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BookShelf: New Kolbert Volume Addresses Value of Human Efforts To Control Nature
“Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future”
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Reviewed by Gary Wilson
It could take a world tour to comprehend the extent to which we humans have tried to control or even dominate nature.
Or, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future,” which is extensively researched, informative and even darkly comical at times.
Kolbert, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” visited the rapidly disappearing Louisiana coast, Devil’s Hole in southern Nevada, the Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast of Australia, Greenland and more locations. Along the way, she talked with atmospheric scientists and engineers, biologists, researchers and, notably, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The ‘fable’ of the Chicago River
In spite of the wide-ranging nature of the places visited, Kolbert starts the book on a guided tour of the infamously reversed Chicago River.
She takes readers on a trip past a massive sewage treatment plant, mountains of road salt and rusted shipping containers. She goes 30 miles southwest of downtown Chicago to the frontlines of the efforts to keep Asian carp — also known now simply as invasive carp — out of Lake Michigan and, thus, the Great Lakes.
The lakes are home to 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water and include Lake Erie, home to one of the world’s greatest fisheries. The Great Lakes region’s fishery is worth more than $7 billion, and Lake Erie is the Great Lake with the most to lose from a highly destructive carp invasion.
Why start with the nondescript Chicago River? It lacks the size and gravitas to be on a list of iconic U.S. rivers like the Mississippi, Colorado, Ohio and Hudson.
“I really saw this story as a fable, the stories in the book are all sort of fables, in a way,” Kolbert said in an interview before speaking at Northwestern University. “The story of the Asian carp and really the story of the Chicago River and its treatment, or mistreatment, by humans had a wonderfully clear storyline.”
‘Control of the control of nature’
The “treatment or mistreatment” Kolbert referred to was the Chicago River’s reversal in 1900, which at the time was considered a great feat of engineering because it allowed Chicago to send its waste to the Mississippi River and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.
That greatly reduced Chicago’s waterborne illnesses and diseases. But it upended the hydrology of two-thirds of the country, Kolbert said.
Then came the electrification of part of the broader Chicago-area waterway system, including a lock near Joliet, Ill. The electrical current, originally designed to repel a different type of invasive fish, has received massive federal support as it has been used as a centerpiece of efforts to repel Asian carp in recent years.
It’s “the control of the control of nature” that leaves us humans to deal with the unintended consequences of our own actions, Kolbert said. “First you reverse a river. Then you electrify it,” she wrote implying that one bizarre human intervention warranted another.
‘This has been a book about people
trying to solve the problems created
by people trying to solve problems.’
— Elizabeth Kolbert
Those two events reveal the essence of the book. “This has been a book about people trying to solve the problems created by people trying to solve problems,” Kolbert wrote.
Kolbert also turns her attention to the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana and its human-engineered levees in the New Orleans area, best known for their failures in 2005 to hold back floodwater brought ashore by Hurricane Katrina.
Hydrologists refer to the delta as a CHANS, “another nomenclature hairball” short for a “coupled human and natural system,” Kolbert writes with a splash of disdain. All in an effort to keep the region afloat.
Solar geoengineering turns a blue sky white?
While Kolbert starts with the past, much of the book looks at the future with the effects of climate change staring us in the face, now — not for some future generation to deal with.
Thus the title, “Under a White Sky,” which refers to solar geoengineering and the real potential of shooting particles into the sky that would reflect light from the sun and presumably lower temperatures, or keep them from rising so fast. The byproduct would be a white sky.
“White would become the new blue,” Kolbert wryly wrote, which could have been the prompt for her publisher to label the book “darkly comic.” Kolbert owns the “darkly comic” descriptor and said in the interview that she tried to inject a “vein of humor into the book even though the subject matter is serious.”
Kolbert’s day job since 1999 has been as a staff writer for the erudite New Yorker magazine, where excerpts from the book were first published. The back cover of “Under a White Sky” is replete with “best science book” accolades from prestigious publications, all deserved.
But missing from the book are the policy and politics parts of the equation for getting things done. How does the science of shooting particles in the sky become reality and should it even be attempted?
At a mere 207 pages including an afterword, the book had room for and would have benefitted from a chapter or two on the merits (or lack thereof) of turning the sky white and how to fund that venture, as seen from Capitol Hill and the White House.
Kolbert recognized that Congress and the Biden administration labeled a climate bill the Inflation Reduction Act to make it more palatable to the public; polling shows inflation is at the top of mind for voters, not climate change.
But Kolbert is a science writer, so she can be forgiven for not putting a toe in the D.C. policy and political arena this time.
In the end, “Under a White Sky” is a must-read for its scientific perspective and for grasping how human hubris leads to human folly. And watch for the subtle, “darkly comic” themes as you turn the pages of Kolbert’s latest work.
Gary Wilson is an independent journalist whose work is seen in Detroit Public TV’s “Great Lakes Now” initiative and Planet Detroit. Wilson is based in Chicago.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 41. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.