Reviews Physics World  October 2021

Meddling to mend the planet

James Dacey reviews Under a White Sky: the Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

On the brink Intense conservation efforts to save the Devils Hole pupfish from extinction include a multi-million-dollar replica of Devils Hole geothermal pool, their natural habitat. (Courtesy: iStock/Steve Howard)

Environmental writers walk a tightrope. Offer relentless despair and readers may drift away; be too upbeat and you’re almost certainly downplaying the issues. Fail to offer an opinion and you can leave readers cold, but come across as preaching and critics will shout “hypocrisy!” In Under a White Sky: the Nature of the Future, Pulitzer-prize-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert masterfully traverses this tightrope, combining curiosity with an acerbic wit to explore humanity’s obsession with controlling nature.

The book’s title imagines the skies if they were sprayed with vast quantities of particles – a potential climate solution for which people including Harvard physicist David Keith (who is interviewed in the book) want more investment in feasibility studies. In theory this could seed clouds that reflect sunlight back into space – counteracting the greenhouse effect. Through a series of trips to projects trying to rectify problems created by humanity (a novel type of disaster tourism) Kolbert shows that this far-fetched suggestion is just one idea in a long history of environmental techno-fixes.

As we discover, even the best-laid plans frequently return to kick us in the teeth. The book’s recurring theme is that nature is always more fine-tuned and complex than we think, though we never seem to learn. As the author writes, “If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.”

Blending scientific reportage with literary flair, Under a White Sky presents a series of case studies written partly as a travelogue, as Kolbert meets scientists and engineers reshaping the natural world. Their projects range from diverting the Mississippi river to protect New Orleans from flooding, to breeding “super coral” resistant to bleaching in warming oceans. In one story we learn about the increasingly elaborate efforts to save the few remaining pupfish at the Devils Hole geothermal pool in the Nevadan desert. Humans have driven these metallic-blue creatures to the point of extinction – first with nuclear bombs in the 1950s at the nearby Nevada test site, then later by property developers draining a nearby aquifer.

Conservationists have recently created a multi-million-dollar replica of Devils Hole a mile from the real one. It quickly became infested by larvae-eating beetles that thrive on the artificial environment. “I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one,” remarks Kolbert. As a funny aside we hear how one Devils Hole scientist was brooding because a local newspaper had recently described him as “potbellied and stern”. When he asks Kolbert for her opinion, she suggests he might be better described as having a “paunch”. These moments of human banality help to keep you sane as the narratives of environmental destruction unfurl.

On a separate trip Kolbert visits Australia to hear about the giant cane toad imported from the Caribbean in the 1930s to deal with beetle grubs in sugar plantations. Unfortunately, the toads are tasty but toxic, so they’ve become the last supper for vast numbers of Australia’s native animals. To cut toad numbers, people “bash them with golf clubs, purposefully run them over with their cars, stick them in the freezer until they solidify”, but it’s done little to stem the toad tide. The latest proposal: genetically engineer “detox toads” that will make marsupials ill but not kill them, training them to develop a distaste for the toads. What could possibly go wrong this time?

Tales of toads and fish serve as an appetizer for the closing part of the book, when we finally get our teeth into engineering the atmosphere. Kolbert runs through the smorgasbord of negative-emissions technologies designed to sequester carbon dioxide. She visits a “direct air capture” facility in Switzerland where CO2 filtered from an industrial incinerator is piped into a neighbouring greenhouse to boost the growth of fruits and vegetables. The tomatoes were “perfect, in that greenhouse tomato-y way,” reports Kolbert. She also travels to Iceland to see a project that pumps waste gases including CO2 from a geothermal plant into volcanic rocks, forcing it to rapidly mineralize (see p31).

To understand the mindset of geoengineers, Kolbert meets physicist Klaus Lackner, founder of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. In Lackner’s view we need to move away from moral debates that equate carbon usage with blame and virtue. Carbon emissions, in his opinion, should be regarded in the same way as sewage. “Rewarding people for going to the bathroom less would be nonsensical,” is one comment that certainly evokes the senses.

One thing the book lacks is important detail on the economics of the interventions. As things stand, there is little agreement over who should pay for carbon-capture projects. Unless that changes – for instance with the establishment of a global carbon market – these technologies are never likely to scale up. Throughout the book Kolbert quotes eye-watering sums involved in human interventions in nature. But with little context or comparison, the figures are meaningless. What is the cost of doing nothing?

Kolbert’s skill is in presenting compelling stories from the Anthropocene and letting us judge for ourselves

Kolbert’s skill is in presenting compelling stories from the Anthropocene and letting us judge for ourselves. She’s unafraid to question our track record of interfering with natural systems, but never lectures her audience about what is right or wrong. Kolbert clearly empathizes with the motivations of the scientists and engineers seeking technical solutions, and there is an underlying sense of resignation that perhaps we’re already in far too deep to row back. We’ve reshaped the planet to such an extent that it might now be inevitable that we have to keep doing so. It’s a bleak message, beautifully told.