Nonfiction Notes: Elizabeth Kolbert’s UNDER A WHITE SKY

This modestly-length book is a sequel of sorts to the author’s The Sixth Extinction (2014), which won a Pulitzer Prize and which I greatly admired. (My review here.) That book was about how the human impact on the planet, especially in recent centuries, is bringing about a mass extinction of species on Earth, comparable to the five earlier ones seen in the fossil record, including the one that killed the dinosaurs.

This new book is similar in style but with a more specific theme. Again, each chapter focuses on a specific circumstance of how an ecology or species has been affected by human activity, with the author visiting remote places and interviewing key people. And again, some of these chapters likely appeared as long essays in The New Yorker or elsewhere. The more specific theme is this: how humans have made messes of things, and how only smarter human action can repair them. What’s needed is more control, not less; there’s no sitting back and letting the Earth repair itself. Each chapter discusses a specific example. Only toward the end does the book address possible remedies to the large problem of climate change, which is where the title of the book comes in.

I’ve bolded some key words and passage for easier skimming…

Key Take-aways:

  • The solution to human meddling into nature isn’t to step away; it’s to be smarter about meddling in nature.
  • A remarkable insight about the history of climate change via ice core samples in Greenland: for nearly 100,000 years, there were vast swings of temperature, and only until the past 10,000 years, when the climate settled down, did human civilization emerge. Had the climate settled earlier, so might human civilization have emerged earlier.

Section 1: Down the River

  • Ch1, About the reversal of the Chicago River, back in 1887, to send city waste west to the Mississippi River rather than into Lake Michigan. The consequence of this was when Asian carp was imported from China in 1963, partly in response to Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring in 1962, which warned against pesticides (like DDT) and advocated setting natural biological agents against one another. But they escaped, and have to be managed. Author visits a man in charge of electrical barriers in the river, and a chef in New Orleans who fishes them (
  • Ch2, About the disappearing peninsulas of Louisiana, along the Mississippi River, due to erosion and sea level rise. A “land-loss crisis.” (A familiar situation; look at maps or atlases from decades ago, compared to Google Maps today, of the entire southeast end of Louisiana.)

Section 2: Into the Wild

  • Ch1, About tiny fish in desert caverns in Nevada, in Devils Hole. Discovered in 1849. How biologists study them now. How settlers to western America killed off the wild turkeys, the elk, the passenger pigeons, the buffalo and bison. How the idea of nature is tangled in culture: animals become tame, or wild; plants become crops, or weeds. Some animals and plants live in harmony with humans, others not.
  • Ch2, About Ruth Gates, marine biologist, studying corals. About the Great Barrier Reef and its diversity of species. About they try to keep the corals alive.
  • Ch3, About genetic engineering, a company in Oakland, and why people shouldn’t worry about GMOs. How can toads were introduced in Australia, spread and got faster, with longer legs: evolution in real time. And about CRISPR, with the possibility of designing a “suppression drive” to wipe out a population, e.g. mosquitos. A quote in this chapter summarizes the book’s theme, p137.5:

The strongest argument for gene editing cane toads, house mice, and ship rats is also the simplest: what’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back. The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing. This is the situation of the Devils Hole pupfish, the Shoshone pupfish, and Pahrump poolfish, of the northern quoll, the Campbell Island teal, and the Tristan albatross. Stick to the strict interpretation of the natural and these—along with thousands of other species—are goners. The issue, at this point, is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end?

  • And how Stewart Brand said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” modified to “have to get good at it.” And how the American chestnut tree might be revived.

Section 3: Up in the Air

  • Ch1, About ameliorating carbon emissions by injecting CO2 into the ground. Author visits a site doing this in Iceland. About how much carbon removal vs. carbon renewal; an entrepreneur who wants to shift the paradigm, treat carbon dioxide like sewage, something that will always be there. Ideas to remove CO2 include crushing basalt and spreading it over croplands; planting lots of trees and burying their rot; or capture CO2 from trees by burning them. Issues with all of them.
  • Ch2, About volcanoes; there’s a Volcanic Explosivity Index, logarithmic like the Richter scale. The most recent worst one, in 1815 in Indonesia, killed thousands and created a year without a summer (when Byron and Mary Shelley stayed at Lake Geneva…). Volcanoes put sulfur dioxide into the air, which becomes sulfuric acid, which scatters sunlight back into space. To do this deliberately is called solar geoengineering: throw reflective particles into the stratosphere. Deliver aerosols by plane. But this only masks the cause of warming. And it would change the appearance of the sky, turning it white. Yet estimates are that even if emissions stop tomorrow, we’re still headed toward a 4d C rise, which would be at least disastrous.
  • Ch3, How drilling into Greenland ice reveals the history of climate change. The ice contains bubbles of air, samples of past atmospheres, back some 105 thousand years ago. They reveal many temperature swings, some 25 of them, until the end of the ice age about 10,000 years ago. Thus, human civilization seems tied to climate change: if the climate had been stable 50,000 years ago, rather than 10,000, human civilization might have begun that much earlier. Now humanity is using the stability of the past 10,000 years to create a new instability. Even if it takes millennia, the melting of Greenland’s ice will raise sea levels by 20 feet. “This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” Yet even if the ideas in this book were deployed, the result would not be a return to the climate of any time past.
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