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Book Spotlight: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

This is the first article in a trilogy covering Elizabeth Kolbert’s work and her ongoing legacy as a scientific journalist. Kolbert, born on July 6th, 1961, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about complex scientific topics in incredibly accessible ways. All of her books are punchy, poignant, and well worth reading. However, if you need more convincing, you have come to the right place. 

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate, published in 2006, is Kolbert’s first book on climate change and the last one I read.  In truth, I was hesitant to pick up this book having already read the two she wrote more recently. I had heard that she expanded on the topics in this book in her more recent ones and felt it might be outdated. That mindset was a disservice to this work.  While it is true a lot surrounding climate change discourse has changed and evolved since 2006, this book is an excellent piece of scientific journalism and, I suspect, a major contributor to growing public awareness around climate change in the first place. If you are interested in the politics around climate change, the way science is conducted and understood in regards to climate change, or just how we grew to understand climate change as a phenomenon related to human actions, this book is a great resource.  So, even while I found her two recent books to be more relevant and engaging, that doesn't make this book any less impactful.

To further illustrate Colbert's strength as a writer, let's take a deeper look at the opening chapter of this book. In this chapter, the first section of Part 1: Nature, she gives an overview of the history of humanity’s understanding of climate change before specifically focusing on the example of melting ice caps. She explains the science behind the planet warming up and emphasizes how it is not hypothetical but happening in the present. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other gasses such as methane in the atmosphere create a greenhouse effect that, in turn, leads to global warming. She goes on to detail the concept of albedo: a scale from 0 to 1 of how much light is reflected off an object, 0 meaning all light is absorbed and 1 being all light is reflected. It is this moment that made me realize something about the book; Kolbert is an effective teacher.

As a writer, she makes these topics simple and understandable for the reader. Whether the information is complex or straightforward, she presents things in a manner that is memorable. Her explanations stick with you. This is shown in how she uses the concept of albedo to make one of her larger points in Chapter 1. The ocean and other bodies of water have albedo of 0.07, and ice and snow have albedos of 0.8 and 0.9. She illustrates how as the ice caps melt we are making the areas of the planet that reflect the most light and heat smaller and the areas that absorb the most light and heat larger. She is an incredible science journalist because she crafts narratives that teach the reader how to decipher a concept and uses that concept as evidence to make her point.

Kolbert reading at an independent bookstore

To round out the discussion of Kolbert’s first book on climate change, it is important to talk about a chapter in Part 2: Man. Where the first part is more about nature itself and how it is changing, Part 2 is about how people react to that change. The first chapter in Part 2, “The Curse of Akkad,” uses a historical and literary example to look at how people react to, and often create, changing climates. The chapter opens telling the story of Sargon of Akkad, how he founded the first empire, and how, according to legend, that empire fell because of the gods’ will. Kolbert writes about how evidence of this empire was only discovered in 1978, yet the story has been around for centuries. She discusses how myths globally talk about the rise and fall of empires caused by their tensions with the gods or, what I think gods are a stand in for, nature. This is a thoughtful opening to this section because it encourages the reader to think about how we talk about civilizations and ourselves as in a power struggle with nature.

It is important to understand the severe impacts extreme climate fluctuations can have on human societies. One of the notable things in this chapter is that it brings back the discussion of carbon in the atmosphere which is introduced in the first part.  This time, instead of just focusing on how carbon dioxide impacts nature, she points out a correlation with the shift into the industrial era and the beginning of the steep rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As mentioned previously, Kolbert is able to craft narratives that allow you to view the variety of topics she discusses from different angles. Part 2 is an important follow up to Part 1 because it builds off of and provides contexts for many of the topics and issues discussed in Part 1.  The impact man has on nature and nature has on man is not only one of the major themes of Part 2, but Kolbert’s books in general. Kolbert makes the case in all three of her books that nature and humanity do not exist in a vacuum; humanity is a part of nature and nature is not separate from humanity. 

As we move forward with this series of articles, it will become evident that Kolbert uses clear and thorough links among the topics and themes in her work to create a through-line that readers can easily follow between books. For that reason, I encourage you to read the books in order if you plan on reading them. I enjoyed my experience reading all three of the books; however, if I knew how much of a through-line there was between each of her works I would have read them in publication order. Many of the topics in this book appear in her later books with a greater focus; such as how the extinction of the Golden toad was part of her inspiration for her follow-up novel and topic of the next article in this series, The Sixth Extinction.  

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