Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Review by Peter Reason

Elizabeth Kolbert is a celebrated American journalist, staff writer for the New Yorker. Her work focuses unflinchingly on the ecological challenges of our time, as can be gathered from the titles of her previous books, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and The Sixth Extinction, for which she won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction. 

The catchy title for her latest book is drawn from the final chapter, which concerns engineering the atmosphere to reflect sunlight. I will come to that later, but in a way that is the extreme example of what this book is about: humans (actually a relatively small group in the so called ‘developed economies’) have, and continue to, re-engineer the planet in all kinds of ways already. As a result of what we’ve already done we continually have to do more to rectify the side-effects of our original good intentions. The impact of this—on humans and the more than human world—is often unexpected, unwanted, and on occasion grotesque. Yet we continue. ‘This book has been about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems’

Kolbert points to that man should have dominion over all the earth is ‘a prophecy that has hardened into fact’. Humans have directly transformed over half of the ice-free land on earth, and indirectly much of what remains. ‘So pervasive is man’s impact, it is said we live in a new geological age—the Anthropocene’. And we should be careful what we wish for: the consequences, the by-products, of our ‘species success’ include atmospheric warming, global acidification, sea-level rise and all the other forms of ecological devastation. As Clive Hamilton puts it in Defiant Earth, we haven’t just meddled here and there, we have changed the dynamics of the Earth System as a whole.

Elizabeth Kolbert faces this head on:

We face a no-analog predicament. If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control. Only what’s got to be managed is not a nature that exists… apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself—not so much control of nature as the control of the control of nature…

She starts with the story of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Before it was dug, the city’s effluent—the full filth of a nineteenth century industrial city—was discharged into the Chicago River and thus into Lake Michigan, contaminating city’s drinking water. To solve this problem, around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a canal was dug which changed the direction of the river, so it discharged, not into the Great Lakes catchment, but via the Des Plaines River into the Mississippi catchment. This ‘upended the hydrology of roughly two-thirds of the United States’. In consequence, Asian carp from the Mississippi catchment could now potentially access the Great Lakes, with devastating ecological consequences. Irony piles on irony: the carp were themselves imported into the Mississippi as a form of biological control, partly in response to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which drew attention to the problems caused by indiscriminate use of chemicals. Further irony, originally the Chicago Canal was too filthy for the carp to swim through; it is only with the better management of the city’s discharge that fish can potentially swim through. 

The best way to solve this problem would be to restore the separation of the two water catchments. But this in itself would have enormous consequences for flood control, sewage, water traffic and so on. ‘It was much easier to imagine changing the river again… than changing the lives of the people around it’. Changing the river to prevent the carp from swimming through includes such bizarre solutions as electrifying the canal and creating barriers of bubbles and noise: 

The first section of the book, titled Down the River, continues to explore the work of the Army Corps of Engineers to control the lower reaches and delta of the Mississippi. At this stage the interventions seem gross and full of hubris—the Engineers are reported as saying of the river, ‘We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it’; as a result of which southern Louisiana is ‘disintegrating, coming apart like and old shoe’. But what else do you do when New Orleans is flooded? And what might we in the UK choose to do when London is flooded by rising sea levels (the Thames Barrier is already inadequate) and when our coasts begin to crumble?

As Kolbert’s investigation proceeds, the issues become subtler. In part two, Into the Wild, she considers issues of conservation. First, she looks at pupfish in Nevada deserts and other creatures on the edge of extinction that we have ‘pushed to the edge and then yanked back. The term of art for such creatures is “conservation-reliant,” though they might also be called “Stockholm species” for their utter dependence on their persecutors’.

She then visits Australian laboratories to explore interventions to preserve coral reefs—climate change is pushing ocean temperatures beyond their tolerance causing them to bleach and die. Reefs are ecological marvels which support between one and nine-million species in the ‘ultimate recycling system: one creature’s trash becomes its neighbor’s treasure’. One in every four ocean creatures spends some part of its life on a reef. Should these structures disappear, the oceans could revert to how they were in Precambrian times more than five hundred million years ago. ‘It will be slimy,’ one scientist suggests.

In one Australian research aquarium, biologists are attempting ‘assisted evolution,’ to foster temperature-tolerant corals. They bring together coral polyps from warmer and colder parts of the Great Barrier Reef in laboratory conditions and encourage them to reproduce across species. “We are not talking about coral gardening here,” she reports one senior scientist as saying, “We’re talking about major, industrial-scale—all-of-reef-scale—interventions.” Better than losing the reef altogether: the future that is coming where nature is no longer natural. 

