To read Elizabeth Kolbert before bed is a mistake. Her Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Sixth Extinction, will make you rethink what it means to be a human, and consider your place and impact on the world. The New Yorker Staff Writer’s latest book, Under a White Sky, is just as compelling, if not more so. I had the pleasure of talking with her recently about her new book, which traces a plethora of mistakes we as a society have made — the introduction of invasive species into fragile ecosystems, for one — and our often ill-planned solutions to them, solutions that more often than not, appear to have made things worse. “Our track record isn’t very good,” she told me.
Under a White Sky
A lot of books about environmental destruction, I find, both gripping and distressing—at times it can feel as if there is no solution to these grand problems. And yet, Kolbert said, “it’s important to acknowledge and be aware of these issues.” She told me “You can’t solve these problems without confronting what is happening. Even if there is no grand solution, there are certainly better or worse things to do, that’s especially clear.” Kolbert recommended five books on Environmental Destruction, or as she called it “A bedtime reading list for people who don’t want to go to sleep.”
The Water Will Come
The first book Kolbert recommended was The Water WIll Come by Jeff Goodell. The book proposes that Atlantis might not be a myth, just a precursor to Oceans rising and the flooding that will ensue. Kolbert said, “Sea level rise is one of the inevitable consequences of climate change. We know we’re in for it, even if we were to stop tomorrow, which you know, unfortunately, we’re not gonna do.” To write the book, “Jeff Goodell traveled all around the world to explain the threat and what people are trying to do to stop it. Some of the responses people have come up with are really smart. Some of them are kind of crazy, but we might get there.”
Out of Eden
“The basic message of Out of Eden,” Kolbert said is “people have really completely transformed the biosphere by moving plants and animals around the world—often unwittingly, sometimes wittingly.” She continued, “the results have been particularly devastating on islands, and he spends a lot of time in Hawaii, which is one of the most invaded landscapes in the world.” The best part? “It’s a really interesting subject but it reads like an adventure story.”
Her next pick was the Pulitzer Prize winning Toms River. The book is about “the eponymous town of Toms River in New Jersey, which really grew up around this chemical plant. And then, it seems like an anomalously high number of kids in this town develop rare cancers,” she said. What’s so interesting is “the book really follows this decade long struggle to get at this information, and makes it clear how difficult it is to prove that something like this kind of toxic pollution is responsible for these kids illnesses.”
Amity and Prosperity
“In some ways, Amity and Prosperity is really the next chapter of Toms River.” The book centers on a woman named Stacey Haney, a local nurse with two kids, working in a town, Amity, Pennsylvania. Then, fracking comes to her town and her children get sick. Kolbert said, “It’s really haunting that all of the government agencies that are supposed to be protecting people from this sort of thing fail her. A lot of her neighbors turn on her because she’s questioning what is a big source of income for a lot of people. It’s heartbreaking.”
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
“The last book I’d like to recommend,” Kolbert said, is The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. “The Great Lakes hold more than 80% of the surface freshwater in North America and they’re under threat for a lot of reasons—climate change, invasive species, runoff from farms.” Dan Egan “breaks down the ecology and the politics — it’s a love letter for the whole Great Lake system.”
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