward-Pivens way until the entire thing collapses.

Why are we sending money to the under-developed Third World, when they should be brought here and teach us how to live?

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 6:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This woman is not a science writer, she is a sensational journalist without ANY science training! I brought a 100 million$ scientific instrument to SB. What have you accomplished? Get serious about science! Silly people screaming about science are a disaster! Science deserves respect, ask someone with a serious scientific background! Ask any of our UC Nobel laureates! Or do you know what that means???

toto1 (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 7:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

yes, certainly she means 20 lb of CO2 per gallon of gas.

tegrat (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 9:43 p.m. (Suggest removal)

A prize puzzle for TOTO and FOOFOO just fill in the blanks BEN_ _ _ZI?

rblacumbre (anonymous profile)
February 16, 2014 at 9:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

thread hijack alert: foo on again about public pensions, which really have a lot to do with Kolbert and the 6th extinction...
toto1: ooh, wow, gee, you "brought a 100 million$ scientific instrument to SB" -- knock me over with a feather, dude. BTW E.O. Wilson is a Nobel Laureate in Science, didn't think I needed to tell you but...

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 10:25 a.m. (Suggest removal)

toto1: you used four exclamation points [!] in six sentences, as you howl "Get serious about science!" -- why don't you try it??

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 10:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Dang DD, the truth hurts about apocalyptic catastrophe doesn't it. Yes, public employee pension defaults will cause far more strife, more quickly than any other man-made disaster.

Keep things in perspective rather than donning your hair shirt now over the "Sixth Extinction". All of this is reminiscent of organized religions"original sin" for those unchurched, and proud of it. But if you make just the right ablutions, you shall be saved.

Rock on, Ms Kolbert. I think Amiee Semple McPherson has some used robes and scepters you can use.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 11:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

you too can be saved! As a kid I went to some post McPherson Holy Roller stuff at her big temple there in LA, wow... your paranoid anti-intellectual stance is 30 years out of date, foo

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 4:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

A six+ minute video but the best part is between abouit the two minute mark and the four minute mark. The great American scientist and researcher Elizabeth Claire Prophet debunks the author's theories.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 5:13 p.m. (Suggest removal)

rblacumbre (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 9:34 p.m. (Suggest removal)

rblacumbre (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 10:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Between 150 and 200 species are currently going extinct daily, 1,000 times the "normal" rate during the "Great Dying" period millions of years ago, which was closely related to increased levels of methane, according to UCSB atmospheric and oceanic scientist Ira Leifer.

Methane, a product of the decay of organic matter in an oxygen-deprived environment, is now the most deadly threat to us all, being 25-30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as stimulant to increased temperatures. As earth air and water warm, the vast quantities of methane buried in previously frozen earth and ice just beneath the land and Arctic sea beds are being released into the atmosphere, multiplying the effect of carbon dioxide.

If there is sufficient release of these immense quantities of methane, the escalating earth temperatures will not be able to sustain plant growth. This, coupled with the known decrease of 40% of the ocean's phytoplankton - the basis of the seas' food chain - spells possible eradication of the human species, since there will then not be enough food to sustain life.

If you question this, please read the Op-Ed Piece "Death by Gas - the Sentence for Us All?" in Noozhawk under "Opinions."

William Smithers

bilwil (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2014 at 11:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Stop the presses: we all die.

Kolbert is merely exploiting the existential fears of a presently un-churched generation facing its own mortality. The latest in a long line of apocalyptic hucksters.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 18, 2014 at 9:44 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Elmer Gantry?

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 18, 2014 at 10:53 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I challenge any of you Snappy Sneerers - who characteristically offer nothing of substance - to deny any of the following:

In its 3rd Assessment, the International Panel of Climate Scientists, told us that, merely to maintain the then-current level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we'd have to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels by 60 – 80 percent.

Instead, the world has consistently increased its use and production of same; within a matter of years we will reach, for the first time in the history of human life on earth, 400 parts per million.

Within the next few years – for the first time in at least three million years – we will see an ice-free Arctic summer.

Methane is 25-30 times more virulent than carbon dioxide as a stimulant to rising temperatures.

There are vast quantities of methane -far exceeding the amount of CO2 now lodged in our atmosphere - buried in the top ten feet of soil throughout the planet, including the sea beds of previously or currently iced over oceans.

When ice and frozen soil trapping this gas melt and thaw, methane is freed to join Co2 in the atmosphere.

Currently, millions of square miles of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are bubbling with escaping methane; recent studies say twice the amount previously estimated. In the US, scientific journals report 50% to 150% more methane is vaulting from oil and agricultural operations than previously had been thought.

If the current escalation of earth, air and water temperatures begin to warm the Arctic Sea and its floor and cause the escape of these long-trapped reserves of methane, thereby multiplying the existing effects of CO2, we may reach an average Earth temperature of 4.5 – 6.0 degrees Celsius, or more, above normal.

Should that happen, plant life cannot adapt to the escalating heat in time to provide adequate food supplies.

Scientific reports show that even now the oceans have lost 40 percent of their phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food chain, due to climate-related acidification and atmospheric temperature variations.

There is therefore the distinct possibility that, as a result of our relatively ineffective attention to these phenomena, we humans may not be able to feed ourselves and will not survive.

Finally, the findings and the consensus of the global scientific community: “Climate change has not hit a 'speed bump.' The planet's temperature is not remaining steady and it certainly isn't cooling. Earth, especially its oceans are heating up … and rapidly”

William Smithers

bilwil (anonymous profile)
February 18, 2014 at 7:37 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

rblacumbre (anonymous profile)
February 18, 2014 at 9:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Blowing smoke is a better description. A fool and his money are soon parted, is more apt.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:12 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I always wondered why you always misspell your anonymous profile name, here is the correct spelling: FOOLFIGHTER just keep turning your head and enjoy the sweet smoke. When will you ever learn, oh by the way, the earth is round really it is, not flat like you believe.

rblacumbre (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 10:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Amplifying Feedbacks and the Arctic Heat Scream: Study Finds Polar Albedo Falling at Twice Expected Rate, Added Heat Equal to 25% of CO2 Forcing

Despite the various hollow conjectures and reassurances, what we have seen over the past seven years or so is an extraordinarily rapid amplification of heat within the Arctic. Arctic sea ice continues its death spiral, hitting new record lows at various times at least once a year. Heat keeps funneling into the Arctic, resulting in heatwaves that bring 90 degree temperatures to Arctic Ocean shores during summer and unprecedented Alaskan melts during January. We have seen freakish fires in regions previously covered by tundra. Fires that are the size of states in the Yakutia region of Russia, Alaska and Canada. Fires in Arctic Norway during winter time. And we see periods during winter when sea ice goes through extended stretches of melt, as we did just last week in the region of Svalbard.

One need only look at the temperature anomaly map for the last 30 days to know that something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong with the Arctic:

And one need only begin to add the number of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic together to start to understand how much trouble we’ve set for ourselves:

Arctic albedo decrease due to sea ice loss.
Arctic CO2 release due to thawing tundra.
Arctic methane release due to thawing land tundra.
Arctic methane release due to thawing subsea tundra and venting seabed methane.
Arctic albedo loss due to black carbon deposition.
Arctic albedo loss due to land vegetation changes.
Warming Arctic seas due to current changes.
Warming Arctic seas due to runoff from warming lands.
Arctic albedo decrease due to land snow and ice sheet melt.
South to north heat transfer to the Arctic due to a weakening, retreating Jet Stream and increasing prevalence of high amplitude atmospheric waves.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 10:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

event calendar sponsored by: