Ceremony and lecture of the 4th edition of the BBVA Foundation award

Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication, warns of the challenges facing a planet transformed by humankind in the ‘age of the Anthropocene’

American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert spoke of the challenges facing humanity in a world shaped by the impact of our species during the presentation ceremony of the 4th Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication. After collecting her award in the BBVA Foundation, the environmental reporter with The New Yorker delivered a lecture titled “Man in the Anthropocene”, focusing on the hazards of a new geological epoch defined by the imprint of Homo sapiens. “Humans dominate the planet and are determining its future. But that doesn’t mean that we are in charge,” warned Kolbert. “On the contrary, the more we meddle with nature, the less we are in control of it.” She described the Anthropocene as “an extraordinary moment” which “will be inscribed forever in geological record and will have enormous consequences both for ourselves and for the millions of other species with whom we share the Earth.”

31 March, 2023

Lecture: 'Man in the Anthropocene'


Previously, in his speech opening the award presentation ceremony, the BBVA Foundation’s Director, Rafael Pardo, remarked that “the evidence provided by the environmental sciences shows that, with the exception of some local advances, any assessment of the overall trajectory of our interaction with the planet in this first part of the 21st century throws up worrying conclusions; most notably on the twin fronts of accelerated biodiversity loss, the product of multiple processes, and climate change, whose effects are now perceptible not just with the analytical tools of science, but by simple macroscopic observation of the world around us.”

In this context, the Director of the BBVA Foundation pointed out that “the work of the scientific community provides the fundamental basis for changing the mindset or system of coordinates of much of the population. But it is not enough in itself. The fragmentary and transient news items that emerge on scientific issues need to be integrated into a kind of tapestry or overarching structure that can direct us towards the objects worthy of our attention, integrating explanations and empirical evidence with aesthetic and moral values and feelings of empathy and emotions, aimed at changing our behavior. In the last analysis, it is these narratives, invariably checked for their consistency with the scientific facts, that operate as a GPS orienting people in their day-to-day activity as consumers, workers and citizens. They are narratives that give us a sound grasp of what is happening to life in all its forms on Planet Earth and that counteract other narratives legitimizing inaction or the lack of a decisive commitment, like those of the denialists, the minimizers who say “yes, it’s a problem, but there are more urgent issues to deal with” or the techno-optimists who entrust everything to technological solutions. Narratives that enable us to overcome despondency or discouragement in the face of the scale of the environmental challenges and the inertia of a way of life that has taken hold in institutions, physical structures, routines and expectations shaped over at least the past one hundred and fifty years, a period in which images and knowledge of nature were very different from those of today.”

“Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of some of the most powerful narratives available to us on the complex relations between human beings and the environment and their significance for the maintenance of life on Earth,” said Rafael Pardo in closing. “Her writings are a core part of the conceptual repertoire we can all draw on to understand and to act in an informed and inspiring way in our interaction with nature, the foundation of life in all its expressions. Few contributions so fully encapsulate the spirit of the Biophilia Award.”

A global name in environmental reporting

Over the past two decades, Elizabeth Kolbert (New York, 1961) has become “one of the most distinguished and influential environmental journalists of her generation,” in the words of the committee deciding the 4th Biophilia Award, thanks to the “exceptional quality” of her articles, appearing primarily in The New Yorker magazine, and her internationally acclaimed popular science books dealing with the global environmental crisis. The committee reserved special mention for her Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction, published in 2014, which “documents the dramatic loss of species the planet is suffering” and has become “a world-renowned title” translated into more than 20 languages.

“The robust scientific solvency and literary excellence of her work,” concludes the 4th Biophilia Award citation, “exemplify how specialized journalism can contribute in a fundamental manner both to disseminate the best scientific knowledge about the world’s great environmental challenges, and to educate society and mobilize awareness around the need to act now in order to confront them.”

The Biophilia Award, with annual prize money of 100,000 euros, was launched by the BBVA Foundation in 2019 to recognize the work of professionals and organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues.

A new geological epoch with humanity as the dominant force

Kolbert recalled in her lecture how Paul Crutzen – the Dutch chemist awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on ozone-depleting chemicals – coined the term Anthropocene back in the year 2000, referring to a new geological epoch in which “humanity is the dominant force on the planet.” Signs of the Anthropocene, says the award-winning journalist, can be seen everywhere, now that our species “has directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on Earth – some 70 million square kilometers – and probably indirectly transformed half of what remains; has dammed or diverted most of the world’s major rivers; and is transforming the climate, which, in turn, is melting the world’s ice sheets, altering its coastlines,” among numerous other far-reaching impacts documented by science.

