To say that Earth is in crisis is an understatement. “Atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication—these are just some of the by-products of our species’s success,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert warns us about in her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Kolbert has been studying the consequences of humanity’s impact on Earth for decades as a contributor to The New Yorker and as the author of such books as the 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sixth Extinction, an exploration of the concept of extinction that posits mankind as a cataclysm as great as the asteroid that annihilated the dinosaurs.
In Under a White Sky, Kolbert ponders the nature of the future by examining a new pattern she attributes to “the recursive logic of the Anthropocene”: human interventions attempting to answer for past human interventions in the environment. The book chronicles the casualties of short-sighted human meddling with the planet and its resources and the present-day efforts being made to address that meddling—or, as Kolbert puts it, efforts to “control the control of nature.” Interviews with scientists in a wide array of disciplines—climate scientists, climate entrepreneurs, biologists, glaciologists, and geneticists—reveal a trend of projects aiming to transform nature in order to save it. From the Mojave to lava fields in Iceland, Kolbert takes readers on a globe-spanning journey to explore these projects while weighing their pros, cons, and ethical implications (the book’s title refers to the way the sky could be bleached of color as a potential side effect of solar geoengineering, one of the proposed interventions to combat global warming). “The issue, at this point,” Kolbert writes, “is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end?”
I spoke to Kolbert over the phone the day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. We talked about what it’s like to write a book about a big question you don’t yet have the answer to, and what it will take to undo the environmental damage incurred during the Trump years.
NE: The book visits project sites in Iceland, Australia, New Orleans, and the deserts of California and Nevada. What drew you to the projects you write about?
EK: The first project that got me started down this whole path was the “super coral” project, which is currently in Hawaii and partly in Australia. As the oceans warm, corals are having a lot of trouble surviving. We get these coral-bleaching events that I’m sure people have heard about. Some scientists were looking at how we can save coral reefs and the idea they came up with was that we need to intervene and try to coax along evolution so that these creatures can survive climate change. That struck me as a really interesting project, and got me thinking about this question of, Can we intervene to redress our own interventions? Once I started seeing that pattern, I started to see it everywhere. I could have gone to many different parts of the world and written stories that made the same point, but the projects that I went to were emblematic in some way. They were taking on different issues like climate change or invasive species, the loss of wetlands—the list goes on.
NE: Did any of these efforts—be it the Harvard team trying to combat global warming by firing diamonds into the stratosphere or the group looking to reduce rodent populations with genetic manipulation—convince you that our best chance of averting climate apocalypse really is to “control the control of nature”? Are we digging ourselves out of a hole or just digging a deeper one?
EK: You know, you have identified the question at the center of the book. That is a question that I don’t claim to answer. I’m not a prophet. I’m really trying to tease out that question in the book. Look at it, and have some fun with it, to be honest, and get people to think about the pattern. In many cases, these solutions are working to a certain extent. New Orleans would not exist without massive human intervention to solve the problems of water. In New Orleans—a city that’s essentially significantly below sea level—it turns out you need flooding to keep the land from subsiding even further because that’s actually what built the land, the flooding that dropped a lot of sediment across the Mississippi Delta over many millennia. Are you getting into a trap when you pile these interventions on top of each other? Do you have alternatives? These are the big questions of our time.
NE: I’d like to talk about your feelings about the popular phrase for the geological epoch we’re living in, the Anthropocene. In 2017 you gave a lecture at Manhattan’s New School, in which you said, “Thinking scientifically about man’s place in the world used to mean acknowledging our insignificance.” This new human-centered term, “the age of man,” completely upends that. Can you talk about your feelings about the term and what it means for how we think about our relationship to the Earth?
EK: I think we are at this interesting turning point that’s on some level been the subject of all the books I’ve written, and a lot of the articles as well. We first decentered humans, right? It wasn’t that the sun revolved around the Earth, it was that the Earth revolved around the sun. There’s a lot of these discoveries that have proved people are not the center of the universe, but then we get to the present moment, where we do have to acknowledge that we are becoming the dominant force in many very essential ways. We have to acknowledge that and, on some level, take responsibility for that. This term, the Anthropocene, is kind of a shorthand for all the ways that humans are affecting the Earth on what is sometimes called a geological scale. We are changing the carbon cycle very dramatically, we’re changing the nitrogen cycle, we’re acidifying the ocean. We’ve even got to the point where we regularly cause earthquakes. We are definitely driving evolution; we are probably driving speciation. We are at this moment of tremendous human impact and we need to rise to that challenge of thinking about what we want the world to look like now that we are such a dominant force.
NE: In the book, you take note of the way the scientists you speak to encode a sense of moral urgency into their analysis of the climate crisis, which is something I feel present in contemporary climate reporting too. You’ve been on the climate beat for decades. Have you felt a shift in the work? Do you feel like you now have an agenda when you write?
EK: There’s definitely been a shift in the sense that, when I started out almost 20 years ago, there was still, among a lot of pretty knowledgeable people, a lot of confusion. What is climate change? Is it real? Do I have to worry about it? The conversation has moved dramatically, at least in a big chunk of the US and a big chunk of the world. But I do not consider myself an advocate. I’m a journalist and I try to report stories that I think illuminate the situation that we’re in. I’ve thought about, you know, Should I be writing some sort of prescriptive journalism? But that’s not really me.
NE: At the end of that same 2017 lecture you conclude, “We are the fate of Earth.” You call humans ethical agents and say that we’re failing as ethical agents if we don’t acknowledge our impact.
EK: Yes, I certainly stand by those words. I mean, this book is on the one hand grappling with, on the other hand sort of playing around with, those questions. Our impact on the planet and the untold number of other species with whom we share the planet and whom we frankly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about—and don’t even understand to a great extent—I think will come to be seen as one of the great tragedies and the great ethical failings of humanity.
NE: So many of the things you discuss in the book were set in motion long before the 2016 election, but it’s hard to overstate what a setback the last four years of the Trump administration have been for the climate. An analysis from The New York Times cites over 100 environmental protections Trump reversed concerning areas like wetland and wildlife protection, and air and water pollution. In his inauguration speech yesterday, President Biden talked about answering the “cry for survival” Earth was letting out, and he immediately signed an order to rejoin the Paris climate accord. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on what your job is going to look like under the Biden administration, and if you think we dodged some kind of metaphorical asteroid?
EK: I think what Trump did was egregious. It was an attempt to set us off completely on the wrong trajectory. It’s a very complicated situation legally because now a lot of regulations will have to be rewritten. It’s going to occupy the EPA for years, unfortunately. That’s very sad and just a waste of time and of human effort, when we should be doing a lot of other things. But, you know, there are great forces at work here and fortunately some of those continue to go in the right direction, like the tremendous decrease in prices of wind power and solar power that continued despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to try to undermine renewable power. One could spend the next four years doing nothing but looking at the legal ins and outs of trying to undo that, and I think that that would be a noble thing to do. What I’m thinking about are—I don’t want to call them bigger questions, but they’re the questions of our human impact on the planet, which are not going to change because Joe Biden suddenly rejoined the Paris Agreement, unfortunately.