Book review

Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert: book review

My review of Elizabeth Kolbert's new book about how scientists seek to save the planet from the damage humanity caused.

This is my review of the new book by the New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, titled “Under a White Sky- The Nature of the Future“.

Kolbert’s previous book “The Sixth Extinction” won the Pulitzer Prize, it was praised by Barack Obama, Al Gore, Bill Gates and other important people. You can sure guess what The Sixth Extinction was about, and the new book is a kind of sequel to it, describing the tehcnological solutions scientists are developing to fix various aspects of the Anthropocene disasters: from saving dying corals over controlling invasive species, to carbon capture and global geoengineering. Hence the title, because there are men of science (yes, men) who want to shoot tiny aerosol particles into the stratosphere to block out the sun and decrease the global temperature. As a side effect, that is expected to turn the sky white instead of blue.

Kolbert is however often critical of the projects and plans she writes about, likely she spoke to other scientists who were afraid to go on record themselves. This is academia for you, spout any fantasy garbage and you will get the media and investors begging for audience, but stick your head out in criticism of a mighty peer and it will be chopped. I do wish though Kolbert cited the critics instead of the bullshitters. But alas, even the nutcase “biohacker” Josiah Zayner is taken seriously, Kolbert went so far as to purchase a do-it-yourself gene-engineering kit from his company.

Overall, it is an interesting book, even though the author is in my view a bit naive about the might and honesty of science, but then again so are all proper science journalists.

I personally noticed the certain kind of gender difference and I feel it might be representative. Two female scientists (Ruth Gates (deceased) and Madeleine van Oppen) are described whose labs work on breeding stress-resistant corals, with occasionally gene-engineered symbiotic algae, which would be seeded where the native corals died due to increased water temperatures and acidity, courtesy of the anthropogenic CO2 pollution. Many scientists fear the total demise of coral reefs in the very near future, labs like these try to speed up the evolution. This may or may not work out to save the coral reefs and all the countless dependent marine species from extinction, maybe the scale of destruction is too big for any technical solution, maybe the wild corals out there are also evolving. But at least this is reasonable and potentially applicable science.

The men in the book however think on much gander schemes, funded by many millions in public and investor money: like the global sun-dimming project with stratospheric particle aerosols for example, pushed by visionaries like Frank Keutsch, David Keith, Dan Schrag or Sir David King. Complete bollocks, Kolbert’s book even cautiously explains that it wouldn’t work long term even if it worked short-term (I personally doubt the latter also). Or carbon capture, another popular playground of male geniuses. One of these, the US-based engineering professor Klaus Lackner, openly says that it would be wrong to ask humanity to change its ways, instead we can happily burn fossil fuels as usual, because restricting our lifestyles would be unfair, and compensate by capturing carbon using his amazing genius technology.

Of course it is not enough to capture carbon, it needs to be stored somewhere. There is a Swiss start-up which sells you the good consciousness of offseting your own carbon footprint. Basically, you invest into the pumping of atmospheric CO2 (dissolved in water) deep underground into Iceland’s basalt rock, where it would mineralize into limestone. Kolbert even bought a subscription with this business, even though all her long-time payments didn’t even cover her flight to visit the geothermal power station with CO2-capturing device in Iceland and the company in Switzerland. The journalist flew a lot for her book, to various parts of US, Australia, Greenland, often just to look at things.

There are however not that many suitable geological deposits to pump carbonated water into, so where the energy for carbon capture, shipment and pumping would come from is something Kolbert is concerned about, but not the genius scientists and entrepreneurs she interviewed. I was surprised Kolbert never once used the term green-washing, because this is what it all looks like.

Another weird project Kolbert mentioned in passing is to plant trees (great idea in itself), but then to cut them all down, bury the trunks underground so they fossilise into coal, plant new trees again, cut down and bury them too, and so on. This sounds both lumberjack-manly and visionary-sciency, only that such industrial monoculture forests are currently dying because of the climate change, and the only forests surviving are the ones where trees (including dead ones) are left to themselves. Where they actually capture lots of CO2, but also release some from rotting wood, hence such forests are evil. Also, there is no chop-chop dig-dig high-tech in it, hence boring to the men who push for unorthodox solutions.

