“A book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” This is, in sum, what award-winning journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert’s newest book, Under a White Sky, is about. Partly an investigative report, partly a dark comedy, Kolbert sets off on a globe-trotting deep dive into the most futuristic, impressive and sometimes uneasy solutions humans have come up with in response to the environmental crises of our time. Through it all, the author illustrates the ironic folly of human ingenuity. Sometimes, we get ourselves into problems with no easy way out, and the question on everyone’s mind that nobody wants to ask is, how deep down does the rabbit hole go?
Elizabeth Kolbert can be considered one the world’s foremost literary experts on the Anthropocene, an epoch of the Earth’s history dated to when we humans began having significant impact on the planet’s geology and climate. A topic she explored thoroughly in her Pulitzer Prize-winning previous outing, 2014’s The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert satisfyingly revisits the themes of the Anthropocene in Under a White Sky, this time focusing on technology, and how our thirst to change the world and find fixes to the obstacles in our path have tended to only lead to more problems.
From the sinking Louisiana coastline to the imperiled Australian Barrier Reef, Kolbert takes her readers on a journey across the world and back to marvel at some of the most creative and simply inspiring solutions we have come up with to lessen the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, the markers of the Anthropocene.
Between absurdly beautiful lab recreations of the reproduction cycles of corals and ingenious breakthroughs in genetic engineering, there is much to be inspired about in this book. But for all the wonders of human ingenuity and earnest dedication of the scientists and experts from across the globe Kolbert speaks with, a heavy weight remains overhead. All these solutions and techno-fixes are responses to crises, crises of our own making, and more often than not, these crises came about by humans trying to solve other crises. In many ways, the question at the core of this book is, simply, how far can this go?
“We’re in so deep, that now it’s very difficult to say let’s pull back. What would that even mean?” Kolbert posited in a recent interview with Earth.Org. In trying to fix the world and make it more comfortable to us, we have embarked upon an ever-more complex and intricate web of possible solutions and unexpected consequences. It’s a vicious, ironic cycle. In a world where control is changing the world faster than we can keep up, often the only solution is more control.
Some of the technologies and solutions spotlighted by Kolbert are decidedly less heartwarming than others. A chapter in the book is dedicated to the emerging science of geoengineering, the notion of artificially intervening with and altering the Earth’s climate to restore ideal conditions, or at least to delay the onset of more catastrophic scenarios. The book’s title is in reference to one of the possible side effects of solar geoengineering .
Solar geoengineering is, to put it mildly, a worrying thing to picture doing. The most concerning aspect of it, arguably, is that nobody really knows much about it, or what the consequences of employing it might be. An optimistic outlook is that we will at the very least be able to delay the worst effects of climate change until we are able to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to return to ideal conditions. A more pessimistic view is that we will irreparably damage our climate system in ways we cannot imagine.
Kolbert gives adequate and equal weight to both sides of this important argument, and does the same for many of the solutions she discusses. Ethical and moral quagmires could abound with these increasingly dramatic and perhaps desperate interventions, but Kolbert, for better or worse, does not engage with these too much. The author makes clear that she is reporting on the facts, which in this case represent the scientific consensus, which in this case is quite clear and universally shared.
Towards the end of the book, Kolbert writes “Without exception, scientists were enthusiastic about their work. But as a rule, this enthusiasm was tempered by doubt.” No, it is not ideal that we have to even consider intervening in these ways. But at this point, we don’t really have a choice, and the concerns over what consequences these solutions might have are as palpable as the realization that we really do need them to work.
The time when non-intervention was a viable argument has long passed, at least, if we want to avoid widespread extinction and destruction in the not-so-distant future. Letting the natural world repair itself isn’t really an option anymore, and there are no easy answers. “Is the reasonable response to try to exert more control in a more thoughtful way, or are we so bad at this we should try and do as little as possible?” Kolbert mused during our interview. Neither of us could give any concrete answer.
We do not, and probably cannot, know how far down the rabbit hole goes. But that doesn’t make us helpless. We don’t know if geoengineering can work, but we can still research it and know as much as we can about it before we have to use it. It has become increasingly clear that the climate we will end up with will probably not be the one life on Earth is ideally accustomed to. A different climate for a different world in a different time. But if our relentless push to control, innovate and create is anything to go by, we still have agency and ability to make this world livable for as many as possible.
For more, watch Elizabeth Kolbert speak with Earth.Org in a fascinating 60-minute conversation here.
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
2021, Crown, 234pp