Elizabeth Kolbert’s earlier book, The Sixth Extinction was ground-breaking, not because it described the consequences of climate change in the 21st Century, but because it put modern climate change into the context of similar events in the past 500 million years of life on Earth. Although the current episode of climate change is man-made, five previous mass extinctions were natural events. What past extinction events have in common with the sixth extinction is the inevitable consequence of such changes in climate: when the climate changes, all life on Earth changes with it. Plants and animals will adapt, change, or they will go extinct as they have for 500 million years. (1)
Kolbert’s new book, Under a White Sky, turns the page on this cataclysmic event in the Earth’s history to focus on the efforts being made to control nature to address environmental problems, including climate change. To say that Kolbert is skeptical of those efforts is to understate her critical evaluation of them.
In 1990, I was introduced to the human delusion that we can control nature by John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. His book had a profound influence on my thinking about nature. It was the basis for my belief that attempts to turn back the botanical clock to 500 years ago to a pre-settlement landscape, mistakenly believed to be pristine, are futile, misguided, and often damaging. Kolbert’s latest book is written from the same perspective as McPhee’s seminal work and she gives him credit for his pioneering work.
McPhee’s book predicted the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina in 2005. Human engineering of the Mississippi River for over 100 years set the stage for that disaster. New Orleans sits at the Gulf end of the Mississippi River. Historically, the river flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf, accumulating sediment along its way and depositing it as it entered the Gulf, fanning out into streams and swamps that created the Mississippi Delta. The labyrinth of land and marsh created by the sediment deposited by the river created a barrier that protected New Orleans from storms.
However, the uncontrolled and episodic flow of the river caused periodic flooding that was not convenient for the human inhabitants of New Orleans and the Delta community. So, the flow of the river was controlled by levees and pumps were used to return water from the land to the river. Sediment from the river could no longer replenish the land because it was confined to the constrained river, which put the human engineers onto a never-ending treadmill of building higher levees and bigger pumps. It was inevitable that the river would eventually overwhelm the defenses built by the engineers and so it did during Katrina in 2005.
Kolbert updates this untenable situation in the Mississippi Delta in her new book. The underlying cause, as told by McPhee is recapped by Kolbert. Then new manmade environmental issues are added to the catastrophic circumstances that will inevitably doom the human inhabitants. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are one factor. The incursion of salt water into fresh water swamps killed vegetation that acts as a buffer during storms. Oil and gas exploration and extraction in the Delta has caused the land to drop further.
Many Delta communities and some neighborhoods in New Orleans have been abandoned because they are essentially underwater. Since Katrina, no serious effort has been made to change the approach to the issues. Bigger, more powerful pumps have been built and levees have been made higher and stronger. No one is seriously considering the need to relocate New Orleans or surrounding communities to higher ground. The delusion that humans can outsmart the river continues.
A comedy of errors
Kolbert introduces the many projects that are trying to solve problems that were created by bad decisions made earlier by other humans with a quote from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” These wise words from a wise man are clearly not being heeded by the masterminds of the projects Kolbert describes in her book:
- High on the list of projects in which society is heavily investing is the attempt to prevent carp from entering the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River. After many different approaches were tried and failed, the current strategy is an electrified fence separating the Chicago River (connecting to the Mississippi River) from Lake Michigan that kills untold thousands of fish every day. This deadly project is the end stage of previous bad decisions. A link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River was created by a massive engineering project that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1887. Later, carp was introduced to the Mississippi River from China as biological control to address pollution issues. One species of carp was introduced to control aquatic weeds and another carp species was introduced to consume nutrients in sewage ponds. Kolbert says such biological controls became popular after Silent Spring was published because Rachel Carson considered pesticides a curse and biological control a panacea. (Which is not to say that pesticides aren’t a curse.) In other words, we traded one problem for another.
- Island eradications of introduced mammals such as rats and mice are also popular projects (with some people). Genetic engineering is being aggressively pursued as a possible substitute for the rodenticides that are being used for these projects. These projects have the potential to drive an entire species into extinction or alter their physiology such that they could become killers or prevent them from being killers. Kolbert buys a genetic engineering kit for $209 from a young entrepreneur in Oakland that enables her to make E.coli cells resistant to an antibiotic. E.coli is a deadly bacteria that can be fatal if untreated by antibiotics. In other words, anyone with $209 can turn bacteria into killers with no special training or equipment. What could possibly go wrong, Kolbert asks rhetorically.
The promise and threat of geoengineering
Kolbert visits several different geoengineering projects that are trying to prevent the consequences of climate change without reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the underlying cause of climate change. One such project is turning CO₂ into stone. Apparently it CAN be done, but to do it on a scale that would actually prevent climate change would be to devote much of the surface of the Earth to that purpose.
Kolbert visits a project that believes injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to block the sun is the best bet to stop climate change. The proposal strikes Kolbert as both preposterous and dangerous. The researcher detects her skepticism and retorts, “People think of all the bad examples of environmental modification. They forget all the ones that are more or less working. There’s a weed, tamarisk, originally from Egypt. It’s spread all around the desert Southwest and has been destructive. After a bunch of trials, they imported some bug that eats the tamarisk, and apparently it’s kind of working.”
In fact, the introduced tamarisk beetle is working too well. It has spread far beyond the regions where it was introduced and produced wastelands of dead trees in Arizona and Southern California. Since one of the rarest desert birds depends upon tamarisk there isn’t much to celebrate about this over-achiever beetle.
Compounding the problem
Instead of addressing the source of environmental issues, we compound them by creating new problems with our theoretical “fixes.” The native plant movement, in their zeal to save native plants, sprays herbicides that kill as many native plants as non-native plants and poison the soil while doing so, stunting all new growth, both native and non-native.
I share Kolbert’s skepticism about the projects she describes for the same reasons she gives. Every “fix” has the potential to create new problems that could be more disastrous than the problems they are meant to resolve. And the resources used to develop new techniques such as massive geoengineering projects could be used instead to address the underlying cause of the problem, which is the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. We don’t want to give up our fossil-fuel driven economy, so instead we conjure up even more damaging ways to ameliorate the inconveniences of climate change. It’s a fantasy that prolongs and exacerbates the consequences of climate change.
Finally, let’s give Kolbert the last word: “This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems…Geoengineering may be ‘entirely crazy and quite disconcerting,’ but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of ‘the pain and suffering away,’ or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered?…But to imagine that ‘dimming the fucking sun’ could be less dangerous than not dimming it, you have to imagine not only that the technology will work according to plan but it will be deployed according to plan. And that’s a lot of imagining…But let’s just say the record here isn’t strong.” (2)
Thank you, Elizabeth Kolbert, for calling out the grand delusions of humans who mistakenly believe it is possible to control nature to avoid inconveniencing human society.
- Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, Henry Holt and Co., 2014
- Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky, Crown New York, 2021