Under a White Sky

Pop quiz! What was the biggest news of 2020? COVID, right? Easy. But maybe species extinction was really the big news, just not quite as in your face. Or how about the climate emergency? Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are higher than they’ve been in 3.6 million years, and are only going higher.

How about COVID, extinction, and climate change, all growing and encircling the planet at the same time?

While many authors focused on one, a few wise thinkers and writers tackled the whole eco-enchilada -- including how these crises interact with each other, and throwing in a couple more for good measure. The most accessible of these authors is surely Elizabeth Kolbert, who covers nearly everything under the sun in her new book, Under A White Sky. She warmed up to the task with her two previous bestsellers, Field Notes From A Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Despite the complex and sobering nature of her books, Kolbert incorporates engaging field reports from all around the world and, somehow, humor to keep readers turning the pages.

Her works, sequentially: 1. Despite knowing that they’re doing it, humans cause the global climate to change. 2. Despite knowing that they’re doing it, humans cause plant and animal species to go extinct all around the world. 3. Despite knowing their track record, humans think they can fix climate change and extinction by altering fundamental planetary processes. 

What could go wrong?

Kolbert takes us Down the River, Into the Wild, and Up in the Air as she surveys the situation and provides examples instructive and, well, I'm tempted to say apocalyptic even if she's not.

She starts in Chicago, where over a century ago accumulating sewage inspired engineers to turn a river around, which (merely) "upended the hydrology of roughly two-thirds of the United States." Chicago's water cleared up as its waste flowed down the Mississippi instead of into Lake Michigan, but with two massive watersheds united we now have to worry about, for example, things like controlling the spread of Asian carp into the Great Lakes. 

The first part of Kolbert's book reminded me of the writings of her co-worker at New Yorker magazine, John McPhee, whose use of the phrase "the control of nature" has stuck with me since he inserted it into Rising From the Plains some 35 years ago. 

In it, McPhee quotes the words carved in limestone above the University of Wyoming's College of Engineering:

"Strive on - The control of Nature is won, not given"

Moving downstream from Chicago, Kolbert revisits "Atchafalaya," the masterful Mississippi River chapter of McPhee's book The Control of Nature. Reflecting on how often our efforts lead to unpredictable consequences, Kolbert wonders if we need a more cautious approach, which she dubs "the control of the control of nature." The white sky of the title is but one example, one of several future possibilities blithely enumerated by a scientist pondering possible consequences of adding things to the atmosphere to block the sun, thus (maybe) cooling things down. Interestingly, she visits several physical models of ecosystems discussed over the course of the book, river deltas and coral reefs and desert lakes where scientists do in fact try to study ramifications of our actions, to control our control. 

In the Into the Wild section, she surveys Devils Hole pupfishes and Australian corals, and visits Nobel Prize winning biologist Jennifer Doudna to talk CRISPR - because why not add "change life itself" to the list of compounding hubristic happenings? (CRISPR, -- clustered regularly spaced short palindromic repeats -- are stretches of bacterial DNA used to find and edit specific bits of DNA in a cell. Get familiar with this.)

As if to underscore CRISPR's potential ease of use and proliferation, and despite just saying "I was struck, not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one," Kolbert purchases a DIY CRISPR kit(!). "By following the instructions that came in the box," she says, "I was able, over the course of a weekend, to create a novel organism."

I predict CRISPR will be the theme of her next book, unless she's dissuaded by the scores of other works on the topic currently available or sure to come.

COVID, more than likely from bats whose ecosystems we've changed. Record hurricane seasons. Even a massive ship stuck in the (man-made) Suez Canal, because -- wind. As eminent biologist and KU alum Paul Ehrlich famously said, "Nature bats last."

But here's the thing. We are part of nature. The control of nature means controlling ourselves.

What could go wrong?

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.