Tanner Lectures on Human Values Recap: Elizabeth Kolbert, “Welcome to the Anthropocene”

Sept. 26, 2022

Lecture One: What on Earth Have We Done?

Written by Colin Hickey, former UCHV Ethics of Climate Change Postdoc

Kolbert’s first lecture unfolded across three tales of a changing natural world and the creative strategies scientists use to understand it. She began in Greenland and Antarctica, documenting ice core research that allows us to travel back in time to see the composition of the atmosphere and reconstruct temperature fluctuations by analyzing the layers of ice. Understanding the climatological fluctuations over hundreds of thousands of years puts us in an uncomfortable position of recognizing, as Kolbert suggested, that the period of climate stability that allowed for the development of civilization is coming to an end, by our own hand and without an end in sight for further destabilization through additional carbon emissions.

The theme of the lecture was further revealed in Kolbert’s second story, this time from the Amazon and a 40-year study of the biological dynamics of isolated plots of rainforest that are surrounded by deforested land. As a field experiment on species loss, the results show that smaller plots preserve fewer species, and confirm how important it is to protect large areas of unfragmented land. Unfortunately, our patterns of land use and rampant deforestation are fragmenting habitats all around the world, and in so doing, risking extinctions big and small. In addition to fragmenting habitats, humans are also blurring once-clear boundaries between ecosystems (through ballast water in cargo ships, with pet and garden trade, and via tourism) at breakneck pace and to devastating effect as invasive species destroy native ones. Our reshuffling of the biosphere in these ways is both unprecedented and monumental for the future of life on the planet.

The third story Kolbert detailed to illuminate what we have done comes from an island in the Bay of Naples where volcanic vents releasing carbon dioxide foreshadow the effects of an acidifying ocean on marine life as the oceans absorb more and more carbon emissions. Kolbert focused particular attention on the effect of changing pH on calcification and corals, which are increasingly stressed, again in unprecedented ways in light of human interference. With these stories, taken as a trio, Kolbert managed to evocatively distill something of the state-of-play of humanity’s vast experiment on nature.

Kolbert ended the lecture with a reflection on journalism and the difficulty of adequately narrating the unfolding crises. Against the common charge that journalists are prone to exaggeration or cherry-picking, she argued that stories of human impact on the planet are widely underplayed, and neither capture the dire nature of the problem, nor humanity’s strange, imaginative, and resourceful ways of understanding and coping with what we’ve done.

Marcia Bjornerud, Walter Schober Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of geosciences, Lawrence University, and Arun Majumdar, Jay Precourt Provostial Chair Professor, Stanford University, gave responses.


Lecture Two: What Can We Do About It?

Written by: Simona Capisani, former UCHV Ethics of Climate Change Postdoc

In her second lecture, Kolbert mirrored her first lecture’s structure by recounting three types of experiments. Each of these experiments capture a different way in which humans can intentionally intervene and alter the “natural world” in order to address some of the harmful consequences of the great “unsupervised experiment” of the Anthropocene. A defining feature of the Anthropocene, according to Kolbert, is that the unintended side effects of climate change - which humans have introduced on a geological scale - require intentional and corrective human action and experimentation. Yet such countermeasures are fraught with their own moral, social, political, and economic challenges and raise their own set of questions regarding human beings’ planetary impact. 

Kolbert first describes an experiment intended to address coral reefs and their vulnerability to ocean acidification and increasing water temperature due to climate change. In this first story, she described the plight of the Great Barrier Reef which has lost close to half of its coral cover in the past thirty years due -in part- to longer and more frequent bleaching events. Coral bleaching occurs when the symbiotic relationship between coral and photosynthetic algae is disrupted. Photosynthetic algae provide coral with the energy required to survive, but when water temperatures warm, the algae produce harmful levels of oxygen radicals, prompting the coral to expel their energy source. Kolbert recounts visiting Australia’s National Sea Simulator and bearing witness to a project intended to help coral adapt to warming and acidifying water. The project’s approach, suggestively named “assisted evolution” was spearheaded by marine biologists Ruth Gates and Madeleine Van Oppen. This experiment aims to facilitate or accelerate coral’s adaptive capacity to withstand warmer water and ocean acidification. Kolbert colorfully described the specific experiment she witnessed which required scientists in the lab to artificially perform crosses between various types of coral during a spawning event. Such adaptations might occur only very slowly or not at all in nature due to the vast distances between the coral varieties in their natural habitats. The aim of completing such crosses is to subject the offspring to various forms of stress and select for the most resilient of these hybrids to seed reefs into the future.