What characterizes the Anthropocene is that “there is nowhere you can go where you will not find evidence of human activity.” Kolbert cited the example of a team of Japanese researchers who descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, in the western Pacific, and found that even this remotest of places harbored plastic debris at a depth of more than ten thousand meters.

The consequences of this new geological epoch bearing our species’ footprint is the key issue to which Kolbert has devoted the last 20 years of her professional life, traveling from “the top of the Greenland ice sheet and the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef, to the Mojave Desert and the Amazon rainforest,” and interviewing “scores of scientists who are working to understand human impacts on the planet, including geographers and glaciologists, oceanographers and ornithologists, conservation biologists and climate modelers.”

While the general public often sees the media as exaggerating the dangers of the environmental crisis “to drum up an audience, sell books or generate clicks,” Kolbert believes that both reporters and the scientists they rely on as expert sources “tend to underplay the extraordinary changes that are already taking place.”

After twenty years talking to leading members of the scientific community studying the impacts of the Anthropocene, the central message Kolbert wants to convey is that our planet’s current, human-driven transformation “is unprecedented in the three-billion-year-plus history of life on Earth.” And it is not just “hugely important” but also “very scary.”

Invasive species and high-risk technologies: two Anthropocene fables

In order to illustrate the implications for humanity’s future of this new geological epoch, Kolbert recounted two “Anthropocene fables,” that is to say, “stories that point beyond themselves to larger meanings.”

Firstly, she cited the case of an invasive species, the cane toad (Rhinella marina), native to Central and South America, whose spread has been “an ecological disaster” in Australia. Originally imported to eat the insects that plague sugar cane plantations, this invasive and highly poisonous toad, which is lethal upon ingestion, has caused untold harm to many of the country’s autochthonous wildlife species, including lizards, snakes and marsupials. The Australian authorities have tried all kinds of methods to get rid of this amphibian, up to and including the use of genetic engineering to create a less toxic version, but to date all strategies have failed. “We brought the toads in, but we can’t get them out. This is a typical Anthropocene outcome. Humans are very good at altering nature, but when it comes to anticipating the consequences, we are astonishingly careless.”

Kolbert’s next example was the Orca project, a collection of machines installed in Iceland with the goal of removing the atmospheric excess of the main greenhouse gas driving climate change and burying it in the ground. Due to the burning of fossil fuels begun by our species with the invention of the steam engine that sparked the Industrial Revolution, “CO2 levels in the air today are higher than they’ve been at any point in the last three and half million years, which is to say since long before modern humans evolved, and those levels continue to climb.” In the face of this massive threat, the goal of Orca is “to try to, in effect, re-reverse history. It is to take CO2 we have put up in the air and shove it back underground.”

Again, she concluded, this “Anthropocene fable” is a clear instance of human actions that have had unintended and unwelcome consequences: “Both stories are about efforts to change the world that ended up changing it in ways that weren’t anticipated, and that are dangerous, either to ourselves or to other species. And so now we are trying to make changes to counteract the effects of the original changes. The result is a world in which the human and the natural can no longer be disentangled.”

A reporter on the front line of the environmental crisis

In the first stage of her professional career at The New York Times (1984-1999), Kolbert covered mainly politics. It was in 2001, when she joined the reporting staff of The New Yorker that she began to take an interest in climate change. “President George W. Bush had decided to withdraw the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, and I got the idea, pretty crazy at the time, that I was going to solve once and for all this question of whether we should really be worried about climate change,” she recalls.

With this in mind, she went on a field trip to Greenland that would change the course of her professional life, and convince her to pour her energy into environmental reporting. She was there accompanying a group of Danish scientists who were studying the ice melt triggered by global warming, a man-made problem regarding which, they explained, “the physics are impeccable; there’s no arguing with them.” This expedition to a region just starting to feel the impact of climate change got her thinking “if that was the case, and it was being confirmed by credible scientific sources, then everybody ought to know.”

This first series of articles on climate change – for which she visited other spots, like Iceland and Alaska, where the warming process was taking hold – would eventually be written up in her first book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), which closed with the following reflection: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

In her second book The Sixth Extinction (2014), Kolbert warned that we are heading for a disaster similar to that which wiped out the dinosaurs and 80% of terrestrial species 65 million years ago, except that “this time we are the meteorite.”

