In her 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert explored how humanity has driven scores of species to extinction. In her new follow-up, Under a White Sky, the journalist seeks solutions to the havoc we’ve wrought.
Kolbert meets with scientists, engineers, and other experts around the world to discuss their plans to counteract ecological destruction caused by human development, pollution, and climate change. The book is an eye-opening—and at times terrifying—examination of just how far scientists have already gone in their attempts to re-engineer the planet.
She speaks with members of the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, who are trying to keep the city from sinking. In Australia, she meets with marine biologists who are working to speed up the evolution of coral so that the animals are more resistant to warming oceans. In a chapter about solar geoengineering—a theoretical practice involving spewing reflective particles into the stratosphere to partially block the sun—we learn that scientific modeling for the idea is already underway.
Underscoring the book is the question of whether humans should be doing any of this. After all, large companies and government entities razing the natural world for profit is what got us into the intertwined messes of climate change and the extinction crisis. But for many of these experts, humans have little choice but to keep mucking with nature—we’ve already changed it too much to stop now. As Andy Parker, project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, told Kolbert, “we live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.”
Earther spoke with Kolbert about her new book. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Amy Brady, Earther: Each of your chapters takes readers to a different locale around the world, where you speak with a variety of experts about their research. What do their projects have in common?
Elizabeth Kolbert: The idea for the book came after visiting Hawaii, where I was reporting on a project for the New Yorker nicknamed the Super Coral Project. It was initiated by a dynamic woman named Ruth Gates, who tragically passed away a couple years ago. The aim of the project was to see if scientists could speed up the evolution of coral so that they could cope with rapidly rising ocean temperatures that are a result of climate change. Humans had tampered with the geophysics of the Earth, and now we—I use “we” loosely—had to re-engineer coral reefs so they could deal with the consequences of what we’ve done. This was an extraordinary idea to me, and as I researched [other projects], I started seeing a pattern. We keep messing around with physical, geological, biological systems, and the way we deal with the consequences is by imposing other layers of reengineering on top of that. Each chapter explores a different example of how people are thinking about this problem.
Earther: That pattern is certainly evident in your chapter on New Orleans. Before reading Under a White Sky, I thought I had a basic understanding of the roles that levees play in that city, as well as the risks they pose. But your book explains that the levees actually pose even larger problems.
Kolbert: New Orleans was built on a former swamp, this low ground right next to the Mississippi River. Before the French arrived in the 18th century, the river would overflow its banks virtually every spring, depositing particles of silt. The biggest particles were dropped close to the river, and as the water spread out, smaller particles were carried outward. So the highest land is, counter intuitively, right next to the river, and that’s where the French started building. As the levees went up, the natural process of land building was stopped. Today, most of that silt goes shooting off the continental shelf, and New Orleans has become one of the fastest sinking cities on earth. The Army Corps is trying to create newly engineered breaches in the levees so they can take some of that silt and pour it back on to the land. But that is very complicated to do because people are living there. I love New Orleans, it is a wonderful city. But geologically speaking, we’re just trying to buy time.
Earther: Your book includes a, frankly, terrifying chapter on gene editing. You write about how invasive species are destabilizing ecosystems around the world. One solution scientists have put forth is to edit the genes of a few specimens and release them into the wild with the hope that they would eliminate or at least minimize their species’ populations. What could go wrong?
Kolbert: [Laughs.] What you’re referring to is something called a suppression drive. But there’s a little to unpack first. We’re talking about a technology, or process, that has become possible only very recently, owing to CRISPR, which is an extremely powerful gene-editing tool. It was invented by two women who won the Nobel Prize. CRISPR can let you do all kinds of precise gene editing—disable genes, or even replace a sequence in a gene. Taking that one step further, you can engineer something called a gene drive. A driving gene passes itself on more than 50% of the time. This allows scientists to do more than change the genes of a single specimen—they can change the genes of its offspring.
Scientists have already created mosquitoes that have certain genetic tweaks that render their offspring infertile or will drive the populations to zero to stop the passing of malaria. The mosquitoes are kept in cages in Italy, and there are people, who for very honorable reasons, want to release them in Africa. I think that the question of whether they should be released will be divisive. The folks I spoke to in Australia for the book are trying to create a gene drive in a mouse that would render the rodent capable of producing only male offspring. This would cause the population’s reproductive capacity to shrink and eventually evaporate. [The mice] are an invasive species there and can be tremendously destructive to natural wildlife. Current attempts to eliminate them include the use of poison, which has its own problems.
Earther: Could we see these gene-edited animals in the wild in our lifetimes?
Kolbert: Absolutely. Of course, the people who are creating these animals are even more aware than we are of the dangers they could pose. If just one is released, it could, in theory, eliminate mice in the world. The gene would just spread and spread and there’d be no stopping it. Some scientists have also tried to develop a gene drive that wears out after a few generations, or is attached to a variant of a gene found in a single population. But we’re still going to have to answer a lot of questions about whether we want to go in that direction.
Earther: Your book gets its name from your chapter on solar geoengineering. Before reading Under a White Sky, I thought this was a very new idea, even futuristic. But solar geoengineering actually dates to at least the 1960s.
Kolbert: Yes, it was mentioned in the very first report to President Johnson that raised an alarm about climate change. Those scientists recognized that climate change is a danger, but for reasons I don’t quite understand, instead of recommending ways to stop emissions, they immediately jumped to the idea of re-engineering the world. They came up with the idea to create a bunch of reflective particles and spread them out over a large part of the ocean to reflect sunlight back into space.
That idea has never gotten anywhere. But an idea that has gained traction is to imitate volcanoes. A volcanic eruption throws up a lot of gases that are called aerosols, tiny reflective droplets that float around in the stratosphere for a year or two. By imitating them, we’ll throw up a lot of sulfur or something else—there’s debate on what the materials should be—to basically block sunlight and counteract what we’re doing to the atmosphere. Some scientists are saying it’s a great idea, and some will say it’s a “broad highway to hell.”
Earther: Do most experts believe that solar geoengineering is too dangerous to attempt? Or is it becoming a more accepted idea?
Kolbert: I hesitate to speak for the expert community, but I will say that we will see more and more money—we are already seeing government appropriations—going to this. So, I think it’s going to be increasingly talked about. While there are many, many scientists adamantly opposed to the idea, there are many who say we need to look more seriously at it, because of our inaction, or inadequate action, on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Earther: Your book makes it abundantly clear that the proposed solutions to correct the problems caused by humans are far from perfect. Are you hopeful for the future?
Kolbert: I think that Americans are a very hopeful people. We pride ourselves on our optimism and can-do spirit. But I’d argue at the same time that the biggest cause of these problems is us [Americans] are certainly the historically biggest contributor to climate change. So, being optimistic and causing a lot of damage isn’t mutually exclusive. I think that hopefulness and optimism aren’t really the issue. The question is, what actions will we take?
Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books.