Thursday, April 8, 2021

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

This is Elizabeth Kolbert's latest book, her first since The Sixth Extinction, which was published in 2014. Although the middle section of this book is similar to the last book, the focus changes from noting stressed species to examining previous human attempts to avert disasters and then looking at some of the strategies currently being discussed to reduce global warming. I found this book more informative, though, as was the case before, I thought that it meandered somewhat and put too much emphasis on writerly preferences instead of plainly spelling out the relevant facts. Kolbert has a specific journalistic strategy to engage non-scientific readers with issues that are relevant to all of us, and this includes a New Yorker writing style which will appeal to some readers more than others. As I said of her last book, I could have done without the personal details of the scientists whom she interviewed. Her manner isn't direct and sometimes appears whimsical, as she seems to like putting together pastiches that have a sort of artistic effect, in contrast to a more explicit analytical discussion that might be offered by a scientist.

The first section mainly discusses environmental control projects. The first chapter concerns the reversal of the direction of flow of the Chicago River and some of its unexpected consequences. This was done in order to prevent sewage from contaminating Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for Chicago. When Asian carp were introduced downstream because they are natural water cleaners, they became invasive, and extreme efforts were taken to keep them out of Lake Michigan, because they could outcompete other species and take over the entire Great Lakes. Although the original project was a success, this development was never anticipated and is an ongoing problem requiring new measures. The second chapter, which I thought was a better example, describes the efforts to protect New Orleans and the surrounding areas from flooding. In this instance, massive pumps, pipes and levees were installed to control water movement, but, over the years, it has been found that constant drainage causes the soil to compact, ultimately lowering the surface level. The consequence is that now, with rising sea levels, New Orleans is sinking and will continue to flood. This example shows how a massive engineering project initially met its objective yet will ultimately fail due to insurmountable obstacles. Kolbert doesn't explicitly state it, but the best solution may have been to permanently evacuate the entire region and allow the river to continue depositing silt, which would make the area less habitable but would return it to its former state. In my mind, Kolbert is actually a little timid, or she would have stated more directly that a city should never have been built there, and that flooding is inevitable. The best solution would have been to abandon the area years ago. It is just a matter of time before another major flood occurs, and the engineering has not produced a permanent solution.

In the middle section, the first chapter describes efforts to save the Devils Hole pupfish in Nevada from extinction. These are small fish that inhabit an underground cave. Then there is a chapter on protecting coral reefs and a chapter on the invasive cane toad in Australia. These three chapters discuss arcane techniques used by scientists to solve specific local problems with varying causes. I thought that they were interesting in their own right, but were not central to the main theme of the book.

The final section includes three chapters, the first of which discusses the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the storage of it underground in rock form or by burying trees. The second describes how calcium carbonate or sulphur dioxide could be disbursed in the stratosphere to make the earth more reflective and cool it down. This is where the book's title comes from, because adding reflectants to the stratosphere could make the sky white instead of blue. The third examines ice data from Greenland showing erratic temperatures during the Ice Age. It also discusses a failed project to build a large weapons facility beneath the Greenland ice.

The conclusion is that there is an awful lot of uncertainty in the ideas put forward to prevent catastrophic climate change. On the whole, I found the book informative, though, as I said, I don't particularly like this style of journalism. Kolbert attempts to recreate in real time her experience as a journalist as she conducted her research, and this gives the impression that she studied a random series of activities pursued by a variety of unrelated individuals whose goals all varied. The emphasis therefore tends to fall more on people than on a comprehensive solution to climate change. The case of the Devils Hole pupfish concerns the possible extinction of a species, and because Kolbert makes no effort to contextualize this with the other, far more serious problems discussed, it is difficult to know whether she thinks that the pupfish is an important species which should be saved or whether saving it is just an irrational human fetish. Though Kolbert does provide some sense that the main climate problems could be solved, the reader ends up with the feeling that the process is so haphazard that, even if it appears to be successful, there may be many unintended consequences or unforeseen aspects simply because humans are unable to deal with problems of this magnitude. This leaves the reader more unsettled than her last book did, which probably makes it better, given the gravity of the situation. Even so, I would have preferred a more controlled narrative, because, by the end of the book, it is difficult to believe that anyone has come up with a comprehensive plan to address climate change that is likely to succeed according to our needs. You primarily get the sense that all sorts of people are doing various kinds of research, that they are working independently, without coordination, and that, given the previous failures of projects of this magnitude, the outcome is unpredictable and we may all die. For me, the scope of the issue is so large that it deserves far more comprehensive discussion than a book of this nature is able to offer.

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