In episode 131 of Berkeley Talks, Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer Elizabeth Kolbert joined in conversation with David Ackerly, dean of UC Berkeley’s Rausser College of Natural Resources, and Geeta Anand, dean of Berkeley Journalism, for the Fall 2021 Horace M. Albright Lecture in Conservation.
Kolbert, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of The Sixth Extinction, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. In her 2021 book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Kolbert asks the question: “After doing so much damage, can we change nature — this time, to save it?”
“Was there one story that was the light bulb moment — wow, we’re doing one crazy thing to fix the problems caused by the last crazy thing we did — when you saw that these examples are part of one story about how we relate with nature and that led you to pull them together into this book?” asked Ackerly at the November 2021 event.
“Well, I wouldn’t say there was an aha moment exactly,” said Kolbert. “But I can say that the story that really propelled me down this path is the story that’s actually at the very center of the book. It was a visit I paid to Oahu back in 2016. I went to visit a project that had been dubbed the super-coral project. And basically, the idea behind the super-coral project was pretty straightforward: Reefs are in terrible trouble. I’m sure all of our listeners right now know that already. They’re in trouble for all reasons. But a biggie is climate change.
“… So, there was very charismatic scientist at the Hawaii Marine Biology Lab there named Ruth Gates, who had come up with this idea. Well, we can’t just let reefs die. We have to do something. And that something she came up with, she called assisted evolution. We’re going to direct the evolution of corals of the day. We could get ahead of this problem, nudge them along. … I quote her in the books in various different ways, saying, ‘The future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural. We are going to be intervening in these systems more and more.’
“And while I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said… those ideas were really planted: What are we going to do with this world that we have remade? Are we going to continue the next level of remaking it? What are we going to do next?”
Listen to the full conversation in Berkeley Talks episode 131: ‘Can we change nature — this time, to save it?’