Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

Review by Walter Cummins

Has climate change reached a tipping point? Is it too late, or do we still have an opportunity to redeem the planet? Some optimists, citing previous cries of wolf that never materialized, brush off present predictions of doom as just another hysterical panic, assured that human ingenuity will save our civilization. Others of a much gloomier disposition, like those in the catastrophist school, find humanity falling further and further behind, requiring the impossible resources of 1.6 earths to sustain our growing excesses.

Elisabeth Kolbert, 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for The Sixth Extinction and environmental writer for The New Yorker, approaches the question of our ecological fate through reports about experts experimenting with potential solutions to a range of environmental crises, each one very aware of the severity of their focal dilemmas and of the grave consequences that will result if their speculative strategies fail. In total, their quests involve a reversal of Kolbert’s subtitle, the future of nature.

Kolbert notes that we now live in the geological era of the Anthropocene in which human activities have altered the planet’s system in a manner never experienced previously. These consequences were unplanned and unintentional. With a Biblical reference, she notes:

That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. Choose just about any metric you want and it tells the same story. People have, by now, directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on earth—some twenty-seven million square miles—and indirectly half of what remains.

But today, according to Kolbert and the scientists she interviewed, only elaborate conscious planning will prevent and, in the best case, reverse the damage caused by humans.

In her research for this book, Kolbert had access to scientists and facilities developing technologies to raise submerged land in rapidly sinking areas of Louisiana, to rescue a fish species in Nevada, to breed restorative coral for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, to prevent the melting of the Greenland glacier, and to inject particles into the atmosphere that would reflect sunlight and therefore cool the planet. Such a chemical compound would give the sky a milky tinge, creating the white sky of the book’s title.

The case study that opens the book reveals the struggle of watershed managers to keep huge Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, where they would devastate the ecosystem.  A century ago, the direction of the Chicago River was reversed to provide that city with drinking water, connecting the watersheds of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan and enabling creatures to migrate from one to the other. 

The Asian carp were first imported as predators to control, in those watersheds, the round goby, a native of the Caspian Sea that consumes other fishes’ eggs. The result was a much larger problem as the Asian carp population exploded to the point where people are being paid large amounts to trap and destroy them by the thousands. Despite these measures, they are not being controlled. One plan suggests that the most effective plan would reimposing “hydrologic separation” of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. It would take twenty-five years and cost up to $18 billion. Through the book this blunder stands as an example of an unintended consequence.

The human future is not a certainty. Kolbert cites J.P. Steffensen, a director of the North Greenland Ice Core Project, who believes the rise of human civilization was made possible only because of a stable planetary climate of ten thousand years. Our civilization couldn’t have happened before then because the existing climate would have precluded the possibility. His implication is that climate controls us and human survival depends on maintaining a certain stable climate range.

Human civilization has been able to thrive because of what is, in effect, a climate bubble of weather hospitable to our species, from the beginnings of agriculture to the peaks of contemporary technology. The planet wasn’t suitable for our species before that time and may not be in a carbon-dominated future.

The irony is that the climate that began the bubble evolved from natural processes but over the centuries since, particularly the most recent, our success has permitted humans to dominate natural processes to the extent that they are no longer natural. Such human interventions were primarily tactical, addressing immediate goals and oblivious to future consequences. Now, as Kolbert documents, scientists are desperate to undo the accidental through deliberate interventions.

Her conclusion about the threat of what’s at stake can be summed up in this exchange between Dan Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, and a planner of geoengineering to reflect heating sunlight, and Allison Macfarlane, a professor at George Washington University and a former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

When he told her we were discussing geoengineering, she made a thumbs-down gesture. “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.

Kolbert concludes the book with this warning that even if Schrag’s geoengineering succeeds:

The result would not be a return to the climate of pre-industrial days or to that of the Pliocene or even that of the Eocene, when crocodiles basked on Arctic shores. It would be an unprecedented climate for an unprecedented world, where silver carp glisten under a white sky.