Review: Under A White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

A little known or poorly understand aspect of climate change is that pretty much all the official modelling we rely on to guide the fight against it tells us we will have to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic warming. Modelling that guided the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which the world agreed to at least try to limit warming to 1.5°C, centred on a technology called BECCS (bioenergy, carbon capture and storage) that was theoretical at the time, and was piloted for the first time in 2019. These so-called negative emissions technologies get a bad rap because they are expensive and seen as a distraction from proven technologies like renewable energy. But quite a lot of evidence suggests we’re going to have to use them.

Under A White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert’s even more engrossing follow up to her Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction, is a lot about things we don’t want to do, but will probably have to. It’s a short and razor-sharp book about “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems”. Climate change is only the latest of these problems, which belong to a category of phenomena “blandly labelled” as “‘global change'”. Biodiversity loss, pollution, ocean acidification, the ozone hole, overuse of fertilisers etc etc – a good place to begin understanding these phenomena and keep you awake at night is the planetary boundaries concept. For several centuries at least people have celebrated and desired “control of nature”, bending it under our green thumbs and pickaxes and machines. Well, we got it, and as Kolbert shows so effectively, it is now (almost) absolute. “If there’s going to be an answer to the problem of control,” Kolbert writes, “It’s going to be more control”.

Kolbert begins her investigation on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It doesn’t sound auspicious, but one of the joys of this book is how it takes seemingly bland and uninteresting things and making them very interesting indeed. The canal, which opened in the early-20th century to fix Chicago’s sewage problems, reversed the flow of the Chicago River, effectively joining two water systems, the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, that had been separate since time immemorial. Those happily ignorant canal planners, like the coal barons of the 19th century or the agricultural revolutionaries of the 20th, couldn’t have known that joining two river systems would have dire consequences when rapacious introduced species started moving through the waterways, threatening the local flora and fauna. Now the battle is on to prevent Asian carp crossing from the Mississippi into the Great Lakes, where they would wreak havoc on the lake ecosystems. To do so, the US Army Corps of Engineers has created a vast electrical barrier in the river, designed to turn the fish away and electrocute them if they don’t.

The canal symbolises the scale, expense and effort of the quite possibly Sisyphean task of fixing the damage we’ve done. Over three sections that focus on water, biodiversity and the atmosphere respectively, Kolbert travels the world to find solutions that are simultaneously completely bonkers and deadly serious. At the other end of the Mississippi, she meets the people trying to stop Louisiana “disintegrating, coming apart like an old shoe” and falling into the Gulf. She visits the Mojave Desert to see the efforts to save the Devils Hole Pupfish, a small fish with possibly the smallest distribution of any vertebrate, a pond in the middle of the desert. Like many organisms, the species’ existence is now utterly dependent on people. We see attempts to alter the evolution of corals, and genetically engineer invasive cane toads in Australia to slow their spread. In the last section, we not only read about negative emissions technologies, but perhaps the most frightening and reviled interventions of all, solar geoengineering. One of these ideas is to literally pump tiny particles of diamond into the stratosphere to reflect more sunlight and cool the earth, with the side effect of turning the sky white.

Under A White Sky is a book I never thought I’d be hooked by, because it is a book that is at its heart about engineering, a discipline I understand the importance of, but have little interest in. Engineers – mechanical, structural, army, genetic, geo – are the heroes, or perhaps ultimately the anti-heroes, of the story, even as they are guided by scientists from other fields. Kolbert finds real drama in their work and personalities. There are a few possible reactions to all this meddling with the planet. One is the terror of a kind of technological sublime – the awe of what we’re capable. Another is hysteria, because it’s all ridiculous and if you don’t laugh you cry. I had similar feelings while reading the most compelling sections of the recent Australian collection Living With The Anthropocene. One engineer describes his own feeling as “techno-fatalism”; there’s a reluctance and grim inevitability to their work. Solar geoengineer Frank Keutsch says he does his research because we have to understand the consequences of the lengths we might have to go to stop climate change. “I sometimes get quite anxious that this may actually happen,” he says. There is, just maybe, hope, because the best heroes are the reluctant ones. Let the billionaires fire themselves into the sun.

Kolbert is a guide, not a lecturer, and if I had one outstanding question it was, how does she feel about all this? With her inquisitive, arch and sceptical journalistic tone, there are only glimpses. Some will no doubt argue that this book does the work of softening us up to solutions that might be unacceptable; I’d say it’s time for a reality check. As Kolbert writes, this is the state of the science. The rest is a question of politics, and values. As apocalyptic philosopher Paul Kingsnorth says, “Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Sometimes it is the other way around”. I did wonder if there is a different type of just-as-intensive intervention that should be mentioned alongside the industrial kind. In Australia, it’s pretty clear that part of the problem is the disruption of Indigenous land management by colonisation. Many Indigenous people, such as Wunambal man Sylvester Mangolomara quoted in the recent Flames Of Extinction, say that “If you just walk away from [the environment], it will all die”. Indigenous land management is intimate, and requires presence on the land. Part of the problem some Australian ecosystems are facing is neglect.

And what of the unintended consequences of these industrial-scale interventions on the planet? Kolbert addresses those obliquely in a chilling final section set on and in the Greenland ice cap. For all our control, we’re still ruled by uncertainty. As always, there’s despair in that, because things could go worse than we expect. But there’s hope too, because they just might turn out better.

Gay rating: not gay

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