S1E14. Elizabeth Kolbert on Unintended Consequences
Play • 32 min
On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore speaks with Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert is a writer at The New Yorker, as well as the author of several books, including The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015. Her most recent book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, was published in 2021. The podcast begins with Kolbert discussing how journalism, as a profession, has changed over the course of her career. While praising the accessibility that the internet has provided journalists, Kolbert also laments the way it has profoundly altered the industry’s economic model, resulting in less funding being made available for in-depth reporting. She also warns that one of the unexpected byproducts of the freedom of information has been the freedom of disinformation. This has been exacerbated by changes in how journalists do their job in the internet age, where there is far less personal interaction between writers and the individuals they are writing about. Kolbert explains that the type of long-form journalism she specializes in still requires a serious investment, and this has led to new funding options such as non-profit journalism organizations. (:40 – 7:52) The conversation then shifts to Kolbert’s new book, which Livermore describes as a book about unintended consequences and tragic choices in relation to the environment. One example in Under a White Sky is gene drive technology, which Kolbert explains are biological mechanisms that preferentially pass down genetic material from generation to generation. Currently there is an effort to create synthetic gene drives that would allow for the suppression of malaria in mosquitoes. Given its powerful implications, this technology is controversial, and some have compared it to the invention of the atom bomb in the sense that our scientific ability has exceeded the limits of our control. Along those lines, Kolbert states that the goal is to eventually release these modified mosquitoes in regions of Africa with high malaria transmission, but presently there is significant worry about the unintended consequences of that action. (8:13 – 18:02) This leads to an extended conversation about geo-engineering, another technology that Kolbert examines in her book. Like gene drives, geo-engineering is a technology that, hypothetically, would allow humanity to control the environment. Kolbert talks about the two primary forms of geo-engineering – removing carbon from the atmosphere and reflecting solar activity away from the earth. She emphasizes that although we do not have the capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere at a massive commercial scale, most carbon neutrality plans place great weight on the ability to commercialize that technology in the near future. The other alternative – blocking sunlight from entering the atmosphere — poses its own set of problems, from altered weather patterns to a change in the color of the sky. Kolbert also makes the point that no amount of geo-engineering will counterbalance continued carbon emissions, and the challenges associated with controlling emissions are only increasing as the world becomes more unstable. (18:10 – 29:53) The podcast concludes with Kolbert offering insight into how she remains motivated to report on material that is often quite depressing to consider (29:55 – 31:55). Professor Michael Livermore is the Edward F. Howrey Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. He is also the Director of the Program in Law, Communities and the Environment (PLACE), an interdisciplinary program based at UVA Law that examines the intersection of legal, environmental, and social concerns.
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