Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Reviewed by Louise Rubacky / Original to ScheerPost
Elizabeth Kolbert tells startling stories from all over the globe. Her latest book, “Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future,” stays her signature course. If you’re up for being shaken into fuller awareness about our endangered world —via a time-traveling chronicle of “the people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems”—there are few more competent or companionable guides. Kolbert’s conversational prose draws readers across earth’s land, waters and air, animating a prismatic what’s-what of human follies and their unintended consequences. Metaphor, mythology, and literary references often frame the science, underlining life’s beautiful essences under threat. She mines past and present debacles due to ignorance or arrogance, and finesses a remarkable amount of detail and background into her text.
Some facts bring surprising perspective, like a rundown of ancient human markers and their correlation to different snow depths of the Greenland ice sheets. Among the delightful and grim details she notes: snow that’s 5,350 feet below the surface dates to the prehistoric painters at the Lascaux caves, and lead pollution from Roman-era smelters remains in the snow of that time. As Kolbert observes, the layers of snow are “archives of the sky.”
She also folds in recent statistics, including those about the state of polar ice— ice that’s critical to the survival of many species and the future of human civilization. In case you’re not following how dire things have become, melting is now active on 95% of Greenland ice sheets surface. Over the summer of 2019 alone, “Greenland shed almost 600 billion tons of ice, producing enough water to fill a pool the size of California, to a depth of four feet.” In related news, parts of New Orleans are sinking at a rate of a half a foot per decade, one of the fastest rates on earth.
Reality bites throughout. Some information seems like a crazy joke, such as the extent to which four varieties of Asian carp have loudly and dangerously infested American waterways, and some, commonly tragic, as with the tale of argonaut William Lewis Manley, whose quest for gold in the mid-19th century beckoned him and his fellow travelers to impassable peaks and
canyons, and the brink of starvation. Of the bones of oxen killed for food at one of the impasses, Manley wrote that instead of marrow, “they were filled with a “bloody liquid resembling corruption.”
Corruption—moral, if not criminal—has at least partially worsened the climate crisis, and fueled determined efforts to ignore and deny its link to bio-dangers and disasters that have been expanding since the first official warnings were delivered to President Johnson back in 1965. Kolbert updates the long foretold, but her reporting hones in on the known and unknown consequences of many eco-solutions that have been used, or may be used, to keep its effects from further destroying the home of all of our homes, earth.
Scientifically devised plans intended to preserve or repair are behind some of the actual and potential natural wreckage Kolbert investigates. What’s confounding is how many of the ideas and plans sound likely to court disaster. Is that just hindsight? Many of the people behind the possible solutions are sincere brainiacs of the most-degreed order, from the top tiers of academic institutions.
Even the brilliant naturalist Rachel Carson unwittingly tied something of a Gordian knot when, in “Silent Spring,” she sounded early warnings about poisonous chemicals’ use, and proposed biological controls—essentially fighting fire with a different form of fire. (Kolbert notes that Carson decried the arrogance of attempts to control nature. It appears that she saw biological control as distinct from technological controls.) The use of carp for sewage management, one of those controls, illustrates fuzzy foresight–and this is the primary concern of Kolbert’s book. Some knots do not untangle.
Were Carson alive today, she would probably not be surprised at the current state of coral reefs around the world, though she’d likely be bereft, because of her passion for the sea and all its diverse beings. The trash/treasure mode of biodiversity found on healthy coral reefs may be unimagined by the uninformed, so Kolbert reviews the richness that we’re all losing. A snorkeler herself, she writes of their “mind-bending” attributes: “In one basketball-sized chunk from the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, [researchers] came up with more than 200 species—mostly crabs and shrimp—and in a similar-sized chunk from the southern end, they identified almost 230 species.”
Catastrophic collapse of its many species resulted when the 2014 Hawaiian heatwave “reached the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, producing another global bleaching event.” Of the possible interventions that might buy time for the reefs, like cloud brightening and assisted evolution, the consequences are unclear. But as Kolbert reminds us, tens of millions of years of evolution brought about the grandeur of coral reefs and their interdependent inhabitants. It’s hard to imagine that artificial selection has a prayer of success in comparison to natural selection. It’s also tough to figure out which is greater: the hubris that ignored the importance of such an ecosystem, or the hubris to think salvation can be manipulated in a lab.
One of Kolbert’s talents is bringing clarity to complex systems. Her coverage of how the Mississippi River affects New Orleans amounts to one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of why drainage systems and levees, built to redirect or contain water, have proved to be temporary—or a failure if you look at the long-range damage. The land loss is directly attributable to the way these “solutions” function. Despite having been designed and built by a legion of engineers, the city continues to sink; and pumping the water actually accelerates the sinking. (Stories Jeff Goodall told in “The Water Will Come,” also came to mind, especially the one about the Malibran Opera House. Venetians built five new structures on top of the original structure, Marco Polo’s house, to address continual flooding. Go figure.)
Time and again, Kolbert encapsulates the conundrum of the word “solution,” as in her section on the exorbitant task of getting carbon dioxide out of the air—a $100 billion industry “for a product that no one wants to buy.” She observes the company Climeworks’ process to capture CO2 from garbage incineration waste heat, and then pipe it back into a tomato greenhouse, writing: “…plants stretched to the ceiling in helical coils. …The burning trash, the boxes of bumblebees, the vegetables raised on chemicals and captured CO2—was it totally cool or totally crazy? I paused for a second and then popped the tomatoes in my mouth.”
A potentially easy (or scary) solution to rising global temperatures is solar geoengineering — seeding the stratosphere with reflective particles over the oceans, to limit the sunlight reaching earth and lower temperatures. Initially proposed in the 1960s, it has gone in and out of favor over the years. Diamond dust, sulfur dioxide and calcium carbonate compete for favor as the particle of choice these days. The effect will, at the very least, make the sky white, hence the book’s title. We’d all miss smiling blue skies, but the greater concern is that if it’s stopped, a Pandora’s box of hellfire could open, and fast.
Views on the necessity and wisdom of taking these possibly drastic measures come from top geoengineering scientists like David Keith, Frank Keutsch and Dan Schrag at Harvard. These can essentially be summed up as an “in a world…” argument, minus the baritone movie trailer voice-over: what choice do we have? Regarding the idea proposed by geoengineer Mikhail Budyko—artificial volcanoes created by using rockets or missiles to inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere—Kolbert references “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change.” The ambiguities are endless. Still, emissions continue to rise, and there are no ideas out there sufficient to save our civilization without a massive unlikely decline.
My favorite quote in the book comes from a guy dedicated to saving inch-long, near-extinct desert pup fish, like ones William Lewis Manley found on his near-fatal quest for gold. The miniscule swimmers of Fish Slough and Devil’s Hole in Death Valley were barely clinging to survival, victims of aquifer depletion caused by real estate development, nuclear bomb testing, and an invasive species of beetle. When people demanded of this scientist, Phil Pister, “What good are pupfish?” his answer-as-question was always the same: “What good are you?” Like Kolbert’s style, it’s a wry and piercing reply. It’s also a question many of us fail to ask.
Go startle yourself. Read “Under a White Sky.”