Despite its stubby length, the Chicago River has a tumultuous history. In the nineteenth century the river was Chicago’s open sewer: a thick sludge of muck and filth flowed from the city into Lake Michigan, Chicago’s only source of drinking water. In an effort to clear up Lake Michigan, a plan was devised to dig a vast canal that would reverse the Chicago River’s flow away from the lake and towards the nearby Des Plaines River and eventually, via the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico.
Opened in 1900, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal solved one problem only to set the stage for another mess later on. Less than 50 kilometres long, the canal connected for the first time two of America’s vast watersheds; the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes Basin. When Asian carp were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to clean up lakes and ponds, populations of the non-native fish quickly boomed and began creeping up the Mississippi to within 14 kilometres of the Great Lakes. If the invasive species manage to close that gap, scientists fear the impact on the Great Lakes’ ecosystem will be disastrous.
To keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, engineers and environmentalists have reached for a bewildering list of solutions: electric fences, poison, bubble barriers. The village of Bath, Illinois, holds an annual “redneck fishing tournament” where people are encouraged to don costumes and catch as many fish as possible, while avoiding getting a black eye from the carp which can jump several metres out of the water when threatened.
“First you reverse a river. Then you electrify it,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in her new book Under a White Sky. If Bill Gates’ recent book on climate change, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, paints a global picture of how we might mitigate environmental disasters, Kolbert tells us what happens when humans try and correct past mistakes. “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control,” she writes.
Under a White Sky follows on logically from 2014’s The Sixth Extinction, for which Kolbert won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. And as with The Sixth Extinction, her new book exhibits Kolbert’s sculptor-like skill for making climate change feel tangible, happening before our eyes and beneath our fingers. “I think the great challenge of writing about this extraordinary moment we live in [is that] you’re trying to bring home to people how incredible this time period is, and yet it can seem very abstract,” Kolbert tells me.
The idea for the Under a White Sky came from a trip to Hawaii for an article in The New Yorker. Kolbert was there to write about a scientist trying to breed so-called “super-coral” that could withstand rapidly warming and acidifying oceans. “That intervention to solve an intervention seemed to me really interesting,” she says. “I came home, I wrote the story and then I started to see that in a lot of situations and that’s how the book came into being.”
Although the subject matter is weighty – our relationship with nature and the future of the planet – there is a subtle comedy to Under a White Sky. Humans are, at times, woeful at predicting how their interventions in nature will turn out, and attempting to repair past wrongs can lead us into strange circumstances. In one chapter, Kolbert recounts the story of how cane toads, first introduced into Australia in 1935, quickly ended up decimating native species that hadn’t evolved to be wary of the toxic amphibians.
One solution to the cane toad crisis would be to introduce genetically-altered toads that would produce only male progeny; dramatically reducing their ability to reproduce. This approach, known as a gene-drive, is being explored as one way to bring an end to disease-carrying mosquito populations. For some, the prospect of tinkering with genomes in the wild might feel like a step too far. But perhaps this is all a matter of perspective. As one geneticist Kolbert speaks to in the book points out, humans are constantly moving genomes around the world, usually in the form of whole animals. Is shifting just one more gene really a step too far?
Answering that question might mean rethinking what we think of as nature. Human fingerprints are all over every ecosystem on the planet. There are microplastics in the deepest oceans and on the highest peaks. Half of all the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. “What’s got to be managed is not a nature that exists – or is imagined to exist – apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself,” Kolbert writes. Nature altered is not necessarily nature diminished.
Under a White Sky takes its name from one of the most drastic environmental interventions being touted today: releasing particles into the atmosphere in order to reflect back more of the Sun’s energy and reduce its heating effect. Pumping large quantities of calcite or diamond into the air would change the appearance of the sky itself, giving the sky over formerly pristine stretches of land a milkier hue more commonly associated with urban areas. But organising any meaningful geoengineering project is fraught with both scientific and political conundrums. “When you think about it, how do we make any global decision? Well, we don’t. It’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in,” Kolbert says.
Not every intervention is so dramatic. One chapter is devoted to the Devils Hole pupfish, an entire species found only in a single water-filled cavern in Nevada. The population is meticulously managed: four times a year every pupfish is counted, and a mile away another group of Devils Hole pupfish live in a fiberglass and Styrofoam facsimile of their natural habitat, filled with the same species of snails and algae found in the cavern. In the fake Devils Hole, there is one full-time fishkeeper for every thirteen fish.
In part, Under a White Sky is a book about the people who dedicate their lives and careers to stop one a slice of nature from falling away altogether. “You could sit back and say ‘we’re screwed’. Or you can take up arms against a sea of trouble, you can do your part, and I think they were all doing their part,” Kolbert says. Contemplating the future of our planet might mean recalibrating what we think of as nature, but it doesn’t mean giving up hope altogether. “If people imagine solving climate change to mean a return to the climate of the past, that ain’t happening,” Kolbert says. “But if they mean solving it to mean, let’s not make it worse, then that is possible.”
Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1
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