The Urgent Need to Slow Down

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, I know that you are also aware of the bleak facts, but you’re often described as the happiest person in the world.

Matthieu Ricard: That’s completely exaggerated. [Laughter]

Sam Mowe: Even so, 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?

Le premier des trois lacs sacrés situés au-dessus du monastère de Dzogchèn au Tibet oriental, 4900m. 1988

Photograph courtesy of Matthieu Ricard

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.

2. The high valley of the Yangtse, at the level of Denkhok. The Yangtse rises on the high plateaus of eastern Tibet, where it is known as the Drichu. Two celebrated masters of Tibetan Buddhism were born here: to the left (south) of the valley, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910–1991), and to the right (north), the sixteenth Karmapa (1924–1982). 1985 La vallée du fleuve Drichou (qui devient le Yangtsé en Chine), à Denkhok, au Kham (Tibet oriental), où vécurent de nombreux maîtres spirituels du bouddhisme tibétain. 1985

Photograph courtesy of Matthieu Ricard

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.

19 comments on “The Urgent Need to Slow Down”

  1. Sandra Bartels says:

    excellent review

  2. There seems to indeed be a real “spiritual” transformation generally evident in how natural growth systems change form, like a moment of choice at a “mid course correction”. Growth generally starts with a relatively long period of consumptive expansion, taking over everything possible. It then changes strategy, while still at it’s fastest rate of expansion, to what you might call “niche making” or “home making” or “joining” or “coming of age”. Those are terms you might use when looking for examples of that “natural principle” of ending growth to secure the future.

    Our culture doesn’t think that way,… but instead defines a “steady” economy as “compound growth”, a pattern of ever faster increasing scale and changes of kind. That is the true meaning for economies following exponential trends, and increasing in proportion to what they were before by %s. It’s still the kind of economy we have today, inherited from long ago. What has really changed was not the system. What really changed is its complications, overtaking our ability to manage the unexpected. If you understand the math, it points you to good to great alternatives yet to be widely discussed.

    For most people the “math problem” is completely “hidden in sight”. It’s embedded in our popular habits, of adding by %’s. We got that from trusting the rules of finance, that curiously shield financial decision makers from all responsibility for our using them… That should have been a sign. If people understood the math, there’s a clear path to a more genuine kind of stability and security. It’s a strategy that both Keynes and Boulding arrived at before me too. It’s to change from using money to make more money, to using it to “do good”, relieving investors and society of looming future dysfunctions and so profitable for all.

    You can see the accounting flaw yourself, in how standard metrics like Scope 1 & 2 for GHG’s, count only the impacts of documented business technology chains, and ignore entirely the secondary but quite clear impacts of business choices regarding finance and service chains. The difference exposes a truly vast scale of impacts that decision makers are not being held accountable for. With more truthful information the same decision makers would see how to make the better decisions for us we desperately need from them… once they actually know what they’re deciding for us.

    The World SDG would provide decision makers information for making good decisions for the economy as a whole, to be publicized so everyone can see the real meaning of their choices. http://synapse9.com/signals/2014/02/03/a-world-sdg/

  3. Andrew Carver says:

    Great perspective:
    “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.”

  4. Tom Lalley says:

    Like a lot of people, I know just enough to be terrified of the coming climate. As the father of a 3-year old, and another on the way, my wife and I frequently discuss the ethics of bringing children into this world knowing the challenges they will face. I am an enormous fan of Ms. Kolbert but I am too fearful to read her book.

    This Q & A got me thinking about what Joseph Campbell said about old, still-dominant, myths not working for modern times, and how new myths will develop. I believe that climate change and the destruction of the natural world will lead to new myths that instructs us how to live and soothe and feed our souls. Myths arise out of necessity and there is nothing more necessary than finding a way to deal with climate change, personally and collectively.

  5. Tiina Lombard says:

    Good work, making things palatable by making change gradual, as humanity moves at a glacial pace–sorry, couldn’t resist.

  6. Lillian Ball says:

    As an ecological artist and secular Buddhist, I think this interview is very inspiring. Thanks Sam.

