A Conversation with Elizabeth Kolbert
and Matthieu Ricard
By Sam Mowe
Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard each had big books in 2015. Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History—winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction—takes an unflinching look at the history of extinction and the different ways that human beings are negatively impacting life on the planet. Ricard’s Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World explores global challenges, such as climate change, and argues that compassion and altruism are the keys to creating a better future. Together these books—filled with grief and hope—feel like two sides of a coin, each necessary for understanding what it means to be alive during humanity’s greatest crisis.
I recently spoke with Kolbert and Ricard to discuss emotional responses to distressing environmental news, the importance of slowing down, and the role of art in environmental solutions.
Sam Mowe: Elizabeth, we’ve talked about this before, but The Sixth Extinction is a devastating book. Was it emotionally challenging for you to report on these issues?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, when you set out to write a book, on some level you have some sense of what you’re getting into. Otherwise, you wouldn’t write it. So on some level, I’d say I had already absorbed the message. It is a very grim message. If you’re not devastated by it, then the book has not done its job.
But one of the ironies that I experienced in the process of writing this book about how humans are really effective at destroying life on the planet is that I went to all of these amazing places and saw just how fantastic the world is. Carl Safina has said something like, “The more I sense the miracle, the greater I sense the tragedy.”
Sam Mowe: Matthieu, in your book you quote somebody as saying, “It’s too late to be a pessimist.” How are you able to stay optimistic in the face of distressing environmental news?
Matthieu Ricard: It’s interesting that you mention this emotional reaction to climate news, because, actually, the problem is precisely that it is very hard for us to be emotionally moved by something that will happen in the future. Of course, the worst of climate change is coming closer and closer, but it won’t happen tomorrow. The reason for this emotional disconnect is quite simple: evolution has equipped us to react to immediate danger. If there’s a rhinoceros coming at a group of people full speed, everybody gets up and runs. If you say, “There’s a rhinoceros coming in 30 years,” people will ask, “What’s the problem?”
Sam Mowe: The reason I’m interested in this question of emotional responses is because behavioral scientists say that people are frozen by bad news and motivated by positive messaging. This creates a challenge for those working for environmental change.
Matthieu Ricard: All my photographic work is about showing the beauty and the wonder we have in terms of nature—implying, of course, how incredibly sad it would be if it was all destroyed. We need to inspire. But we also need to be honest about what’s going to happen in the future if we don’t put our full energy, ingenuity, creativity, determination, and decision making towards solving this crisis.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that also gets to this question of messaging. I hear that all the time, that people don’t want to hear negative messages. To a certain extent, I think that is a construction of our consumer culture, which is precisely the problem. We don’t want to hear negative messages because they’re not part of this affirming culture that we live in that tells us all, to quote McDonald’s, “You deserve a break today,” or whatever. That is part of this whole communications apparatus that’s been built around actually trying to prop up consumerism. And if that’s the problem, then maybe we really need to examine all of the precepts behind that.
Also, the idea that people are only motivated by good news is clearly not true. If something is coming at you—say, a rhinoceros—you get out of the way. Clearly, we’re very much motivated by fear, and fear has mobilized us many times.
Matthieu Ricard: When there is genuine fear because of real danger, to ignore it is stupid. What we don’t need is unreasonable fear or fear that comes as lagging anxiety—sometimes the fear alarm is on for reasons that are not justified. Sometimes what we call fear, is simply common sense. If you were walking towards a cliff, you would not be taken by fear and emotion. You would just decide that you should stop before you fall over.
Sam Mowe: It seems that a lot of this consumer culture that Elizabeth was just speaking about is also driven by fear—fear of not having enough or being good enough as you are.
Matthieu Ricard: Yes, we need the ability to recognize when a fear is reasonable.
Sam Mowe: Let’s talk about time scales. Elizabeth, one of the points that you make in The Sixth Extinction is that humans have been altering the planet for a really long time, sort of like it’s in our DNA to do so. So it’s going to be challenging to change our behavior overnight. And, Matthieu, you talk about the value of slowing down. So there seems to be this tension between the urgency of the moment and then the long-term project of changing human nature or at least slowing it down.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that the idea about slowing down very much gets to the heart of the matter. To the extent that we are a world-altering species—and I do think it’s pretty clear that we’ve been at this project for a very long time—what makes us very destructive, unfortunately, is our capacity to change things on a time scale that is orders of magnitude faster than other creatures can evolve to deal with.
