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Can we engineer our way out of the planetary problems we’ve engineered our way into?

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

Elizabeth Kolbert
Crown
2021
256 pp.
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Elizabeth Kolbert’s beautifully written new book Under a White Sky reports from the planetary front lines where modern civilization is colliding with nature and where thoughtful people are working hard to soften the impact. “At this point it might be prudent to scale back our commitments and reduce our impacts,” she writes. “But there are so many of us—as of this writing nearly eight billion—and we are stepped in so far, return seems impracticable.” If we are unable to retreat and cannot remain where we are, how do we advance? Kolbert is a top journalist, but she is no pundit, and she offers no easy answers.

The book begins with a visit to the canals of Chicago. The Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes basin were two distinct and biologically separate drainage basins until a little more than a century ago, Kolbert reveals, but early in the 20th century, canals were built, connecting Lake Michigan to a tributary of the Mississippi River.

For most of the past century, the canal was too polluted to allow much biological transfer, but with the passage of the Clean Water Act, it has become passable by fish in recent decades, resulting in a bidirectional invasion of species into previously distinct habitats. To mitigate this problem, engineers have deployed devices in the canal to create an electric field that shocks species attempting to cross between the two waterways. A “bubble barrier” that uses water bubbles and sound as a deterrent, with an estimated cost of $775 million, is also in the works.

From the canals of Chicago, Kolbert takes readers south to New Orleans and the Mississippi River delta. Once a freely meandering river, seasonally flooding and dropping sediment, the Mississippi was gradually tamed and its free flows channeled. Deprived of sediment and undermined by oil and gas drilling, coastal land now sinks into the sea. “Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land,” Kolbert writes.

With much of New Orleans below sea level already, society is faced with a stark choice: to retreat or to mount a heroic (but ultimately futile) defense. Short-term interests all but remove the first option from consideration.

Moving westward, we learn that lakes and streams once snaked through the U.S. desert. Over time, as the climate dried up, many of the region’s waterways became disconnected, leaving tiny fish isolated and evolving into species not found anywhere else. As ranches drill for irrigating water, and the water tables fall, caves are drying up, likely causing the extinction of some of these evolutionary anomalies. Kolbert describes the extraordinary effort being mounted to head off the extinction of one such creature, the Devils Hole pupfish, which includes a $4.5 million facsimile of the species’ isolated cave.

In Hawaii, Kolbert speaks with scientists trying to genetically engineer coral to survive in a hotter world. In Australia, she speaks with scientists studying genetic methods to control poisonous cane toads. Like the book’s other examples, both of these efforts are a response to a problem of our own making. Ocean temperatures are rising because of humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. Cane toads are destroying Australian ecosystems because we introduced them to control insects on agricultural lands.

In the last part of the book, Kolbert shifts to the global climate, with reporting on researchers who are working to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and on scientists who hypothesize that shooting reflective particles into the stratosphere may be key to cooling Earth. This latter solution, she notes, “has been described as ‘dangerous beyond belief,’ ‘a broad highway to hell,’ ‘unimaginably drastic,’ and also as ‘inevitable.’”

Science and technology have brought us this far, but they have also contributed to the current mess in which we find ourselves, so it is only sensible to be skeptical of our ability to engineer ourselves out of this predicament. Most of the researchers with whom Kolbert spoke shared this perspective. Their efforts, rather than being evidence of unmitigated techno-optimism, were “the best [solutions] that anyone could come up with, given the circumstances.” Nevertheless, one senses that if we do get out of this mess, it will be because of the efforts of scientists and technologists who are searching for solutions during a time when humanity seems an implacable force and nature an immovable object.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.