Pulitzer Prize-winning Science Writer Elizabeth Kolbert Delivers 2023 Barry Commoner Lecture
Growing up in the 1970s, science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert was fascinated by the work of Barry Commoner, Ph.D., a prominent microbiologist. Back then, the environmentalist movement was just getting its legs, and Dr. Commoner was one of the loudest voices to sound the alarm about the environmental dangers posed by modern technology. As proof of his impact on the public’s growing awareness, Time magazine once referred to him as the Paul Revere of ecology.
“He was a big influence on me as a kid,” Kolbert said. “[Along with] the sort of nascent environmental movement of the 70s, he really shaped my consciousness.”
Fast forward to today, and it’s Kolbert that a younger generation has come to know as an authoritative voice on environmental causes through her series of New Yorker articles and books, including The Sixth Extinction, which garnered her a Pulitzer Prize, and the national bestseller Under a White Sky. Her work and Dr. Commoner’s legacy came together over Homecoming Weekend in October when Kolbert served as the speaker of MMC’s 2023 Barry Commoner Lecture on the Environment.
Established through the generosity of Dr. Commoner’s daughter, Lucy, and her husband, Richard S. Berry, the lecture seeks to continue his model of communicating environmental issues and seeking solutions. This year’s event, which featured Kolbert in conversation with Department of Natural Sciences Chair and Assistant Professor of Biology Matthew J. Lundquist, Ph.D., marked the series’ return to campus following the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also came at a moment of heightened concern about climate change, with the summer of 2023 bringing the hottest temperatures in 174 years and Canadian wildfires that left the New York City skyline in an orange haze. Altogether, the 2023 Commoner Lecture drew approximately 175 students, alums, faculty, staff, and guests.
As she reflected on The Sixth Extinction, which argues that the earth is in the midst of a man-made extinction event as catastrophic as the death of the dinosaurs, Kolbert said that since writing the book nearly a decade ago, “the evidence has only continued to pile up in its favor.”
While there’s no exact definition of mass extinction, she said, “it’s described as an event that eliminates a large proportion of the world’s biodiversity—upwards of 75 percent of species in the major mass extinctions—in a geologically insignificant amount of time.”
To put that in perspective, she said researchers have calculated that extinctions of mammalian species might normally occur once every millennium. However, “everyone in this room can name a species of mammal that has gone extinct recently or is about to go extinct,” she said. “That suggests a very elevated level of extinction.”
Dr. Lundquist, an entomologist by training, said that in addition to the loss of species, another concerning environmental issue is the introduction of invasive foreign species in locations where they wouldn’t typically exist, thanks to global travel and commerce. That, he said, can have devastating consequences for local ecosystems.
Indeed, Kolbert noted that hundreds of thousands of ash trees in New York state are dying because of the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive beetle native to Asia.
“That has huge knock-on effects when you think about it because, obviously, there are a lot of creatures that depend on ash trees,” she said. “The moving of species around the world doesn’t get the same attention as a lot of other environmental issues, but it’s really big.”
Given the negative ways that humanity has impacted the environment, Kolbert’s latest book, Under a White Sky, explores interventions scientists have proposed to counter the damage.
Kolbert said that one of the more audacious plans covered in the book is a genetic engineering technique called gene drive, which she described as “gene editing on steroids.”
“You learn in biology that you only pass on a trait 50 percent of the time, but with gene drive, we can arrange it so that you pass on a trait 100 percent of the time,” she said.
And those traits can be selected to be fatal. For example, scientists have proposed using gene drive to wipe out mosquitoes in parts of Africa where malaria is rampant. Others have proposed using it to eliminate certain rodent populations considered invasive species. Still, the notion remains controversial, with scientists weighing the potential pitfalls of altering ecosystems.
Equally or even more controversial is solar geoengineering, an intervention that some scientists have proposed to counteract global warming. The plan calls for the stratosphere to be sprayed with sulfur dioxide particles, which would curb the amount of direct sunlight hitting the earth and trigger a temporary global cooling. This would essentially mimic volcanos, which naturally expel sulfur dioxide while erupting.
Still, although the idea has been batted around the scientific community for decades, many remain concerned about an array of negative consequences that it could potentially cause, including harm to the ozone layer.
In fact, a letter signed by several hundred scientists argues that “we should not be talking about it, we shouldn’t be studying it, we should just close the door,” Kolbert said. Others have said that the intervention could not be undertaken without doing several decades of research—an effort that, given the urgency of climate change, would need to be started now.
After Dr. Lundquist noted that in his time at MMC, there had been positive movements each year to increase sustainability on campus, Kolbert said there were steps students could take on their own and with others to further make a difference. She suggested that they start by joining the campus sustainability group, Sustain MMC, and petitioning state lawmakers.
“There are a lot of important pieces of legislation, even as we speak, that are being considered by the new state legislature,” she said. “And [legislators] do listen to their constituents.”
Abigail Abbott-White ’25, a BFA Acting and Environmental Studies double major and vice president of Sustain MMC, said that several students seemed to take Kolbert’s advice, registering for the campus organization and following its Instagram account soon after the lecture.
“It was extremely valuable to have Elizabeth Kolbert as a campus speaker,” Abbott-White said. “I’m hoping that students were able to gain a deeper understanding that we all take part in the climate crisis and that our actions as consumers matter.”
They pointed to a moment during the audience Q&A when a student asked about the environmental impact that large corporations are responsible for versus individuals’ impact on the environment.
“[Kolbert] acknowledged that yes, we need a system change, but that change on the individual level is just as—if not more—important,” they said. “I think that this is a hard thing to accept for a lot of people because we always want to put the blame somewhere else, but the change we want to see won’t happen if we don’t alter the way we do things on a personal level.”