But there is a difference between what we were doing when we were hunting some mastodons and what we’re doing today. Our impact on the planet has been called “the great acceleration.” Becoming aware of our capacity to change the planet could be a good thing and could potentially lead us to reassess a lot of the things we do. However, I try to never say, “Things are going to change,” because I don’t see any evidence of that. But I certainly think that there’s a possibility for change.
Matthieu Ricard: It’s not contradictory to speak of an emergency to slow down. It’s not like you are frantically nervous while slowing down. It’s just that it is time to slow down. All of those terms—slowing down, simplicity, doing more with less—people respond to them by saying, “Oh, I’m not going to be able to eat strawberry ice cream anymore.” They feel bad about that. But, actually, what they miss is that voluntary simplicity that turns out to be a very happy way of life. There have been very many good studies showing that again and again. Jim Casa studied people with a highly materialistic consumerism mindset. He studied 10,000 people over 20 years and compared them with those who more put value on intrinsic things—quality of relationships, relationship to nature—and he found the high consumer-minded people are less happy. They look for outside pleasures and don’t find relationship satisfaction. Their health is not as good. They have less good friends. They are less concerned about global issues like the environment. They are less empathic. They are more obsessed with debt.
So I think we have to realize that we can find joy and happiness and fulfillment without buying a big iPad, then a mini iPad and then a middle-sized iPad.
Sam Mowe: Do you think that contemplative practices can help people come to that realization?
Matthieu Ricard: For me, contemplation means to cultivate skills, inner strength and determination to better serve others and to serve causes that are worth serving. It’s like gaining the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life and to deal with the adverse circumstances, the sheer determination and compassionate courage. So, yes, I think contemplation can help set priorities.
Sam Mowe: Elizabeth, do you think spirituality has a place in climate discussions or do you see it as more of a policy and financial issue?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I do think spirituality has a place in the discussions, understanding spirituality very broadly here in terms of thoughtfulness and self-control. Changing our energy systems is obviously a huge technological challenge, but I think the mistake that is often made is that people think we’re going to change our energy systems, and then we’re going to just continue to live as before. But if you just give people more energy—and it might be a carbon-free source of energy—and they’re going to use it to cut down the rainforest, then you have potentially solved or ameliorated one problem only to worsen another problem. So how we use these technologies that we deploy makes a huge difference, and I don’t think that without any form of self-control that we’re going to get out of this mess. So we’re going to need massive amounts of both technology and self-control simultaneously.
Sam Mowe: How can we achieve that level of self-control as individuals and as a society?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I don’t have a good answer for that, and I don’t claim to have any expertise in this area. I can barely control my three kids. But right now in the U.S., you know, one of our favorite phrases is “the sky’s the limit.” I think there are possibilities of different social norms that have very different values.
Matthieu Ricard: There are many ways to do this. But, yes, the idea is that we need to cultivate some fundamental human values and that are different from our current ways our life.
Sam Mowe: Do either of you think that art can help us reset our views of nature and help us change our values in the way you’re talking about?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think art potentially has a huge role to play, and part of that is because so many of us are living in urban settings and we can’t all go off and visit the Amazon. And we shouldn’t be doing that anyway, to be honest. So I think that reaching people through all sorts of different media—and breaking through that inattention to what many people would consider to be unpleasant, unhappy news—is useful.
There is the great Emily Dickinson line, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” There are many people working on this, and I’ve worked with a couple of different artists on this sort of thing. Whether any of this is having any success in the sense of actually motivating action, as opposed to just being good art or bad art, I can’t really comment on that.
Matthieu Ricard: I try to do this through my photography. I think of it as a way to be witness to the beauty of nature and to share it with people who live in cities, to remind them of the beauty of the world. So I think that can be a major source of inspiration for positive change.
Sam Mowe: I ask that question partly because I sometimes experience information overload and it seems like art might be a way to cut through the information and connect your heart to the issues.
Matthieu Ricard: Yes, but I think we must go directly to the issue and not naively hope that by listening to Bach we will somehow realize we need renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. I’m not sure there’s too much of a direct connection.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes, I really agree with that. I think that there’s room for all sorts of creative efforts, and I applaud them, but I think there is a problem when people mistake some kind of presentation or artwork or discussion for action. You can say they both have utility, but you cannot confuse them.
Matthieu Ricard: If you are on a boat that is going straight towards a big waterfall, it’s of no use to play soft music.
Elizabeth Kolbert: [Laughs] Exactly. Or maybe there is, but you shouldn’t convince yourself it’s going to prevent you from going over the edge.