    Gus Speth, founder of NRDC and former dean of Yale school of Forestry and Environment, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World, says (and I paraphrase here).
    We need all the help we can get to deal with our consumer society and climate change.
    Science, religion, and all the arts must work together to make the change we need to see in our world.

    1. Sam Mowe says:

      Thanks, Lillian.

  7. This is a conversation I want to be a part of.

  8. Michael Wood says:

    Since we are somehow addicted to growth, let’s change how and why we grow. I think one of the other comments implied this, but let’s turn our focus and energy towards growth in value, rather than consumptive growth. A good read which speaks to this is “Big World, Small Planet”, Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klume, published in May 2014. The authors lay out the stark realities of our time, but also provide some practical suggestions for making it through what I call the “big squeeze” coming in the next few decades.

    I love the quote from this interview; “It’s too late to be a pessimist.” One of my favorites bits of ancient wisdom is also “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” In my view, its also a lot more fun and leads to a far more meaningful life too!

  9. Rheese says:

    I feel that Mathieu has miss understood the question of Art because art and artist it’s are a reflection of where we are as a human race .music is a good example look at pop music in the 60.s and 70.s and the Vietnam war.the Robles with spiritually is we can hide behind it as if we are empathic the environment and the political and education system will be ok. Look at Nepal happy but health is bad and is education spiritually hasn’t helped the disadvantaged one bit.in fact spiritually has dumbed them down.so be carefull with Buddhism and spiritually.be mindfull and explore and question the the hard stuff.no rose coloured glasses.

  10. Madeena Spray Nolan says:

    A fascinating, possibly mind-changing interview. I am one of those urban people, but I have the good fortune to have two immense oak trees in my back garden. Simply to sit in their shade, gaze up through the layers upon layers of branch and leaf, one is flooded with a heart-swelling gratitude, and a renewed consecration somehow to preserve and protect this infinitely beautiful, infinitely fragile world.

    1. Bob French says:

      I admire your children’s picture-book My Daddy Don’t Go to Work, which has not become dated by the passage of all these years. I am highlighting it in a workshop I am co-presenting for teachers in an urban school district (New Bedford, Massachusetts) on “Increasing Student Success through Social Emotional Learning.” I came upon this entry trying to find out more about you. Your response about your “heart-swelling gratitude, and a renewed consecration somehow to preserve and protect this infinitely beautiful, infinitely fragile world” does not surprise me, but seems to confirm a personal continuity with that wonderfully sensitive children’s book you wrote so long ago.

  11. Ishita Chelliah says:

    Love the message –

    My 2 cents:
    Step 1: Lead a veganish lifestyle – its the least one can do on a personal level to leave a lesser footprint!!!
    Step 2: Dont have more than 1 to 2 children; better still dont have any or adopt preferably.
    Step 3: Dont fly planes to sit in meeting rooms, order cokes and burgers – instead use the technology to virtualise where possible.
    Step 4: BE MINDFUL, MINDFUL, MINDFUL – when you eat, talk, buy, take a breathe with the objective to always have the least impact or a net positive impact.
    Step 5: Be kind and love all life during your short stay on Earth.

  12. Ed Patton says:

    Melt Down

    This winter was the warmest on record for the Arctic. The temperature reached 80 degrees there in February. The Antarctic reached a record high of 63 degrees in February.
    The west Antarctic Ice Shelf has developed huge fissures the size of Delaware and Rhode Island are threatening to break away further raising sea levels. Glaciers the world over are in retreat.
    Scientists tell us that human activity is the driving factor behind the excessive warming.
    Four billion people live within 200 miles of the ocean.

    In the meantime, the climate change denying president and has surrounded himself with fossil fuel related people like Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma for (EPA), Rick Perry (DOE) from Texas, Rex Tillerson former executive of the largest oil company in the world (Exxon) for Secretary of State and other billionaire cronies, who are hell bent on extracting the estimated 24 trillion dollars of proven fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them for the fossil industries bottom line. An unprecedented moral issue is at hand. Hell on Earth will increase at an exponential rate unless we quickly lower the global population.

    Perhaps a worldwide moratorium on child birth would be the most humane thing we could do for a while. The consequences for inaction are very troublesome.

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