Frontlist | Will we ever fully understand humans’ impact on nature?

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A conversation with Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book, efforts to “control the control of nature,” and how the climate beat has changed.

In Under a White Sky, Kolbert ponders the nature of the future by examining a new pattern she attributes to “the recursive logic of the Anthropocene”: human interventions attempting to answer for past human interventions in the environment. The book chronicles the casualties of short-sighted human meddling with the planet and its resources and the present-day efforts being made to address that meddling—or, as Kolbert puts it, efforts to “control the control of nature.” Interviews with scientists in a wide array of disciplines—climate scientists, climate entrepreneurs, biologists, glaciologists, and geneticists—reveal a trend of projects aiming to transform nature in order to save it. From the Mojave to lava fields in Iceland, Kolbert takes readers on a globe-spanning journey to explore these projects while weighing their pros, cons, and ethical implications (the book’s title refers to the way the sky could be bleached of color as a potential side effect of solar geoengineering, one of the proposed interventions to combat global warming). “The issue, at this point,” Kolbert writes, “is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end?”

I spoke to Kolbert over the phone the day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. We talked about what it’s like to write a book about a big question you don’t yet have the answer to, and what it will take to undo the environmental damage incurred during the Trump years.

You describe Under A White Sky as “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” Can you explain that a little?

The pattern that I’m looking at in the book is ways in which humans have intervened—or, if you prefer, mucked around with—the natural world and then have decided that the consequences are bad and are now looking for new forms of intervention to try to solve those problems. I start with the example of the Chicago River, which was reversed in an extraordinary engineering project at the beginning of the 20th century. The Chicago River used to flow east into Lake Michigan, which also happened to be Chicago’s only source of drinking water. All of Chicago’s human and animal waste flowed into Lake Michigan and there were constant outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. So Chicago decided, Well, we really have to do something about it, and what they did was this incredible engineering project, and now it flows basically to the southwest and eventually into the Mississippi, and all of Chicago’s waste flows in the same direction. When the canal that reversed the river was put into place, there was a headline in The New York Times that ran something like, “Water Flows in the Chicago River Again.” It was so thick with muck that people joked a chicken could walk across it without getting its feet wet. That created a big problem that connected two huge drainage systems, the Great Lakes drainage system and the Mississippi drainage system, that has now led to all these species, including many invasive species, crossing from one basin into the other. It was having bad effects on the ecology of both systems, so to try to prevent these species from crossing from one basin to the other, they’ve now electrified a significant chunk of this canal. So that’s an intervention, as it were, on top of an intervention, and that is really the pattern that the book explores.

The book visits project sites in Iceland, Australia, New Orleans, and the California desert. What drew you to the projects you write about?

The first project that got me started down this whole path was the “super coral” project, which is currently in Hawaii and partly in Australia. As the oceans warm, corals are having a lot of trouble surviving. We get these coral-bleaching events that I’m sure people have heard about. Some scientists were looking at how we can save coral reefs and the idea they came up with was that we need to intervene and try to coax along evolution so that these creatures can survive climate change. That struck me as a really interesting project, and got me thinking about this question of, Can we intervene to redress our own interventions? Once I started seeing that pattern, I started to see it everywhere. I could have gone to many different parts of the world and written stories that made the same point, but the projects that I went to were emblematic in some way. They were taking on different issues like climate change or invasive species, the loss of wetlands—the list goes on.

Did any of these efforts—be it the Harvard team trying to combat global warming by firing diamonds into the stratosphere or the group looking to reduce rodent populations with genetic manipulation—convince you that our best chance of averting climate apocalypse really is to “control the control of nature”? Are we digging ourselves out of a hole or just digging a deeper one?

You know, you have identified the question at the center of the book. That is a question that I don’t claim to answer. I’m not a prophet. I’m really trying to tease out that question in the book. Look at it, and have some fun with it, to be honest, and get people to think about the pattern. In many cases, these solutions are working to a certain extent. New Orleans would not exist without massive human intervention to solve the problems of water. In New Orleans—a city that’s essentially significantly below sea level—it turns out you need flooding to keep the land from subsiding even further because that’s actually what built the land, the flooding that dropped a lot of sediment across the Mississippi Delta over many millennia. Are you getting into a trap when you pile these interventions on top of each other? Do you have alternatives? These are the big questions of our time.


By: Naomi Elias (The Nation)

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