An Interview with David Quammen

Small photo of David Quammen

Author David Quammen, a scholar and former columnist for Outside magazine, discusses his article “Planet of Weeds”, first published in 1998 in Harper’s magazine. Which surveys the loss of biodiversity on earth and asks what happens if we don’t halt the trend.

What does it feel like to have been included among America’s most notable writers on the environment, since the time of Thoreau?

Thoreau is certainly one of my heroes. To sit with him in this pantheon is almost as satisfying as being invited out to coffee at Walden Pond.

Talk about how “Planet of Weeds” came about. What drove you to write about this topic?

I was asked by Colin Harrison, at that time managing editor of Harper’s, to write an essay on a topic he described as: “Are we destroying the world, and if so, how?” We chatted by phone. I said that I wouldn’t put the matter in exactly that way; we’re not destroying “the world,” because “the world” is planet Earth and it would continue on in some form whatever we did, and with or without the human species. But we certainly are destroying a large part of the living species and ecological systems on Earth, I said, and that point could be put in a broad, long-term perspective. Yes, do it, Colin said. So I wrote the piece.

The subject of “Planet of Weeds” is the loss of Earth’s animals and plants and the threats posed by such biodiversity depletion. Is this a major concern for you personally?

That’s putting it lightly.

You say you approached David Jablonski, a paleontologist featured in your article, with “a handful of urgently grim questions ,” and “wanted answers unvarnished with obligatory hope.” Did you approach this article feeling somewhat hopeless?

I wasn’t hopeless, because I always hope that at least we (who care about biological diversity, who are deeply concerned with this matter) can go down swinging. I am very pessimistic that the battle can be won. But I remain energized by the conviction that there is no larger, more worthy battle to be fought.

What makes you want to write about the natural world?

It’s what I know; it’s what gives me great joy and fascinates me deeply; and writing about it provides the opportunity to do research on it, which in turn allows me to spend time in some of the most wondrous forests and swamps on the planet.

Who are your favorite writers on the environment?

I don’t think of them as writers “on the environment.” That category seems too constraining and I’m not sure what it’s meant to mean. I think of them as writers on the science, observation, and contemplation of nature on Earth. My favorites are: Edward Abbey, Henry Thoreau, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez, Doug Peacock, Jim Harrison, Edward Hoagland, Bill McKibben, Edward O. Wilson, Wallace Stegner, Donald Worster, William Faulkner, Wilfred Thesiger, Lewis Thomas, Mary Kingsley, Charles Elton, Charles Bowden, Terry Tempest Williams, Paul Horgan, Tom McNamee, Ellen Meloy, J.B.S. Haldane, Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Weiner, Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, Robert Michael Pyle, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin, among others.

What inspired you to start writing about the natural world in the first place?

A youth spent in the woods of southern Ohio; and the discovery that I found nonfiction writing far more satisfying than (what I’d started my publishing career with) fiction writing.

“Planet of Weeds” deals not only with the subject of extinction, but of evolution. What, if anything did you learn about evolution that you might not have known before?

I’ve been learning about evolution for the past 30 years, and continue learning things every month. Among the most fascinating things I’ve learned recently are the revelations from work done in the sub-field called Evo Devo. That is, evolutionary developmental biology. I’ve also stumbled across some mesmerizing work recently on the evolutionary biology of cancer. At the time of writing “Planet of Weeds,” probably the most interesting things I learned were those involving the vast cycles of mass extinction and reestablishment of diversity described in Dave Jablonski’s papers.

You write of the debate starting in the 1970s between experts who believed (and still do) that humans are causing rapid and escalating rates of species extinctions, and those who don’t believe such a problem exists (or doubt the seriousness of the problem). Your article is about a decade old now. Where do you think the average person falls in this debate? What is the general public level of understanding of this issue?

At the present time, the general public seems to be more engaged by the problem of climate change than the (closely related) problem of vanishing biological diversity. But that’s all right, better than nothing—because the two problems are so intricately interconnected. Still, the level of awareness is fairly low—and the willingness to make changes in personal behavior is even lower. We have a long way to go in persuading average people to take these two problems seriously and act accordingly. As for the deniers and ostrich-headed people such as George Bush and his administration—they won’t ever be convinced, because the realities are too inconvenient to their interests. But they will get old, fall out of power, and die away. We need to communicate these concerns effectively to young people, whose minds are more open—and the younger, the better.

How do you grapple with translating complex scientific information into accessible language for your readers?

First, I make a distinction in my mind between precision and accuracy. Scientists writing in the scientific literature must be both precise and accurate. A popular writer speaking to a general audience must dial back on precision without ever sacrificing accuracy. Secondly, I ask myself: If I were the reader, how much of this explaining could I stomach before I needed the felicity of a joke, or an anecdote, or a casual, friendly writer-to-reader comment. It’s not enough to drone on righteously. You have to entertain. Always, you have to offer grace and pleasure and art, not just information and clarity.

The biodiversity losses described in “Planet of Weeds” seems based on a highly complex, multilayered set of conditions and human behaviors. Was it difficult to tackle all these angles as you were researching and writing this article? Were you ever concerned that it would prove too complicated to turn into an article for a general readership?

I had a wonderful time immersing myself in all these complicated facts, considerations, and ideas. The article took me a long time to write, and I could not have afforded that time (with all due respect to the Harper’s pay scale), if I hadn’t recently been given a Lannan Literary Award. That bought me the time. At one point, after the writing, I thought that I would expand the material and the ideas into a book. But then I decided, no, the article says what I want to say, and there’s no need to pad it out with more reporting and examples. I proceeded to do a different book instead. But I always hoped that the essay version, “Planet of Weeds,” would survive somewhere and somehow between hard covers.

You focus on the question of hope: is there hope that humankind will survive the next drastic cycle of extinction, or will we be a victim of it? Did you worry about writing an article that might instill hopelessness in your readers?

First question: Is there hope that humankind will survive the next big extinction? Answer: As I explain in the piece, there is not only hope but near-inevitability that we will survive all the drastic, ugly, reductionist changes we are making to this planet. Why? Because we are the ultimate weedy species. Frankly, I lose patience with people who worry about the future of humankind. The real question is whether anything can prevent us from owning, occupying, and spoiling the entire universe.

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