Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
By Elizabeth Kolbert
256 pp. Crown. $28.
Have you ever watched any of those famous British documentary series on our planet? If you haven’t, you absolutely should — they’re phenomenal (how do they get that amazing footage??). Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, most — “Planet Earth,” “Frozen Planet,” “Blue Planet” — have aired on the BBC, but the most recent, “Our Planet,” was released on Netflix.
Much of these series, particularly “Our Planet,” focuses on the harm that humans are doing to the environment and the creatures and habitats that are threatened by man-made climate change. But to avoid being entirely all gloom and doom, there’s always a few minutes towards the end where the producers make room for a bit on the effort a few good humans are trying to make to rehabilitate decimated coral reefs, save some species from extinction, or develop some sort of waste-reducing technology.
Many books in the climate change genre are the same way. Everything’s looking very bad indeed, as David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming tells us, but let’s spend a few lines talking about this technology that may offer up some hope.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s previous book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, was the same way — around 300 pages of pretty bleak stuff with a dozen or so more hopeful pages tacked on at the end so we don’t all just go kill ourselves.
This, then, is her sort of elaborating on those dozen or so pages. This is those few minutes in “Blue Planet” talking about the attempted restoration of bleached coral reefs blown up into book length form … or something like it.
Because, in fact, “Under a White Sky” is a rather slim read. Clocking in just around 250 pages, or about six hours in the audiobook format, which is how I chose to imbibe it, it’s tellingly shorter than many of those “we’re completely fucked” climate change tomes that get released on an increasingly routine basis.
And if this does pass as the “good” news on the climate change front, that just goes to show how dire the situation really is. Because this book is full of ideas that scientists and others are working on that might help reverse some of the effects of global warming … or that might make everything much, much worse. There’s just no telling.
Towards the end, Kolbert writes that “Under a White Sky” is “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems,” and that sums it up perfectly.
As a result, “Under the White Sky” is a sort of travelogue of doom, in which Kolbert treks from place to place to see firsthand the effect that invasive species have had or measure exactly how many acres of Louisiana have been swallowed by the sea in recent years.
In one case, Kolbert investigates the city of Chicago’s attempt back in the year 1900 to divert waste from Lake Michigan — the city’s main source of drinking water — by reversing the flow of the Chicago River.
The city did succeed in reversing the flow of the river, but in doing so they connected the basin of the Great Lakes with that of the Mississippi River, which in turn resulted in an ecological calamity when invasive species from one poured into the other.
The message, in any case, is clear: for every possible solution that may exist to lessen the damage already being caused by global warming, there is an equally bad, if not significantly worse, outcome that may result.
So what are we to do?
Depending upon the scientists you’re listening to, we’ve already reached a degree and a half Celsius of warming, meaning that surpassing the 2°C goal set by the Paris Climate Accords is already a foregone conclusion. Many scientists believe that we’re well on our way to 4°C of warming, and possibly more, unless we take immediate measures to curb our carbon output, something that is, let’s be honest, not going to happen.
So as scary as, say, “dimming the fucking sun” is, Elizabeth Kolbert asks the key question — “What’s the alternative?”
“Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back,” she writes. “The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing.”
We could pine for what was, agonize over the things we should have done 10, 20, 30 years ago, but none of that matters anymore because the chance to preserve that planet is already gone.
So, in an effort to preserve today’s planet, do we experiment with gene-editing tools like CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) in the hope that by doing so, we can edit the genes of a few invasive species and release them back into the wild so that’ll hopefully eliminate their kin?
What climate change has left us with, then, is a 21st century version of the trolley problem. Would you dim the sun, experiment with gene editing technology, deploy light-reflective particles into the atmosphere — risking severe and in some cases certain negative consequences — if there’s a possibility that doing so might save the planet?
In the words of Andy Parker, the project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, “we live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.”
With hopes like these, who needs despair?