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[Review] 'Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future'

July 19, 2021

Book_cover_elizabethkolbert_under_a_white_skyIn her sobering yet captivating book, Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the ongoing human attempt to control nature, a vicious cycle that often results in the creation of more problems. A staff writer at the New Yorker since 1999, where her work has been focused mainly on environmentalism, Kolbert is the best-selling author of The Sixth Extinction, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015. In that book, she curated a powerfully moving collection of first-hand accounts detailing the disappearance of multiple species. She brings that methodology to her new book, again using personal experience to drive her narrative — the narrative that "a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural."

As in her previous work, Kolbert skillfully shows us how our actions are negatively affecting the planet, rather than just telling us that they are. She travels across continents to witness those human-made changes for herself and describes the devastation, sparing no details. Again and again, she shows humans attempting to create solutions to ecological problems created by solutions to earlier problems. We see this clearly in the first section of the book, "Down the River," which she opens by recounting her time visiting the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The problem began years ago, when the river was rerouted to better dispose of human waste — talk about living in the "Anthropocene" epoch. Then arose the problem of aquatic weeds in the river basin, so plant-eating Asian Carp were introduced, only to become a notorious invasive species capable of outpopulating the ecosystem's native organisms across the Great Lakes. The Asian Carp became such a threat only because the earlier alterations to the river and its sediment allowed for easy admission into these waters. And the solution has been to electrify the waterway, another example of our relentless need to "fix," at any cost and with no awareness of our surroundings.

Kolbert offers another example of a well-intentioned "solution" that has only made matters worse. In the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, which she describes as one of "the fastest-disappearing places on earth," the cause is once again human intervention, as our need to control the flooding of the Mississippi River has prevented coastal lands from being able to renew themselves. And, of course, the solution is more intervention — to the point where "the Louisiana delta is often referred to by hydrologists as a 'coupled human and natural system.'"

This theme — the merging of nature and the unnatural — is emphasized further in the next section of the book, "Into The Wild."Here, we see a range of attempts to save species and ecosystems from invasive human impacts. A group of scientists in Death Valley work around the clock to preserve the Devils Hole pupfish, possibly the rarest fish on the planet, by maintaining an exact, but entirely unnatural, replica of their habitat. Pupfish are now a "conservation-reliant" species, meaning we've sent them to the brink of extinction but are now trying to bring them back. Kolbert then brings us along on her travels to the east coast of Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached, to witness the creation of "super-corals," those that can — or scientists hope they can — withstand warmer temperatures and more acidic waters. This has been coined "assisted evolution," another term that accurately describes the era in which we are living. Kolbert's first-hand accounts show how we have forced our way into natural processes — those that were doing perfectly fine without us but are now reliant on our assistance.

The seeming absurdity of our solutions is apparent yet again in the concept of "geoengineering," the large-scale interventions in Earth's natural systems that we are pursuing to combat climate change. It is to this phenomenon that Kolbert dedicates the final section of her book, "Up in the Air." She acknowledges how frightening geoengineering is: It might not work, and it will most likely be implemented when it is so late that it is the only hope. However, such "negative emissions technologies" just might save us. We may soon be relying on companies that inject carbon dioxide underground so that it eventually turns to rock. Or we may be spraying light-reflective particles into the atmosphere to manage some of the incoming solar radiation, a process which would turn the sky from blue to white — and where Kolbert gets her title. But again, Kolbert admits her fear: this is all an unknown.

Kolbert also sheds light on how the environment is faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. She calls the immediate lockdown "a vast, unsupervised experiment," one where our energy usage changed almost instantaneously. It is assumed by many that this was a positive change; with everyone at home, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide should be down. However, "in May 2020, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere set a record of 417.1 parts per million." Even with declining emissions, it is clear that once CO2 has been emitted, it lingers in the atmosphere. This adds a frightening piece to the puzzle, because even if we were to completely halt all greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations will continue to rise — for who knows how long.

Through this series of experiences and forewarnings, Kolbert points out how deeply we have embedded ourselves in every natural process. Species are now dependent on us to survive, islands will soon be inundated, and we are not far from bleaching the sky white. Clearly, we are well beyond the point of being able to preserve a "natural" nature. However, what Kolbert also suggests is that while there is no scenario in which our involvement in nature completely stops, learning how to live in a way that doesn't drive species to extinction or reroute rivers would be a good starting point. Perhaps there is no world in which humankind's will to control nature to suit its needs changes, the book seems to suggest, but we must collectively become aware that all species have a contributive impact — impacts that we also rely on.

For now we are stuck at this midpoint, where problems are being generated by the second. Still, Kolbert points out, "people are ingenious. They come up with crazy, big ideas, and sometimes these actually work." While it is this "ingenuity" that got us here in the first place, maybe all it will take is one great idea to get us on the path to this peaceful coexistence. Of course, this reviewer is left with slivers of skepticism, as anyone pondering the vastness of these problems might be. I like to remain optimistic, however; I believe that the mindset with which we move forward is just as important as the capabilities we bring with us. If we truly believe that we can overcome the problems that we created, I am hopeful that we will succeed.

Izzy Nesci, an intern in the Insights department at Candid, is an environmental studies and sustainability major at Barnard College.

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