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How to Have a Humorous Discussion about Mass Extinction

the-sixth-extinctionHow do you talk about the end of the world on a comedy show?

That was the challenge for Jon Stewart when he invited Elizabeth Kolbert onto The Daily Show to talk about her new book The Sixth Extinction. (Watch the clip here.)

Stewart doesn’t usually have a problem discussing serious topics. He’s talked in depth about climate change with the likes of Al Gore, often inviting guests to “stick around” and talk some more after the TV show so he can put the extended interview online.

But not with Kolbert – in this interview he keeps it to one segment, and seems uncomfortable all the way through the seven minutes, making lame jokes about polar bears and dolphins and the difference between animals migrating to cooler climes and Jewish retirees from New York migrating in the opposite direction.


Kolbert tries to roll with it all, but she’s a scientist and a journalist, and her topic just isn’t funny. Stewart wraps it up with a joke about how we humans are serial killers, and looks relieved that it’s over (the interview, that is).

You can understand his dilemma. The Sixth Extinction isn’t your typical book about climate change and what you can supposedly do about it, like getting a hybrid car and eating locally-grown food. Six years ago, in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Kolbert wrote about that subject. Back then, as she tells Terry Gross in a longer interview on NPR, the scientific consensus was that much of the Arctic might be ice-free in summer by the end of the century. In fact, large swaths of it are now already ice-free.

Kolbert is too honest to offer easy, feel-good solutions to the disaster at hand.So now, just a few years later, Kolbert is looking at how the accelerating catastrophe is affecting animals, including humans, all over the world – and in ways you could never even have imagined until you read the book or hear her talking about it.

In one bizarre example of how we humans are bringing on mass extinction, she describes how a fungus that’s killing off frogs all over the planet appears to have been exported from the offices of gynecologists when they were using exotic frogs in the 1960s in a test for pregnancy.

And while your typical interview about what’s happening to the atmosphere and the oceans includes the mandatory hopeful list of what-you-can-do clichés (solar panels, etc.), Kolbert is too honest to offer easy, feel-good solutions to the disaster at hand:

“One of the very, very sobering things about looking back at the mass extinctions of the past is that when the rules change you don’t really know what’s going to happen.

“So I guess you’d say if you were a species, you know, causing a mass extinction [which is what we humans are doing], you wouldn’t necessarily feel entirely secure.”

In another interview, on the more politically-focused Democracy Now, Amy Goodman and Aaron Maté press Kolbert a little further about what, if anything, can be done. She responds:

“Massive things need to be done. Obviously we need to start transitioning our whole economy off of fossil fuels. That’s not—that’s not a small thing. That’s a big thing.

“… Unfortunately, climate change has been set in motion so that, really, though we desperately need to reduce our carbon emissions, we’re not stopping that process anytime in the near future, so that we need to start thinking about, you know, a world in which everything is on the move and preserving corridors that things can migrate through.

“… This is your home. And if you don’t care about that, you know, what do you care about? It’s hard to fathom.”

Back at The Daily Show, Stewart steers clear of all of this. And you can understand his dilemma. How, on a comedy show, do you interview someone about the approaching end of our species – and quite possibly of every species on the planet? When the audience is already primed to laugh at everything you say (in this case the lame jokes about our own approaching demise), it’s hard to look on the bright side and find what he calls “a hopeful note” to end on.

“This is your home. And if you don’t care about that, what do you care about? It’s hard to fathom.”Altogether, every question and answer is a bit of a show-stopper.

As for the book itself, it’s the first book I’ve seen that’s written for the mainstream, the first that tells it from the point of view of the animals (it’s not just all about us humans), and the first that tells is like it is (at least 200 entire species already going extinct every day). And despite the grim but fascinating content, it’s not being ignored by the major media who are normally panicked not by the idea of the end of humankind, but of how this might affect their ratings meanwhile.

I haven’t finished reading the book, so I’ll comment more on it later. But even if you don’t read it yourself, do try to catch some of the radio and TV interviews with Kolbert while she’s on book tour. At very least, it’s fascinating to see each of the interviewers trying to wrap their heads around the hard reality of mass, terminal extinction, especially when everything else they discuss is the equivalent of arguing over how best to move the deckchairs around on The Titanic.