The book is about humans trying to fix the damage they themselves caused. Sometimes the humans are trying to fix the damage they caused by trying to fix another damage previously. Kolbert writes about land and river engineering projects where rivers were diverted and cities like New Orleans were built where cities should not have been built in the first place. In the case of the latter, engineers are pumping gravel from one corner of the Mississippi delta to another, to prevent human settlements from going under (imagine the energy costs of that!). And some spots of diverted rivers in USA are now electrified, anything swimming there will be zapped to death. That’s because humans for some reason intentionally intorduced the four species of Asian carp into US waters, which, thanks to all the rerouted and connected waterways, threaten to invade everywhere and replace the native US fish.

Although personally I don’t think there are any invasive species, except one: Homo sapiens. Animals and plants cannot be blamed for our own invasion and destruction of natural habitats. Most species become “invasive” because they are the best adapted to the screwed-up and toxic environment humans have created. Maybe the Asian carp are simply the most tolerant to pesticides and other pollution, and thank you humans for getting rid of all predators?

Never mind. There are solutions to solutions being proposed. First, some seek to train the US humans to eat the bony Asian carp, but that invasive species is picky and prefers farmed beef, chicken and salmon instead. Hence, genetic engineering to the rescue?

Awestruck, Kolbert tells you in another chapter about the mighty tool of gene drive (e.g., where a dominantly-transmitted deleterious gene causes sterility or mortality of the progeny) which men of science like Paul Thomas are keen to deploy right away in Australia. They do warn their gene-drive GMO rodents could eliminate all the mice on the entire planet if unchecked, but no worries, further genetic engineering will fix that problem with a built-in switch or whatever.

Well, the real problem of gene drive Kolbert does not discuss is not that it would be too successful exterminating mice or mosquitoes. It’s that it could end up jumping to related species while the main target pest would easily evolve genetic resistance, thanks to its sheer numbers. Evolution is a very powerful force humans can’t match, as Kolbert herself notes. Problem is that ecologically vulnerable wild species are so threatened already from climate change, habitat destruction and pollution, that they might not survive another attack from humans, even well-meant one.

The scientists in Kolbert’s book however demand the immediate release of GMOs right now to deal with invasive species. Cooper’s colleague Mark Tizard is also very insistent, he is quoted in the book praising his less-toxic GMO cane toads which would train the few surviving Northern quolls in Australia not to eat them them in order to avoid a lethal poisoning from wild-type toads. But maybe the poisonous toads are the quoll’s smallest among its human-imposed problems?

Maybe the geneticists are right and their GMO releases will be successful. Maybe it won’t work at all. Maybe we will end up with even more species extinction but with mutant super-pests instead, like the unexpected glyphosate-resistant weeds growing on the endless GMO crop fields, otherwise devoid of all plant and animal life. Kolbert does not discuss that, she is too impressed by the boyishly adventurous promises of genetic engineering.

And of course, there is the opposite concern of saving the animals and occasional plants which humans almost drove to extinction. Kolbert tells of her visits to the Nevada desert where the few dozens of remaining pupfish, which live or used to live as separate species in separate water caverns, are being rescued in a gigantic operation. That’s because humans are pumping off the underground water since this invasive species is evolved to require swimming pools, casino fountains and lush golf resorts for its survival in the desert.

Having read the book, I am not sure Kolbert really believes the promise that geoengineering and GMO technology have the power to save the planet. She does quote scientists sternly explaining that there are no alternatives, that by now a reduction or even a total stop to fossil fuels right away would be pointless to slow down the climate change. A combination of convenience, defeatism and blind belief in technology. But maybe Kolbert could have talked to other scientists more, like those without a commercial conflict of interest.

