Over the centuries, humans have endeavored to control nature. Unfortunately, in the process, often our solutions have created new problems. Author Elizabeth Kolbert describes “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” as a “book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”
Kolbert begins her examination by focusing on two manufactured river problems: the Chicago and Mississippi rivers. Authorities decided in 1887 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River delta. Decades later, in 1963, Asian carp were brought to the country by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to keep aquatic weeds in check. A powerful invasive species, the carp took over waterways, wiping out or endangering many native species. If these carp get into Lake Michigan, it would be devastating. To keep Asian carp from swimming upriver and invading Lake Michigan, electric barriers have been installed in the river to turn the carp back. Now, what type of problems could electrifying a river cause?
Next, Kolbert looks at recent efforts to control the flooding of the Mississippi River, which has shrunk the Louisiana coastline by more than 2,000 square miles since the 1930s. Levees, flood walls and revetments thousands of miles long have been erected to manage the Mississippi. All of this overmanagement has led to fresh sediment, which would have solidified and expanded the coastline, washing out to sea. The more water that is pumped out to stop flooding, the faster New Orleans and the coast of southern Louisiana sinks. The oil industry expedited the problem by digging canals through the wetlands, causing the reeds and marshes to die and allowing in more salt water, which causes even greater die-off.
Flowing away from rivers, Kolbert examines how human activity is a threat. Fortunately, we humans often want to avoid being the cause of species extinction and thus have at times worked toward rescuing some species that we have pushed to the brink. These rescued species are now “conservation-reliant,” or totally dependent on humans to survive. At a minimum, there are thousands of species in this camp. An example Kolbert gives is the Devil’s Hole pupfish, located at the edge of Death Valley. Human activity drove this fish to near extinction, but extensive efforts were employed to save it. Some support these efforts, whereas others strongly resist them, resulting in “kill the pupfish” bumper stickers. Methods in which humans give assistance to endangered species are many, including captive breeding, managed burns, guided migration, hand-pollination, artificial insemination and predator-avoidance training. This list keeps growing.
Kolbert next dives deep into the problems humans have created for coral reefs. Worldwide, coral reefs are homes to millions of different species. One out of four of all ocean creatures spends part of their life on a reef. Increasing water temperatures are killing reefs. Researchers are calling what is happening a “catastrophic collapse.” Fossil fuel emissions are making the seas more acidic. A few more decades of rising emissions will cause coral reefs to “stop growing and begin dissolving,” writes Kolbert. Unfortunately, the long-term prospects of coral reefs are very poor.
Efforts are now underway to create a “super coral” that could better withstand the ecological changes humans are causing. We’re trying to employ what Kolbert calls “assisted evolution.” The plan is to seed reefs with a new breed that can hopefully withstand higher temperatures. Other efforts include deploying underwater robots to reseed reefs, developing an ultrathin film to shade reefs or pumping deep water to the surface to provide corals with heat relief, as well as cloud brightening, which involves spraying tiny droplets of salt water into the air to create an artificial fog. Experts at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef do not believe that the reef can be preserved by these measures, but hope they can extend the reef’s life for 20 or 30 years to give humans time to reduce carbon emissions.
The third section of Kolbert’s book focuses on climate change, which human activity has undeniably caused. At the start of the industrial revolution, in 1776, humans annually emitted about 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Now those yearly emissions are up to 40 billion tons. One out of three molecules of CO2 in the air today was put there by humans.
We typically talk about cutting carbon emissions, but “cutting emissions is at once absolutely essential and insufficient,” Kolbert writes. If we somehow cut emissions in half, CO2 levels wouldn’t drop; they’d just rise less quickly. Kolbert discusses efforts at carbon capture, which is extremely difficult and expensive, and focuses on removing carbon from the air itself, such as through “enhanced weathering” (spreading crushed basalt over croplands in hot, humid climates to react with CO2 and draw it out of the air); dissolving the mineral olivine into the oceans to absorb CO2; planting trees to create massive new forests; or forcing smoke from energy plants underground. The key question about carbon capture from Kolbert is “how do you create a $100 billion industry for a product that nobody wants?”
Kolbert next examines solar geoengineering, which would involve using a massive fleet of aircraft to continuously fly at 60,000 feet and release a reflective element, such as sulfur dioxide or calcium carbonate, to scatter sunlight back to space. What could go wrong? This idea has been described as “dangerous beyond belief” but also as “inevitable,” given our lack of action on climate. The title of Kolbert’s book refers to how the sky would change as a result from this: A white sky would replace the blue. Many argue for doing “all of the above,” including cutting emissions, carbon capture and geoengineering.
Kolbert writes that humans have created a new epoch: the Anthropocene, or the age of humans. Human activity has resulted in a warming of the atmosphere and waters, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, deglaciation, desertification and more. Kolbert won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, “The Sixth Extinction,” which examines how extinction rates are now hundreds, if not thousands, of times higher due to human activity. Can we solve these problems? Kolbert quotes Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Will governments have the political will to force needed changes? So far, not so good.
Dave Gamrath is a longtime community activist who founded InspireSeattle.org and serves on multiple regional boards and committees.
Read more of the Oct. 6-12, 2021 issue.