To gather her material, Kolbert interviewed some of the world’s top experts chronicling biodiversity losses worldwide, frequently accompanying them into the field: botanists studying deforestation and habitat fragmentation in Amazonia, marine biologists documenting the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, and ecologists observing all kinds of species teetering on the brink, from the Panamanian golden frog to the Sumatran rhino.

“One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,” related Kolbert in  this chilling account of biodiversity devastation.

In her latest book, Under a White Sky, published last year and already translated into over a dozen languages, Kolbert takes an in-depth look at some of the most advanced (and at times outlandish) technological fixes being mooted to confront the unfolding environmental crisis and undo humanity’s destructive impact on nature.

The book’s title refers to how the sky would change color if we put into effect one of the “solar geoengineering” solutions proposed: the launch of diamond particles into the stratosphere to reflect back the sun’s light and cool down Earth’s climate. Once again, Kolbert traveled half the world to observe and converse on the ground with the researchers developing some of these ambitious technologies, from the injection of CO2 from the air into volcanic rocks to convert it into stone to the application of genetic engineering to revive extinct species.

But rather than embracing “techno-optimism” as a kind of magic wand that can stave off environmental collapse, Kolbert’s book – as always drawing on her consultations with the best scientific sources – warns against the unintended consequences of this type of intervention. “A central theme in the book,” she explains, “is that we have repeatedly intervened in nature, sometimes purposefully sometimes unwittingly, and this has had many unexpected side effects. So we must take careful stock before deciding to implement these kinds of technologies, especially on a large scale, where there is an increased chance of things going wrong.”

Kolbert sees environmental journalism as having a vital role to play in the face of the challenges of the Anthropocene epoch: “There are stories that define our times, and our impact on Planet Earth is the story we need to tell right now. We have to understand what the problems are, we have to understand the scale of the issues. And a well-informed electorate is our best bet.”

About the BBVA Foundation and the Biophilia Award

For two decades now, the protection of our planet has numbered among the BBVA Foundation’s key focus areas, translating as support for scientific research, the funding of projects to conserve species, habitats and ecosystems, the promotion of an environmental culture in society at large, and the recognition of communication professionals who have contributed decisively to inform individual and collective engagement with the ecological challenges of our time.

In 2004, it created the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation, distinguishing projects in defense of nature in Spain and worldwide along with achievements in communication and knowledge dissemination on environmental matters.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize scientific excellence in two environmental categories – Climate Change and Ecology and Conservation Biology – which take their place alongside the six other categories of these international prizes: basic sciences, biomedicine, information technologies, economics, humanities and social sciences. In their first fourteen editions, around 40 of the world’s most prestigious ecologists, conservation biologists, economists and climate scientists have received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, along with world-class researchers in other areas.

Effective solutions to today’s environmental problems can only be achieved by mobilizing ecological knowledge and awareness on a global scale, and this, in turn, calls for communi­cation on environmental issues that is at once engaging and well-grounded. It is from this con­viction that the BBVA Foundation launched its Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication in the year 2019. With annual prize money of 100,000 euros, this award recognizes the work of professionals and/or organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues, bringing to bear the best available evidence and knowledge.

The name of the award, which alludes to the “Biophilia hypothesis” proposed by naturalist Edward O. Wilson (2010 Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology), denotes the deep connection that we as humans instinctively feel with nature and all forms of life.

In its first three editions, the Biophilia Award went to the BBC’s environment correspondent, journalist Matt McGrath; The Guardian newspaper, for its coverage of environmental issues, debates and news; and Marlowe Hood, environment correspondent at Agence France-Presse.

Evaluation committee

The committee in this edition was chaired by Miguel B. Aráujo, Research Professor at the Museum of Natural Sciences, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), with members Araceli Acosta, a journalist specializing in environmental issues; Alberto Aguirre de Cárcer, editor of newspaper La VerdadClemente Álvarez, head of the online Climate and Environment section of El País; Antonio Cerrillo, Environment editor of La Vanguardia; Carlos Fresneda, London correspondent of El Mundo; Pablo Jáuregui, Head of Scientific and Environmental Communication at the BBVA Foundation; and Arturo Larena, Head of Environment and Science at @EFEnoticias and EFE Verde, global environmental news platform of news agency EFE.