Q&A: Is Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Book a Hopeful Look at the Promise of Technology, or a Cautionary Tale?

As the dominant species on the planet, humans have altered the direction rivers flow, modified genes to make toads less poisonous and chickens glow and someday could change the color of the sky.

But what happens when human creations backfire? Author Elizabeth Kolbert’s newest book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future,” explores different nature-altering technologies, both in existence and in the abstract, and how these technologies could help solve planetary problems, or could become problems themselves. 

Kolbert’s new book parallels her 2014 book “The Sixth Extinction”—winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction—about the ongoing massive extinction of species, which some experts attribute to humans. Both books examine Earth in the age of the Anthropocene—the current geological era in which humans have an outsized impact on the planet’s systems. 

In “Under a White Sky,” Kolbert begins with the Chicago River. More than a century ago, engineers reversed the flow of the polluted river away from Lake Michigan, which provided Chicago’s drinking water, diverting it instead into the Mississippi River watershed. The river’s redirection was a victory for public health. But it also, through the Chicago River, connected two previously separated watersheds—the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes—allowing species to move from one to the other.

As a result, watershed managers have been working tirelessly to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes, including Asian carp, which could quickly proliferate and devastate ecosystems in all five Great Lakes. To solve that problem, engineers installed electrified barriers in the Chicago River to keep carp from the Mississippi watershed away from Lake Michigan.

“The book is about people intervening in natural systems, deciding they don’t particularly care for the results and then contemplating new forms of intervention to counter the old,” Kolbert said. “The Chicago River is a very vivid example of this.”

Kolbert’s book also goes through technologies that have been used to raise submerged land in Louisiana, rescue a threatened fish species in Nevada and breed coral in Australia that could resist the ocean’s changing chemistry.

Later in “Under a White Sky,” Kolbert explores some proposed technological fixes for climate change, like solar geoengineering, in which scientists would inject reflective particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, cooling the planet. But as with the rerouting of the Chicago River, planet-altering technologies such as this could have unintended consequences.

Inside Climate News discussed the book with Kolbert in a recent interview. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What does the title “Under a White Sky” mean?

One of the daunting challenges of climate change, it’s very difficult to do anything about climate change very quickly. The only idea that people have come up with for doing something quickly is to spray some kind of chemical compound into the stratosphere to create this sort of haze that would reflect sunlight back into space, so genuinely less direct sunlight would be hitting the Earth and you would have a cooling effect.

One of the many unintended or side effects of that potentially could be changing the appearance of the sky, the sky would appear to be whiter. If you’re in a part of the world where now you would expect to see a beautiful, blue sky on a bright day, it would have sort of a milky tinge, and that’s where the title comes from.

“Under a White Sky” is similar to “The Sixth Extinction” in outlining consequences of the Anthropocene. Does this new book serve as a follow-up or does it tie back to your book from 2014 in other ways?

You could kind of say it’s a logical sequel. We have created this extinction event being driven by a variety of different interventions in the natural world. And so I look at responses to, “OK we’ve made a mess, and what do we do now?” and I’m trying to sort of identify this way of thinking that we tend to bring to these problems, without necessarily taking a position on whether this is a good idea or not.

“Under a White Sky” outlines solutions that have aspects of natural processes and human-created technologies. How do these two approaches work together?

There’s a lot of talk now about these nature-based solutions, but if you look at them, yes, they’re inspired by natural processes but they’re not natural. Even if I planted a trillion trees, let’s say, I don’t think we’re doing that in a way that replicates a forest. We just are not in tune enough; we don’t have the expertise to recreate these systems, so we’re always at best approximating what we think nature is doing.

Are there any climate-change-mitigation or nature-saving technologies in the book that you find objectively promising?

I have a chapter on carbon dioxide removal, which is a very hot topic. Right now, it’s already sort of built into a lot of the model runs that the International Panel on Climate Change uses to project whether we can hold climate, average global temperatures, under a certain threshold, so all of the 1.5 degree scenarios as they’re called, they all have negative emissions in them or some form of carbon dioxide removal and most of the 2 degree scenarios do too. 

And is this promising? You know, potentially. One of the things I’ll say about the book is it tries to walk a fine line and not take a stance so much on whether these technologies are promising or not but to point to a habit of mind that we seem to have when we approach these problems. 

How about technologies that are objectively scary?

I talk about several technologies that certainly provoke reservations. I have a chapter on gene editing and that includes a discussion of a technology called gene drive which sort of pushes an altered gene out into the world in a very dramatic way, and I think most people who have looked at gene drive, including people who are looking at it very seriously to try to solve problems, would say it certainly is perilous, it has a lot of peril associated with it. And certainly I think people would say that solar geoengineering has a lot of peril associated with it. Everything in the book raises questions. 

How does the chaos of 2020 with Covid-19 play into this book? 

Well I mean the chaos of 2020, unfortunately in my view, and this is one woman’s view, is very much in keeping with the sort of pattern that I am looking at in the book. Covid is natural, quote-unquote. Viruses have jumped species, presumably, as long as there have been viruses. But humans, it’s sort of this coupled human and natural system once again, a virus jumped into some species and then it jumped to humans, and because of the way we live now in a completely globalized world, it was everywhere immediately. 

Even once it has spread very rapidly to incredibly remote parts of the world, you know, we didn’t take the steps that we could have to try and reduce as much as possible the spread. We sort of let it get quickly out of control. Then we are sitting here waiting for some techno-fix, which is a vaccine. Now we realize it’s so out of control that we’re going to get vaccine escape, probably. We’re going to have to have constantly new vaccines to deal with new strains of this virus so it very much in my view fits the pattern of the book.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope they take away from this book an appreciation for the really extraordinary moment that we live in. We live in an amazing moment, one where we really are the major force on planet Earth right now, we being humanity. And with that comes a tremendous amount of responsibility. So I’d say that the point of the book is to get people to appreciate how strange that is.

Is this book hopeful or a cautionary tale?

Ah, you have really gotten to the heart of the matter. I definitely leave that to you, dear reader. I think you can read the book and say, yes I’m more hopeful than when I started, there’s a lot of really smart people working on these problems and they have some really ingenious answers. I think that would be a really valid response. And I think you can read the book and say, “I’m terrified. I’m even more terrified than when I started the book.” Both I think are really reasonable responses to what’s going on.

Are there any other thoughts you have to add? 

The book is kind of written as a dark comedy, and I hope that it’s kind of fun to read. I know that sounds odd.

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