I wish she would have presented more realistic approaches, even if those are boring – like re-forestation, especially in the cities, or god forbid, changes to our lifestyles, like public transport or eating less meat. But that kind of pedestrian science is bad at drawing grants and investments.

This often referenced attitude “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it is just arrogant. Humans are good only at destroying things, our tinkering so far never helped the planet, just ourselves, and only in short term. Long term we often made things much worse. We are the stupid invasive species which seeks cures for diseases often caused by our own pollution, which evolves fuel-efficient cars only to build those cars ever bigger so the fuel consumption actually keeps growing, which convinced itself that single-use plastics are 100% recyclable while happily dumping them out of sight all the way into the oceans, and which keeps drilling for oil so the cheap weekend flights to the beach bars remain cheap. We are that scientifically advanced that we may have even accidentally unleashed a pandemic upon ourselves, which we treat with one fraudulent quack cure after another, and we learn exactly zero from our errors.

We love animals so much that our livestock’s biomass is many times higher than the mass of all other land animals. But farm animals are better anyway: we munch hotdogs while driving our offspring in SUVs to bucolic petting zoos past past our enormous meat farms where those same piglets and chickens are being tortured and fed with GMO crops from the destroyed Amazon, all of this destroying the planet. The biggest land animal on the planet outside of a zoo will soon be the cow, and for the seas we have a clever self-deluding strategy also, because we invented the fraudulent oxymoron of “sustainable fisheries”.

But to be fair, Kolbert is an expert in all this, here again reference to her book The Sixth Extinction. She also compared the human race to the gods Loki and Saturn who mostly destroy and devour things. So yes, we got very good at being that kind of gods. And we have the fancy technology to make things even worse, how cool is that.

There is a peculiar chapter in the book which doesn’t quite fit. Kolbert flew to Greenland to visit a ice core research drilling station, no planet-changing technology to present there. So Kolbert tells us of the scientific discovery that up until 10k years ago, the Earth climate was very unstable, extreme temperature jumps back and forth were common, and that the Earth seems to revert to that kind of climate instability. This may be the case, but what message does it send to the climate change debate? That what we experience is out of our control anyway? Out of our hands, no point of trying? I was left confused.

Maybe Kolbert wants to remain hopeful, reassuring us that even if the problems human activities caused are horrendous and unsolvable by standard means, science is working on fixing them with fantastically powerful high tech, like geoengineering and GMOs. But science is neither that powerful nor is it an aloof unbiased voice of reason up there in the ivory tower, even if science journalists tend to believe otherwise. Science, like everything else, is an integral part of its given society, politics and economy, and this is why only such scientists will be heard who promise to deliver what the public, governments or the market demands. Science is always the mirror of policies.

Kolbert herself references the old insane nature-conquering plans of Soviet science, like those of a Bering Straight dam to warm the Arctic and make it arable, which just happened to be the exact expectation of Stalin’s regime. It was the science was delivered weapons of mass destruction, eugenics and race theories. Nazi Germany also relied on scientists, people tend to forget that.

These days, we choose to listen to the scientists and entrepreneurs who promise to GMO-design the plants and animals into climatic resilience, capture and bury the carbon dioxide, and to cool the Earth by dimming the sun, so we can largely continue with our lifestyles as before. We are prone to ignore scientists who say that an urgent reform of society and economy is needed instead. Yet and as Kolbert notes, geoengineering and carbon capture is exactly what the UNO climate panel already settled to anticipate in its prognoses.

If I were fossil fuel industry, I would switch from pay-rolling climate change denialism and instead lavishly fund this kind of scientists and their green-washing startups. Maybe the fossil fuel industry did that many years ago. And no journalist has noticed.

Disclaimer: As usual, I received no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the books gratis from the publisher upon request


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1 comment on “Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert: book review

  1. Indianscienceguy

    Excellent review. The last two paragraphs say everything.

    Like

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