Under a White Sky

The Nature of the Future

By Elizabeth Kolbert

Under A White Sky book cover
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Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest work asks how the “nature of the future” will look– ecosystems fundamentally different under a changing climate. The answer she unfolds shows entire regions overrun with invasive species, flooded cities, conservation-reliant species, and, the origin of the title, human interference with the atmosphere resulting in a sky that is not blue, but white.

Her talent with language creates vivid imagery of a present and future that makes the reader think twice about the natural world and our role in it. Some of our current solutions may be worse than the problems themselves. We can do better.

Main Points

“Down the River”

Rivers can signify destiny, or coming into knowledge, or coming upon that which one would rather not know.

Asian Carp

The first case study Kolbert describes is invasive Asian carp. These fish, which comprise four separate species, have infiltrated the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. They outcompete native fish and break down ecosystems. The very qualities that make them a good food production fish in Asia (adaptability and constant eating for fast growth to a large size) make them a “good” invasive species.

Kolbert follows the efforts to control them, including electrical fields and gill netting. Most of these tactics have dangerous side effects—methods to kill one kind of fish tend to kill other kinds too— and some are just plain expensive. The memorable image in this section comes from the tendency of silver carp to startle and jump out of the water. Jumping fish hit fishers pretty much every day, so hard they can be knocked unconscious. Certain areas are so infested that waterskiing could be considered an extreme sport.

The sight of silver carp arcing through the air is at once beautiful— like attending a piscine ballet— and terrifying—like facing incoming fire.

Mississippi River Delta

The second region we travel to is the ever-changing land- and seascape of southern Louisiana. The image of the state as a boot is no longer accurate. It has lost more than two thousand square miles since the 1930s, and loses another football field’s worth every hour and a half. The Mississippi River Delta has the power of the more than two thousand miles of moving water behind it. Even when left alone, the water moves sand and dirt around, carrying sediment from one area to another and depositing it.

When humans get involved, making dams and levees to protect the people who live there, they exacerbate the problem. Draining New Orleans to keep it livable makes the soils compact and the city sink even more. The more pumping happens, the more water needs to be pumped, in a positive feedback loop that alludes to the city digging its own grave.

The Louisiana delta is now often referred to by hydrologists as a “coupled human and natural system,” or, for short, a CHANS. It’s an ugly term—another nomenclatural hairball—but there’s no simple way to talk about the tangle we’ve created. A Mississippi that’s been harnessed, straightened, regularized, and shackled can still exert a godlike force; it’s no longer exactly a river, though.

“Into the Wild”

Devil’s Hole Pupfish

The case of the pupfish in Devil’s Hole is fascinating in its improbability. These fish are believed to have the smallest range of any vertebrate. They overcame all odds to survive in a tiny, but deep, pool in the middle of the desert, and still, humans have found a way to endanger them and their habitat. Now, protecting the pupfish, considered a “conservation-reliant” species, means trying to replicate their natural environment exactly. Humans must painstakingly attend to every detail. This includes spending an hour every day removing tiny murderous beetles with tweezers. This case shows you that evolution isn’t all powerful; sometimes it is just lucky, and humans can’t replicate it (yet).

I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.

Ruth Gates

As we just saw with the pupfish, survival under extreme conditions is partially up to chance. Fortunately, people like Ruth Gates know how to make our own luck. In the face of widespread coral death, marine biologists have two choices: to document the decline or to do what they can to turn it around. Dr. Gates chose the latter. Her lab is “reengineering” corals that they hope will have a better chance of surviving in the climate of the future. Sadly, Dr. Gates has passed away since Kolbert’s visit to her lab on the island of Moku o Lo’e of Oahu, Hawaii, but the legacy of her inspiration continues to thrive.

“I’m a realist,” Gates told me at one point. “I cannot continue to hope that our planet is not going to change radically. It already is changed.” People could either “assist” corals in coping with the change they’d brought about, or they could watch them die. Anything else, in her view, was wishful thinking. “A lot of people want to go back to something,” she said. “They think, if we just stop doing things, maybe the reef will come back to what it was. “Really what I am is a futurist,” she said at another point. “Our project is acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural.”

Engineering Cane Toads

A more involved method of assisted evolution involves genetic engineering, which scientists are now applying to invasive species management. One of the most well-known invasive species is the cane toad. This large toad arrived in Australia with a diverse appetite, and quickly evolved longer legs which accelerated their spread across the continent. Humans have tried anything they can think of to stop them. With the advent of CRISPR technology, we can try new techniques like stopping toxicity and reducing reproductive capacity. It is slow going though, and scientists have to be careful of unintended consequences.

Paul Kingsnorth, a British writer and activist, has put it this way: “We are as gods, but we have failed to get good at it…We are Loki, killing the beautiful for fun. We are Saturn, devouring our children.” Kingsnorth has also observed, “Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Sometimes it is the other way around.”

“Up in the Air”

Direct Air Capture

A huge problem facing climate change mitigation is that we have already emitted enough greenhouse gases that even if we were to get to zero today, the planet would still warm to an unsafe level. Emissions reductions will not stop the problem, just slow it down. Direct air capture (DAC) is the most developed technology we have to actually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus prevent further warming.

Kolbert focuses on a company called Climeworks. Their method involves scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere and injects it underground where it will harden to rock. DAC is a potential solution for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, but still suffers from scalability and disposal. Where this section shines is the discussion of the morality of emissions: we make people feel bad about their individual emissions but don’t give them a way to stop and still participate in modern society.

This is why the carbon math is so difficult. Cutting emissions is at once absolutely essential and insufficient.

Solar Geoengineering

There may be a point when the world has warmed too much and we need to turn down the heat. That is going to be a desperate moment, when politicians and scientists all over the world are frantically searching for a fast solution, and someone is likely to settle on solar geoengineering. The idea is that throwing reflective particles into the air will reflect sunlight and stop temperatures from rising—reducing symptoms but not addressing the cause. The problem is that we don’t really know what that will do to the planet. If the flap of a butterfly’s wings can change the future, what effects will planeloads of tiny diamonds have?

“It’s the unintended consequences,” she said. “You think you’re doing the right thing. From what you know of the natural world, it should work. But then you do it and it completely backfires and something else happens.” “The real world of climate change is that we’re up against it,” Schrag responded. “Geoengineering is not something to do lightly. The reason we’re thinking about it is because the real world has dealt us a shitty hand.” “We dealt it ourselves,” Macfarlane said.

Greenland Ice Cores

To wrap up our global journey of climate problem-solutions, we visit the deep ice of Greenland. Scientists there take ice cores thousands of feet deep to study the climate history of our planet. Their research has suggested that civilizations around the world began around the same time because it was the first time in human history that the climate was stable. Six thousand years ago, humans were able to stay in one place long enough to build cities and develop writing and religion. Before that, temperature regimes were unstable. It seems that our greenhouse gas emissions have again destabilized our planet’s climate, and it is difficult to predict what will happen now.

He pointed out that if you believed the climate to be inherently unstable, the last thing you’d want to do is mess around with it. He recited an old Danish saying, whose pertinence I didn’t entirely understand but which nonetheless stuck with me. He translated it as, “Pissing in your pants will only keep you warm for so long.”

Take-Home Message

I can’t sum it up better than Kolbert can:

This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.

Want to read more? Find Under a White Sky here: Bookshop

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