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Extinction subject of speaker’s book

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert speaks about how human actions are bringing about massive species extinction. Photo by Mary Zheng.

On Wednesday, April 2, convocation speaker Elizabeth Kolbert discussed her recently published book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” Kolbert is a staff writer for the New Yorker and worked for the New York Times for 15 years. Her background in environmental journalism has led her to focus her new book on climate change and species extinction.

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert speaks about how human actions are bringing about massive species extinction. Photo by Mary Zheng.
New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert speaks about how human actions are bringing about massive species extinction.
Photo by Mary Zheng.

The book’s title references five times in history during which the planet has seen significant loss of family and species diversity. The most recent of these mass extinctions occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago. Kolbert believes that we are now in the middle of the sixth of these periods of extinction.

The sixth wave of extinction, Kolbert argued, is largely the cause of humans and the effects of climate change.

“We’re driving more and more species to the brink … and we’re driving more and more species over the brink,” Kolbert said.

Kolbert named three major human-lead causes of extinction: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, ocean acidification and changing the principles of geographic distribution. She gave examples of species that have gone extinct for these reasons and other ways the planet will change because of humans.

In conclusion to her discussion on climate change, Kolbert admitted that she does not have a solution to this problem, but challenged the notion that she should have to give solutions in a presentation like hers. Instead she hoped to convince listeners that the problem was worth consideration and attention.

“Human beings are now the dominant force on earth and, without meaning to, we are determining the future of life on this planet, for all intents and purposes, forever,” Kolbert said. “And we certainly have to be willing to acknowledge what’s going on before we can even hope to come up with a meaningful response.”

Students had different reactions to this claim and it provoked several questions after Kolbert’s presentation ended which allowed her to address why she believes that this is so important and the effect that climate change will have on humans in the coming years.

“If one species is going to do okay with climate change it might well be us. We’re the species that is very, very good at getting up and moving and radically altering our surroundings,” Kolbert said. “To be concerned about the other species with which we share this planet seems to me to be both a moral imperative and … I do think that there are some very practical reasons you might be concerned because if you look back … you get these cascade effects where life doesn’t look too good.”

While this convocation was largely focused on the scientific facts and studies presented in her book, Kolbert was a student of literature in college and this convocation was the beginning of the week’s Writers After Grinnell Publishing Symposium. Her background in the humanities and as a reporter helped make her talk easy to understand for students of different backgrounds.

“Most of the things were stuff … that I was familiar with, but I think it was interesting to hear about it from a non-science person. Giving the talk, I think she did a good job making science accessible to all the students,” said Cassandra Miller ’16, who attended the convocation.

Kolbert also led a roundtable discussion on science writing. During the discussion she talked with students and professors about her personal journey as a writer, the writing process and daily life in her profession.

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