Subtitled “The Nature of the Future, “Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is the most important book I have read in the last twelve months. Yes, at times I got stuck in the details and the constant use of shorthand for organizations tasked with solving problems: CPRA for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, for example. But both these issues are of minor concern.
This is a book about man-made disasters: alien fish eating up the domestic in the Illinois River, land loss in New Orleans, the degeneration of the Great Barrier Reef and, yes, the whitening of the sky by CO₂ emissions.
Kolbert dominates a specialized field as a communicator; she’s a journalist, not an expert. With the publication of The Sixth Extinction, about the on-going mass extinction of species due to human activity, she won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2015.
As in that book, in Under A White Sky, Kolbert displays the felicitous skill of practicing a mix of creative nonfiction techniques with baldly disturbing facts.
In Part 1″Down the River,” the first of three sections, she reaches back to an ancient philosopher to strengthen her point that continued flooding and wetland loss will make New Orleans look more and more like an island.
“Drive out Nature though you will with a pitchfork,” wrote Horace in 20 BC, “yet she will always hurry back and before you know it will break through your perverse disdain in triumph.”
In Kolbert’s own words, her new book is “about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” It is not “techno-optimistic, but rather “techno-fatalistic.”
And her cultural sources are often contemporary, the fixes technological. She quotes a female replicant hiding her identity as a cabaret dancer in the movie Blade Runner. “You think I’d be working in a place like this, if I could afford a real snake?”
Part 2 “Into the Wild” takes us to the edge of Death Valley, the pupfish of Devils Hole and to the cavern of a vast aquifer dating from the Pleistocene era. We move from pupfish restoration to that of coral. She travels the world over, visiting the work stations of committed geoscientists like Ruth Gates and Madeleine van Oppen.
At the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in Australia she meets Paul Hardesty, a Canadian, who is both gloomy and gung-ho. The recovery projects Hardesty envisions require millions of dollars and the use of robots. The high cost of these fixes is always accounted for in dollars and cents.
Part 3 “Up In The Air,” is seemingly the most far-fetched of the sections. Climeworks, for example, would scrub subscriber’s carbon emission from the air and then inject the CO₂ a half mile underground into rock. (Let us remember the presence of CO₂ emissions in our atmosphere began eight to 9,000 years ago with the advent of farming. Of the 40 billion tons produced a year today, 30 percent is created by 4 percent of the earth’s population, the United States.)
Here, Kolbert spends a lot of time with “big Idea” folks, including Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University in Tempe, who says that we should look at carbon dioxide in the same way we look at sewage. We are not going to get rid of it; we need to transform it and use it.
This book gave me a lot to think about.
I live in a city where no city should be. We bought our home in Phoenix in 2013. In the last eight years, summer have gotten hotter and hotter. Water scarcer and scarcer. This June was the hottest in Phoenix recorded history. The average recorded temperature for the month was 95.3.
I got out at 6 a.m. this morning for a 1 1/2 mile walk. Around the corner from my house, I saw a stream of water leaking down the gutter track along the street. I traced it back to its source. It wasn’t the case of someone overwatering a lawn, but seemed to be springing from a spot between houses.
A man walking his dog, crossed the road and joined me to look at it.
“It’s not the homeowner’s; it’s the city’s,” I said.
“They say we don’t need to pay for it when it’s like that,” he agreed. I didn’t say anything, but I thought, “Of course, we do — one way or another.”