Friday, March 18, 2022

Review: Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

From Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

Open quote That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. Choose just about any metric you want and it tells the same story. People have, by now, directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on earth—some twenty-seven million square miles—and indirectly half of what remains." Under a White Sky

Kolbert opens her book with the prophecy of man's dominion over all the earth. Until very recently, that fact was considered an unalloyed good thing, a sign of God's favor, a sign of human progress. Only recently have we recognized the downsides to our dominion. Kolbert closes her book with this summary, "This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems." Those problems were originally introduced by us exercising our dominion.

Grade: B+

Kolbert's first example is the Chicago River. Originally it flowed into Lake Michigan, carrying the growing city's sewage with it. Given that Chicago drew its drinking water from the Great Lakes, that was considered not such a good thing. So, humans "solved" their problem by reversing the flow of the river with the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, connecting the river with the Mississippi River to the west. "But reversing the Chicago didn’t just flush waste toward St. Louis. It also upended the hydrology of roughly two-thirds of the United States. This had ecological consequences, which had financial consequences, which, in turn, forced a whole new round of interventions on the backward-flowing river." The most shocking, literally, was the decision to create an electric field in the river to keep Asian carp from passing into the Great Lakes. Asian carp had been introduced into commercial fish ponds in the southern United States to help manage algal overgrowth. Of course, they escaped and became a fast-spreading invasive species in the whole Mississippi basin.

Like the tale of the Asian carp, Kolbert follows the chain of causes for the loss of habitat in southern Louisiana. Land loss is due in part to rising sea levels because of human-caused global warming, in part by canals dug across the marshes to facilitate oil-drigging operations in the Gulf, and in part to subsidence by extraction of oil and water from below the ground. It's the same old story. Each "solution" to one problem just creates a new problem that makes the overall situation worse.

Kolbert tells of the pupfish of Devil's Hole, a cavern in Nevada containing a pool of water "about sixty feet long and eight feet wide, [which] constitutes Cyprinodon diabolis’s entire habitat. This, it’s believed, is the smallest range of any vertebrate." In an attempt to keep the species from extinction, extraordinary steps have been taken. The pupfish is far from unique. "There is no exact tally of how many species, like the pupfish, are now conservation-reliant. At a minimum, they number in the thousands."

All these stories tell of things going on today. They aren't speculative fiction. They aren't projections of what we'll face in the future if we don't change course. We are living in this world already. One story in which Kolbert does address the future is the story of climate change. Even if we ended carbon emissions entirely immediately, the carbon we've already emitted will lead to continued global warming for centuries. Kolbert details the nascent attempts at carbon capture, i.e., removing the carbon from the atmosphere. There's a project in Iceland doing just that today. But it's tiny, tiny, in comparison to the size of the problem. Kolbert talks about what she considers to be an inevitable step to be taken in the near future: "Throw a gazillion reflective particles into the stratosphere and less sunlight will reach the planet. Temperatures will stop rising—or at least not rise as much—and disaster will be averted." The resulting particles in the air (air pollution of a new sort) will turn the sky from blue to white. Hence the title of Kolbert's book. That approach, while not cheap, is affordable by many nations today. Kolbert expects one or more of the nations most at risk of global warming to take that approach in the very near future, regardless of the unforeseen consequences. Because the consequences of doing nothing will be judged as unacceptable.

Kolbert's book is short. It's an easy read. It's full of places and things you can visit and see today. Kolbert doesn't say these efforts are good or bad. They just seem to be inevitable. Kolbert reports on these efforts in geo-engineering the way scientists described them to her: "less in a spirit of techno-optimism than what might be called techno-fatalism."

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