Elizabeth Kolbert: Can human technology solve unintended consequences of human technology
Note: Due to internet difficulties due to storms in California delaying uploading of the video, the video post of this podcast will be delayed by a few hours. We are thus releasing the audio version now. (Usually these are released at the same time.)
Seven years ago I invited Elizabeth Kolbert to participate in a dialogue about Extinctions at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix, following the publication of her Pulitzer Prizewinning masterpiece, The Sixth Extinction. Once we began The Origins Podcast, I knew that I wanted to have an in depth discussion with her about her work reporting on science issues, most importantly on climate change and other technological challenges facing modern society. An opportunity arose with the publication of her most recent book, Under a White Sky, which focuses on how scientists, and politicians, have attempted—with with widely varying degrees of success—to address the unintended consequences of various human alterations of terrestrial ecosystems. It is a fascinating book, told, as is typical in her writing, by relating personal experiences as Elizabeth has traveled the world to meet scientists and others spearheading attempts at solving sometimes urgent ecological crises induced as a result of the application of previous human technologies.
Elizabeth writes so clearly about science that I wanted to explore her own journey, from a student focusing on German literature, to one of the pre-eminent science writers in the country, working as a staff writer for The New Yorker Magazine. We had a wide ranging discussion about her own experiences and then moved on to discuss more broadly the issues raised in her most recent books.
Incidentally, the title of her new book comes from the fact that one of the side-effects of solar geoengineering, which I expect will be an inevitable response to climate change in a world where governments and businesses prefer to carry on business as usual in spite of concerns about rising temperatures, sea levels, and other potentially dangerous consequences of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The effect in question, if aerosols are injected in the upper atmosphere to reduce the intensity of solar radiation impinging on the earth’s surface, will be to cause formerly bright blue skies to instead resemble the whiter skies those who live in big cities are used to. A potentially unfortunate consequence, but perhaps less unfortunate than other potential consequences of global climate change.
The conversation was fantastic. Everything I had hoped for. We went on for over 2 hours, but the time passed quickly because it was so fascinating. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And by the way, if you enjoy this podcast, Elizabeth will be joining the Origins Project Foundation Galapagos Travel Adventure in January of 2024. Reservations will open up at the beginning of April for this exciting trip, with Elizabeth, Frans de Waal, me, and 33 other Origins voyagers. I hope you can join us.
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