Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert to speak at UCSB’s Corwin Hall | Culture & Leisure

Posted on March 31, 2022
| 11:09

Elizabeth Kolbert

Few can match Elizabeth Kolbert’s understanding of humanity’s impact on the planet. A writer for The New Yorker, she won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction for “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt and Co.). In it, she claimed that the Earth was undergoing a massive man-made extinction.

She followed that up with “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” (Crown, 2021), which explores some of the ways we rely on technology to undo the damage we’ve inflicted on the only home we have.

A captivating storyteller with a journalistic eye, Kolbert will talk about her work at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 4, at UC Santa Barbara’s Corwin Pavilion. Presented by UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Center for the Humanities, the event is part of the Center’s Regeneration Series. It is free and open to the public.

Susan Derwin, Director of IHC, noted that the “Regeneration” series features speakers who envision the collective actions and recalibrations of thinking needed to move toward a world of greater stability, equity, and solidarity. Kolbert’s most recent book, she said, falls squarely into the realm of the series.

“‘Under a White Sky’ shows how heavy-handed projects can be in an attempt to right the destructive course that human beings have steered the planet on, through additional, albeit well-intentioned, interventions,” Derwin said.

“At the same time, Kolbert’s investigation also suggests that the striking ingenuity and empathy that underpins such projects in themselves have the potential to be catalysts for positive consequences, if harnessed in larger collective enterprises,” she said.

“That is why, in addition to a clear sense of how humans have upset the balance of nature, what also emerges from Kolbert’s skillful portrayals of people working to counter environmental destruction is the commitment, passion and compassion of these individuals, and even their complexity and mystery,” Derwin said.

“’Under a white sky’ does not moralize or proselytize; it reveals,” she said. “Kolbert is a self-aware journalist who writes with a light touch and is clearly driven by a curiosity rooted in her own flesh-and-blood humanity, which emerges in her story through her subtle humor.”

In an email interview, The Current also caught up with Kolbert, who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three children.

The Current: Why did you follow “The Sixth Extinction” with “Under a White Sky”?

Elizabeth Kolbert: After writing “The Sixth Extinction,” I was interested in the question: what are people going to do with the kind of information I presented in the book? For example, what are we going to do with the fact that we are killing coral reefs? And I always saw the same kind of response: we’re going to try to intervene in nature in a new way, to correct the old way. This motif became the theme for “Under White Skies”.

TC: It seems like you’ve spent your career chronicling the catastrophic cycle of the planet, so to speak, and the ways we’ve tried (and are trying) to fix the problems we’ve created. You are a mother. How do you remain optimistic about the future given your reporting?

EK: I can’t say that I’m really optimistic about the future. That being said, I really hope we find a way out of the mess we’ve created. My own mother was born in Nazi Germany, and the future didn’t look very bright either. I find some consolation there. There are many aspects of the future that we cannot predict.

TC: You seem skeptical about some solutions to climate change. Why is that?

EK: If you look at the record of conscious human intervention in the natural world, it’s not very good. This is one of the patterns I explore in “Under a White Sky”. We think we’re a lot smarter now, and we’re certainly more desperate. But I think one has to be skeptical about “solutions” to climate change that allow us to leave the underlying problem unaddressed.

TC: If it was all up to you, what would be the first thing you would do to slow down climate change?

EK: I would make polluters pay for their emissions through a carbon tax. I think that would finally get the business world to pay attention and start reducing emissions. That would make us all pay attention.

TC: What do you hope the audience will take away from your speech?

EK: That we better be very careful before trying to, say, modify genes or do geo-engineering to get out of our current problems. Because the odds of succeeding are not the kind you would want to bet a planet on.