Elizabeth Kolbert on the terror of being at the mercy of events

“Telling people what to do is beyond my purview. My obligation is to report on what is”

SEAMAN: Over the course of your research, you gather an enormous amount of experience, facts, feelings, and thoughts. How do you pare all this down? What is most challenging about this process? How do you make this into a story?

KOLBERT: If I knew that . . . In the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, there’s a card game called “The Exciting Game without Any Rules,” and I think that’s a good description of writing in general. It’s true of nonfiction writing in the sense that you are at the mercy of events. You go out, and you have to hope that you see something or that something happens which will make a good story. And you can’t make this stuff up. And when it doesn’t work out, it’s terrifying.

I had a very different conception when I initially set out to write the New Yorker series that became the basis for my book, but then I changed my idea for the first piece and did a lot of other reporting. One night I realized—this was half a year in—that it wasn’t going to work. I felt sick. I realized I had to go back to conception number one. And that I had to go back to Alaska. Fortunately, Alaska is four hours behind us. It was midnight for us but only 8:00 pm for them, so I called up this guy and said, I’m coming out next week. I need to go back out with you. So it’s not a linear process, as everyone who has tried it knows. It’s a hit-or-miss process. So that’s the excitement and terror of these things.

SEAMAN: Global warming can easily become a cause. And taking that up as an activist can be very tricky for a writer.

KOLBERT: Yes, I agree. I’ve read Bill McKibben’s book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2013), and he has definitely transformed himself. And he’s really good at being an activist. He’s a wonderful speaker, and he’s very good on his feet. I am much more nervous, and I couldn’t do what he does. So you are limited by who you are, ultimately. In that book, he talks about missing being the person who’s sitting alone at his computer. I totally relate to that part of it, yet he felt he had to do this. And I agree with him: there was a complete vacuum, which he has filled, and he does it really, really well.

I do sometimes find myself trying to exhort people to do something, and some people would argue that is not the role of a journalist. But I don’t have an agenda. I just say, Look, this is happening. You can take action—I don’t know exactly what that might be—but you can try to acknowledge what’s going on. Or you can try to ameliorate what’s going on. Or you can just rush headlong into these things. Is that activism or not? I don’t know. All the scientists feel the same way. They just want to do their science, but they end up feeling they don’t have a choice, really. You do have some sort of ethical obligation to try to communicate what you know.

SEAMAN: The puzzle is how to induce people to read, to listen, and to think. The best environmental writers involve readers in the story, as you do, rather than hectoring or outright alarming us. Your writing is thoroughly enjoyable even as we take in the bad, bad news.

KOLBERT: Well, thank you. That is a huge question, and there’s a huge pushback. In the social science world, there are a lot of conversations about how to communicate and what the message should be. I find this very interesting, but I don’t participate in it. My job, as I see it, is to communicate things, to the best of my ability, in a way that makes some people respond to it, but not to give them a message that necessarily produces a response. Social scientists are asking, How do you break through and get people to do x or y? I’m glad they’re working on this question, but even if I knew the answer to that—which, Lord knows, I don’t, nor do they—I don’t see that as the role of a journalist. Which is simply to tell the story as it is. This really gets to the heart of the matter. In this particular case, the news as it is is really grim, and people can deal with it or not. I feel that telling people what to do is beyond my purview. My obligation is to report on what is. And that, I think, is the ultimate defense, or the ultimate cop-out, or the ultimate calling, of a nonfiction writer: it is what it is.

SEAMAN: Speaking of not doing things, one aspect of your books that I particularly appreciate is that you’d don’t do what I call “making nice.” So many otherwise excellent environmental books veer away from the hard facts to try to end on a cheerful note.

KOLBERT: Time will tell, but I think people who read serious books about the environment are much more savvy than they’re given credit for. They know that turning out the lights just isn’t going to do it. So the question becomes What is your message at the end? And should that message offer some sort of exhortation that is supposed to leave people feeling empowered? I very consciously dispensed with this notion. You could say, if you wanted to be kind to me—and I hope I have a relationship with my reader at that point—that this is me saying, I know you’re a pretty smart person and you’re not going to be fooled by some twist at the end that offers a message of hope.

We’re told, for example, that elephants are being slaughtered and that the money made is going to fund terrorism, but there’s hope because some guy is building elephant fences or whatever and it’s all going to work out. Any reader who reads that may well think, I’m not sure I buy that. I understand that my not raising hope may be an objection people can raise about my book. People can say, You’ve told us all this stuff, but you haven’t told us what to do. And to be frank: if I knew what to do, I’d tell you.


Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of several books, including The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Mother Jones, and have been anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing and theBest American Political Writing series. She has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1999.

About the Author

Donna Seaman

Donna Seaman is the adult books editor at Booklist, a member of the leadership team for the American Writers Museum, and a recipient of several awards, including a Louis Shores Award for excellence in book reviewing.

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