I reread this for a discussion group and as usual, I got a whole lot more out of it the second time. A WHOLE LOT MORE!!!! (1st review is here) Now I’m might have to have to read The Sixth Extinction for which this same author won a Pulitzer. (Or I might just subscribe to the New Yorker to keep up.
Under a White Sky:
The Nature of the Future
by Elizabeth Kolbert
2021 / 258 pages
Read by Barbara Lowman 6h 21m Rating: 8.5 science/environment
(Both read and listened)
This is a terrific book and it’s comparatively short, but it’s not an easy book. The style seems like it should be as easy to digest as it is easy read but the essays are filled with details which all build to a specific theme – IT is a collection of essays at least some of which were previously published by The New Yorker.
The Part 1 of Under a White Sky just starts right out in Chapter 1 without any kind of Introduction or Prologue so with my first reading I felt rather dumped into a book about something about which I really knew very little and I had no idea where it was going except I did suspect it was about the environment because that’s what the blurbs said. And the subtitle, “The Nature of the Future,” is cute but not very specific – heh.
With my second reading I was promptly involved, hooked actually, from the start and the book is SOOOO good – in so many ways. (I think I just appreciate formal Introductions.)
The whole did come together for me about midway through Part 2, “Up in the Air.” I’d glimpsed a main theme in Chapter 1 where Kolbert actually says some things about fixing the mess(es) which have been created in trying to fix the problems with dumping sewage into the river. – And that, in a tiny nutshell, is the theme of the whole book.
The rest of the book deals with specific problems along those lines with the final chapter being more of a summing up and projection than there is anywhere else; it’s a good summary or conclusion perhaps, but don’t start there!
Part 1 – Down the River
The problems of the Mississippi River from Chicago sewage to the Mississippi Delta
Chapter 1 – it’s all connected and fixing one aspect often creates problems elsewhere (major theme of the whole book). The course of the river was changed and eventually dramatically affected 2/3rds of the US land mass It also gave us the problem of the non-native Asian Carp and relocating Bayou residents.
In New Orleans the levees which were built to prevent flooding also prevented sediment from getting through to maintaining the entire environment of southeasternmost Louisiana. Now it’s getting so there’s precious land left, it hasn’t been rebuilt after hurricanes etc. It’s one of the fastest disappearing places on earth so residents have to be relocated. Can it be fixed? Will it be fixed?
Part 2 – Into the Wild –
Chapter 1: Pupfish of the desert – how have they managed to survive and how can we keep them because they are going extinct due to the stress of the environment and their loss of fins.
The collapse of the Great Coral Reefs due to warming and stress impacting the reproduction of many species which live in the coral. Darwin was amazed –
We now have genetic engineering and CRISPR with synthetic gene drives to do the desired rearranging of “nature,” this would include a fix for the Coral Reef problem. Plus we now have home-kids as well as other methods of “unnatural” selection to help alleviate the proliferation of Cane Toads and mice. The problem is not about about going “back” to nature. Nature, as we knew it, is not coming back. It’s about what are we going toward.
“Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Sometimes it is the other way around.” (Paul Kingsnorth). But at this point, what is the alternative?
Part 3 – Up in the Air
This is the early Anthropocene hypothesis:
When did people start altering the atmosphere? -Development of wheat and rice and chopping and buying their way through forests so carbon dioxide was released.
The idea of those who subscribe to a ‘late Anthropocene” era is that it started around the time of the detonation of the atomic bomb.
But there was a level 7 volcano in 1815 and it affected the world’s atmosphere dreadfully – it was gray and grim all over. The anthropocene could have started about then.
If, in 10 years, we decide we want the government to do something, it’ll be too late. There are ideas around but they’ve not been tested to well enough. Many have failed like cloud seeding, a bridge across the Bering Straight,
There have been a lot of projects which have worked fine. Yes, there’s the Toad but there’s also agriculture. Bugs were used in Africa. More are being considered. If people think that solutions are on the way will that dampen their enthusiasm for cutting down. Yes, but the opposite may also be true – it may encourage them. There is pressure to have a happy ending.
Geoengineering looks like it might be easy – to deliver aerosols by SAIL (super-planes). Bur it’s not and it’s highly controversial.
Ending – there will likely have to be several strategies involved; deep emission carbon reductions, actual carbon removal, refreeze the poles, sunlight reduction schemes so new ice can be preserved and there are more intense and invasive things.
And then comes the scary stuff.
I keep saying this – go read Appleseed by Matt Bell – (my review) – it’s terrific fiction about this very thing – fixing messes which were made while trying to fix messes or what didn’t suit us.