Elizabeth Kolbert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and the 12th Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters, began her address at Bucknell University Jan. 26 with an image of a Hawaiian crow projected above her left shoulder.
Jet black with a slightly thicker beak and legs than its American cousin, the bird appeared crouched with his head bent sharply to the left and cocked slightly forward, one eye peering directly into the camera. He appeared reticent, perhaps suspicious.
His name is Kinohi, Kolbert said, and he is one rare and strange bird.
Kinohi is one of roughly 100 surviving examples of his species, also called the 'alalã, which has been extinct in the wild since 2002 due to a variety of human-caused factors. He was born not in his indigenous habitat on the Big Island but in a captive breeding facility on Maui, and was later taken to live at the San Diego Zoo, where his handlers have gone to extreme lengths to artificially breed him with another bird, so far unsuccessfully.
When Kolbert met Kinohi in his San Diego habitat two years ago, she was struck by the bird's appearance of embarrassment around his handlers as well as by his peculiar cawing. It sounds, she said, like a somewhat demented approximation of the phrase, "I know."
For Kolbert, the bird is emblematic of the topic of her latest book, which describes how humanity has found itself in the early throes of a mass extinction of species, one caused entirely by our own human activities, however unintentional they might be.
"People really do care about animals, about what the writer Rachel Carson ... called, 'the problem of sharing our Earth with other creatures,' " Kolbert said. "But at the same time ... we are killers. We are driving more and more species to the brink, like the 'alalã, and we are driving more and more species over the brink."
Kolbert then described in detail "this great mess we have gotten ourselves into," summarizing how humans are pushing unknown numbers of species toward extinction. But first, she conceded that she doesn't have the answer to the question she is most often asked: What can we do about it? How can humanity avert this impending ecological disaster? Unlike Kinohi, Kolbert can't say she knows.
I don't end the book and I don't end the talk by telling people what they should do or how they should feel about the information I've presented," she said. "And the reason for this because is I don't really know. I don't have the answer to those questions."
Instead, Kolbert drew on her skill for making complex science easily intelligible to a mass audience. Within a half-hour span she summarized the five previous mass extinctions that have befallen Earth's inhabitants in the last 440 million years, and outlined how humans are now contributing to a sixth such event, summarizing her points under the headings of changing atmospheric conditions, changing ocean conditions and changing the natural distribution of species.
Through it all, what emerged continually was the sense that our current situation is unprecedented in human history. By the end of this century, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration could reach levels not seen in 20 million years, 50 million in the worst-case scenario, Kolbert said. Millions of plant species comprising South America's rainforests might be unable cope with warming temperatures and could die off within decades, leaving behind only the hardiest survivors.Coral reefs the size of continents could become fields of rubble, unable to tolerate the more acidic water chemistry created by dissolved greenhouse gasses.
"We're changing the world very rapidly," she said. "Not unlike an asteroid impact."
In lieu of solutions to these massively important problems, Kolbert ended her speech with a description of another bird, this time a large flightless parrot from New Zealand named Sirocco. Raised in captivity by humans, Sirocco shows no interest in mating with other birds, but does with humans.
"This bird ... is another emblem of this very strange world we are creating," she said. "And it's not just because humans are vicious or indifferent to the rest of the world, although as you know we certainly have those capacities.
"But ... we also have many other qualities: curiosity, concern, caring for other living things. Ultimately, I think we have a lot in common with Kinohi and Sirocco, in that we are somewhat confused creatures ourselves."
PBS affiliate WVIA recorded Kolbert's address and will air the program at the following dates and times: Feb. 12 at 7 p.m., Feb. 18 at 8 p.m., Feb. 21 at 7 p.m., March 3 at 8 p.m., March 16 at 12 p.m., and March 11 at 7 p.m.
Established in 2002, the Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters is awarded biennially to honor and recognize individuals who represent the highest level of achievement in the craft of writing within the realms of fiction, non-fiction or biography. Previous recipients have been Robert A. Caro, Edward Albee, John Edgar Wideman, David McCullough, Derek Walcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Toni Morrison and Rita Dove.
The Weis Fellowship was established through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of Janet Weis, an author, civic leader and philanthropist as well as trustee emerita of the University. Her husband, Sigfried Weis, was chair of the Bucknell Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1988.