Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, by Elizabeth Kolbert. New York City: Crown, 2021; 256 pages, $28.
Human beings have changed our planet so dramatically and rapidly that many scientists increasingly think of our time as a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. “People have, by now, directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on earth … and indirectly half of what remains,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert in her latest book, Under a White Sky.
Noting that significantly scaling back our impact on the planet would be prudent but also unlikely, Kolbert’s premise in her new book is how to manage “not so much the control of nature as the control of the control of nature.” She has created a series of page-turning examinations of various forms of geoengineering that together constitute “a book about people trying to solve problems caused by people trying to solve problems.”
Whether that strikes you more like the whimsy of a Mobius strip or the doom of a circular firing squad may depend on what attitude you bring to the book, but in either case it may be difficult not to question some of your own preconceived notions by the time you put it down.
A significant part of what makes Under a White Sky so effective — in addition to Kolbert’s effortlessly incisive and vivid prose — is the author’s willingness to eschew bombarding us with dozens of short examples and anecdotes in favor of fewer carefully researched and reported stories. The book opens, for example, with a 20-page examination of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ strategies to combat invasive fish such as Asian carp, the introduction of which were a previous generation’s deliberate attempt to keep water clean and aquatic weeds in check in U.S. waterways.
This deep-dive approach allows the reader to see the complex interplay of decisions, successes, and setbacks that led to a given predicament and therefore gain a greater appreciation for the desperate but audacious attempts to correct them. Other efforts explored in wondrous detail include sequestering carbon emissions by turning them into stone, seeding the stratosphere with reflective particles to reduce the heat from the sun, engineering coral that can survive warmer ocean temperatures, and even lessons learned from attempts to save perhaps the rarest fish in the world, which only lives in one pool in the Mojave Desert.
Equal parts fascinating and terrifyingly clear about the depth of our long-term crisis, Under a White Sky does offer occasional glimmers of hope that science may yet save us. But they are just glimmers.
“Without exception,” Kolbert writes, the scientists and engineers with whom she spoke are trying to solve our big problems and “were enthusiastic about their work. But, as a rule, this enthusiasm was tempered by doubt.” After all, she notes, quoting a project director working on solar radiation management, “We live in a world where deliberately dimming the … sun might be less risky than not doing it.”