Called "consistently the farthest flung of the New Yorker’s far flung correspondents," in 1987 by The New York Times, Alex Shoumatoff’s 40 year career has brought him around the world, from the fiery depths of the Amazon to the mucky tundra of Siberia to cover the diversity and changing environment of the Earth.
Now a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, in an upcoming article this May, Shoumatoff investigates Canada’s oil sands. Recently, CG caught up with him to talk about Amazonian wildfires, Copenhagen and the environmental changes he’s seen during his career.
Can Geo: When you started writing about the environment almost 40 years ago, it wasn’t the hot topic that it’s become today. What got you interested?
AS: I come from a family of naturalists. My father was the president of the Bedford Audobon society, where I grew up in Westchester County, New York, and we used to go out for the Christmas bird count every winter. He was also president of the New York entomological society. So I was around all this natural history as a kid.
But it wasn’t until after I finished my education at Harvard and emerged into the 60s, that, as my mother said, "nature hit me." I admired the work of John McPhee at the New Yorker and started wanting to become a nature writer. I began to teach myself the names of trees, wildflowers, birds and mushrooms with field guides.
What changes have you seen in the natural world since then?
By 1975 I was working at a nature sanctuary at Mount Kisco, New York, and on my Sunday morning bird walks I started to see Red Bellied woodpeckers, a southern species, that had never been spotted in Westchester before.
What was happening, and what’s continuing to happen, is that species of flora and fauna are being driven north. There’s a California butterfly called Edith’s checkerspot, that’s now, for the first time, all the way up in B.C. and has gone extinct in southern California. We’re also seeing the red fox displacing the arctic fox.
There’s all this debate among us humans about global warming, but the animals and the plants are perfectly aware that it’s getting warmer.
Did that prompt you to become more of an activist in your work?
Well, by the late-70s I longed to go to the ultimate place for someone who’s interested in nature — the Amazon, and managed to get a contract with the Sierra Club to write a book about it.
I spent nine-months there and had amazing, transformative experiences. On a German ranch there was a fire out of control that was supposedly bigger than Belgium, and another on the A.G. Ranch, a subsidiary of the King Ranch of Texas, that was the size of Rhode Island.
Black smoke was billowing out as far as the eye could see, and it was so hot that enormous trees were being sandblasted up into the air and landing upside down with their flaming buttresses looking like the fins of crashed rocket ships.
I was with an ornithologist named Tom Lovejoy, who coined the term ‘biodiversity.’ He was predicting, and Science magazine backed this up, that a million species would go extinct if the rate of burning continued.
I didn’t start out as an environmentalist; I was just a nature lover with a great curiosity for the incredible diversity and intricacy of the creation.
After returning home, I became a staff writer for the New Yorker, so I had a chance to keep going to remote places. But what I’d often find when I got there was that they were being obliterated by chainsaws and bulldozers, and the more local people I met, people who had been living sustainably for centuries in their ecosystems, the more I found their culture was being destroyed as well.
As a result, I became more of an advocate, which is a very common thing for someone who sees these things first hand to do.
How has covering the environment changed during your career?
About 30 years ago the natural world suddenly became “the environment,” which is rather anthropocentric. Nevertheless, it made me an environmental writer rather than a nature writer, and that’s a change visible in my first books on Florida and the Amazon.
Now there are a lot of people who write specifically about the environment, throughout their career, like Bill McKibben, who I worked with at the New Yorker.
However, magazines are in trouble and there’s a revolution in media because of the internet. People are telling me that it’s hard to sell environmental stories, and that’s an upsetting change.
Society seems to be crapping out on the environment at the moment. The anti-environmentalists and anti-warmists who are very well organized and insidious are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the modern world.
Many people get it and are doing great things, but there’s just this kind of vagueness and people wonder whether warming is real and whether we’re the cause of it. There’s all this doubt being cast and disinformation put out by the people who don’t want us to do anything about it.
Still, with increased coverage of the environment aren’t we better informed about what’s happening than we were even a decade ago?
It’s out there and it has an audience, but there’s this backlash that I just mentioned. Many corporations have got a good thing going. They’re raking in all this cash on the back of the environment and they don’t want to change.
What’s your take on what happened in Copenhagen?
Well… what did happen in Copenhagen? I couldn’t even tell you. It was pretty confusing. What’s very interesting, though, is that the emails from East Anglia's Climate Research Unit were leaked just before the summit.
So far, no one even knows who the hackers were. In the U.S. there are these legions of right-wing libertarian computer nerds combing the internet for anything damaging they can sling toward warming science and advocacy for doing something about it. We need to organize and counteract this.
What does that fact that these emails came out signify?
I’ve dealt with scientists throughout my career and have run into this myself. Scientists, being only human, sometimes exaggerate the importance and certainty of their findings. Just look at a story like the one about how the gulf stream is going to shut down.
So that’s not helping the picture.
In the past you yourself have wondered whether climate change is a bunch of hot air. What’s your take on it now?
As I said earlier, the real proof is in the habits of the animals and the plants. That’s pretty solid to me. We’ve really damaged the climate and weather systems. In my lifetime it’s unquestionably gotten warmer. With the green house effect, there’s certainly more electrical energy in the atmosphere because of emissions, causing more frequent and intense weather events.
Read part two to learn Shoumatoff's take on Canada's oil sands, Siberia's melting permafrost and the green energy economy.