The experiment of “assisted evolution” suggests the need for an industrial-level scale of intentional human intervention, one that once again imposes “changes” on other species, ecosystems, and environments. While Kolbert noted her initial reservations with the idea of human-imposed changes of this scale, she argued that the current moment requires a sober and honest assessment of our options. Human beings have already imposed planetary-level changes on the natural world through destructive and extractive practices. Kolbert returned to this insight throughout the lecture. While not providing a specific answer to the motivating question of her second address, Kolbert directed the audience to consider the need to abandon an idealized sense of nature when considering the question of what we can do to rectify the damaging changes we have wrought on the planet. 

Kolbert discussed two additional technologies and the possibility of employing them as large-scale human-imposed planetary changes.  She described our ability to produce a synthetic version of gene drive through the use of gene editing technology, known as CRISPR. With the use of such technology human beings can choose which genes can be passed down and can target existing gene variants or develop new variants. Such technology is currently being used in captive populations of mosquitos to eliminate the population over the course of several generations. Eventually, the aim is to be able to safely release mosquitoes that pass down a gene variant that would eventually lead to the elimination of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Such a technology could also address problems caused by the introduction and proliferation of species introduced into ecosystems in which they have no natural predators and in which they cause unintended damage. As in the case of “assisted evolution” of coral, Kolbert noted the many and large uncertainties associated with deploying gene editing technology beyond the lab. She argued that we ought to consider such interventions “in the context of what we’ve already done” and the geological scale of such impacts.

Given the scale and scope of such impacts, and the slow, inadequate pace of mitigation efforts to eliminate fossil fuels emissions, Kolbert concluded her lecture by applying these arguments to a third group of technologies referred to as “geoengineering.” She discussed several examples, including solar radiation management which involves releasing reflective particles into the stratosphere in order to reduce the amount of sunlight entering the atmosphere and limiting further warming. Such forms of geoengineering do not address the root causes of climate change, but rather aim to address the impact of warming. While scientists are currently researching the benefits of such global technological interventions, concerns regarding the impacts of both research and deployment of these technologies have been raised by those within and beyond the scientific community. As in the case of gene-editing and assisted evolution, Kolbert returned to her central claim that we ought to consider these technological interventions with great care, and in the context of a world that has already been altered by human beings and the existential threat such changes pose.

Kolbert concluded that such considerations do not entail a type of technological fatalism. By raising questions about what we can do, she did not conclude that we ought to adopt or deploy such technologies. Rather, she encouraged her audience to recognize that we need new frameworks for understanding our relationship with the natural world when developing, evaluating, and deliberating about the actions and risks we choose to take to protect the planet and ourselves. Notably, throughout the talk Kolbert did not specify the “we” whose past and future actions are under consideration, nor did she directly suggest concrete actions to take. She also refrained from offering suggestions regarding issues of governance and politics. And despite the underlying moral complexities present in the cases and technologies she discussed, Kolbert refrained from advancing specific moral arguments about what we ought to do. Instead, she concluded with the cautionary remark that ethical deliberation entirely divorced from the realities of current non-ideal conditions may inhibit our ability to act in the expansive and effective ways climate change requires.

Iain McCalman, emeritus professor, University of Sydney, and former co-director of The Sydney Environment Institute, and Robert O. Keohane, professor of international affairs, emeritus, Princeton University, gave responses.

Listen to the lectures here.