Another Australian laboratory is hosting what to many would seem an even more radical solution through genetic engineering, now widely available through the gene editing techniques known as CRISPR. Cane toads were introduced to Australia to contain the beetle grubs on sugar cane: it turns out they eat most things in their path and are toxic to predators. DNA editing could detoxify toads or limit their capacity to reproduce.

The plan would be for such traits to be engineered to die out after a few generations to avoid unforeseen runaway consequences. As Kolbert asks, tongue in cheek, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ But she also asks, ‘What’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies isn’t going to bring nature back.’ We have to make the choice, and that choice has consequences. Reasons for and against intervention are equally compelling.

These kinds of dilemmas are strongly evident in the final chapters on geoengineering the atmosphere to manage climate. She reviews approaches to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and then ways of engineering the stratosphere by releasing reflective particles that would reflect sunlight—both of which are increasingly possible and, from some points of view, inevitable, given the political failure to address carbon emissions, and given that further global heating is ‘built in’ because of the excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. Solar geoengineering may seem an inevitable choice, and so it is important to have the options fully researched. And yet, to change global climate seems even more crazy, more hubristic, than changing the course of the Mississippi. Further, they create a moral hazard: if we collectively think we can engineer our way out of the effects of a fossil fuel burning, we have less incentive to change.

The great merit of Elizabeth Kolbert’s reporting is that she goes there and gives you just enough descriptive detail that the issue comes alive as you read. She talks with the key people and shows the dilemmas that surround solutions: ‘If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution’. This book, like Kolbert’s previous writing, is well researched, clearly written, and ruthlessly exposes the dilemmas. We cannot just reject these choices, wish them away. Yet while all the scientists she talked to are enthusiastic about their work, that this enthusiasm is tempered with doubt. One draws on the parallel with chemotherapy: ‘No one in his right mind would undergo chemotherapy were better options available.’ But we should not hide from the consequences: if we start releasing reflective particles into the stratosphere and global temperatures continue to rise, and so we release more and yet more, and temperatures continued to rise we might find ourselves living in on a planet where ‘crocodiles basked on Arctic shores… and silver carp glisten under a white sky.’ 

Yet the book feels unfinished (and her research was certainly hampered by the global pandemic). I think there is another group she might have researched in the political sphere. How are these dilemmas viewed and experienced by our politicians, by leading industrialists, financiers, insurers and their advisors? It would be helpful, for example, if she had found a way to explore her findings with political figures, or joined the conversations at the World Economic Forum at Davos. For decisions of the magnitude and consequence of these should not be made by scientists alone, but through a democratic and political process. 

One might also see a technological determinism at the heart of this book: this gives power to her argument that we live on a planet that has already been impacted by human activity, and that this constrains our choices. But these impacts are the outcome of conscious and unconscious choices and perspectives of a relatively narrow group of humanity. Writers of colour are increasingly pointing out that we cannot separate climate change and the ecological consequences of our way of life from the exploitations of colonialism and slavery. As African American blogger Mary Annaïse Heglar puts it, climate change is not just a man-made problem, it is a white-man-made problem. It didn’t start with the Industrial Revolution, ‘It started with conquest, genocides, slavery, and colonialism. That is the moment when White men’s relationship with living things became extractive and disharmonious. Everything was for the taking; everything was for sale’. 

Finally, surely if we understand these patterns, we don’t have to be locked into them? Surely it is a collective failure of imagination to see that the only solution to control and intervention is more control and intervention? This kind of escalation that results from ‘more of the same’ is familiar to us all: in the competition of the Cold War, in the economic ‘race to the bottom’ between nations, not to mention the everyday tit-for-tat arguments to in family life. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, like alcoholics thinking that the solution to drinking is more drinking. These are processes of ‘schizmogenesis’, identified by systems thinker Gregory Bateson, patterns of cultural embedded or unskilled behaviours that lead to runaway division. The way out of these runaway situations is never more of the same but some imaginative leap into another way of seeing the issues. Kolbert does a great service in laying out so clearly the kinds of dilemmas we face and their apparent intractability. That is her job as a journalist. But surely to hold that this is the inevitable ‘logic of the Anthropocene’ unnecessarily fatalistic?

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017)and Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). With artist Sarah Gillespie he published On Presence: Essays | Drawings in 2019, following this in January 2021 with On Sentience: Essays | Drawings, both available directly from the author/artist. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Elizabeth Colbert, Under a White Sky (Bodley Head, 2021). 978-1847925459, 288pp., paperback.

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