94 Elizabeth Kolbert on the Nature of the Future (GT, JP,NS, HY)

How should we humans respond to our ongoing human-made climate catastrophe? To answer that question, we turned to prize-winning climate reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, who visited Brandeis this Fall as part of the New Student Book Forum.

File:Nuage de pollution sur Nice.jpg

The topic was Under a White Sky, her recent book that documents the responses to the climate crisis ranging from a form of climate engineering that shoots reflective particles into the air to cool the atmosphere, to negative emission technologies that capture and inject carbon dioxide underground.

“You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to feel called to some kind of action when you see what we humans have done.” But Elizabeth wonders what the best alternatives are. Should we set aside half the earth for biodiversity? Why is it that genetic engineering has become the cultural flashpoint for fear of unintended consequences? There are no easy answers at this point. Elizabeth thinks that if you’re not frightened by what’s going right now, including American politics around vaccination refusal, you’re not paying attention.

Because this episode is associated with the Helen and Philip Brecher New Student Book Forum, Brandeis first-year students Hedy Yang and Srinidhi Sriraman (who also goes by Nidhi) jump in with some thoughts.

Noticing repeated mentions of Henry David Thoreau in the book, Nidhi inquires about his role in inspiring Elizabeth’s writing. Hedy’s question about environmental justice and the comparative agency of rich and poor countries moves Elizabeth to talk about the staggering inequities in consumption and the goal of convergence in carbon emissions. What is the mechanism by which this happens, though? Do humans have the right to implement these technologies? Is the solution to issues created by human control really more control?

Mentioned in the Episode

E.O. Wilson, Half Earth

Gene editing could revive a nearly lost tree”; the chestnut gene splicing debate in a recent Washington Post article. (Elizabeth has reported on Bill Powell’s work)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)

Cli-fi: climate fiction in all its bleakness. For example, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry for the Future

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence: how to see things happening at different time scales.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

Henry David Thoreau, “the touchstone” of American nature writing. e.g Walden (1854); dated yes, but “in most ways ahead of his time”

Des Poissons dans le Desert: Elizabeth’s book title in French!

Listen to the episode here.

Read the transcript here:

Special credit and thanks for this episode goes to Srinidhi Sriraman and Hedy Yang, who took part in the audio editing and the preparation of the show notes, respectively.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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