Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future – Elizabeth Kolbert

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Elizabeth Kolbert is to environmental journalism what Norman Borlaug was to the agricultural revolution. Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, “The Sixth Extinction” could be placed on the same pedestal as Rachel Carson’s immortal conscience awakening work “Silent Spring”, in so far environmental awareness and revolution are concerned. While Silent Spring poignantly pulled the lid over the pernicious impact of DDT and other pesticides on the ecology, “The Sixth Extinction” brought to bear with brute force the imperilment that the “Anthropocene” era brought along, as its handmaiden.

Kolbert is back again at her seraphic best, exquisitely blending wisdom and wit with wistfulness in her latest work, “Under a White Sky”. Kolbert in this concise book (just under 210 pages), illustrates a few instances of innovative endeavours instituted by man to resolve climate issues, which in the first place were created, courtesy ingenious plans implemented by man himself! In Kolbert’s own words, this is a book, “about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”

“Under The White Sky” is divided into three parts: Down The River; Into The Wild, and Up in the Air. Down The River begins with Kolbert making a boat trip, traversing up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The main purpose of the trip is to inspect electric barriers put in place by The United States Army Corps of Engineers to keep away the invasive breed of Asian Carp fish from the river. But how did this particular breed of fish that is considered to be a delicacy in China, reach the shores of the United States? Asian carp were imported into the Mississippi River basin in the 1960s as a biological Weed Wacker to control invasive plants. But the cleanser turned out to be the most consummate predator. Both consuming and conceiving with a vengeance, the carp wreaked havoc voraciously, “outcompeting the native fish until they’re practically all that’s left.” As Kolbert informs her reader, “be careful what you wish for. Atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication-these are just some of the by-products of our species’ success.”

From the Mississippi river, Kolberg sets off to New Orleans. Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has what seems like an insurmountable task ahead of it. Plaquemines, a parish with a population of 23,042 as per the latest census of 2010 has the distinction—a dubious one, at best—of being among the fastest-disappearing places on earth. “A few years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially retired thirty-one Plaquemines place names, including Bay Jacquin and Dry Cypress Bayou, because there was no there anymore. And what’s happening to Plaquemines is happening all along the coast. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has shrunk by more than two thousand square miles. If Delaware or Rhode Island had lost that much territory, America would have only forty-nine states. Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land. Every few minutes, it drops a tennis court’s worth.”

“Into the Wild” has one of the most interesting and thought provoking chapters in the book. The Devils Hole pupfish’s (Cyprinodon diabolis), entire population is restricted to a single desert pool in Nevada. With a view to preventing the Devils Hole pupfish from being driven to extinction, researchers have constructed a $4.5 million simulacrum of the Devil’s Pool to accommodate a backup population. This imitation that impersonates the minutest intricacies of the original pool, warrants constant caretaking. But the conservation of the Devils Hole pupfish, as Kolbert illustrates has not always been an exercise in conscious foresight. In January 1952, President Harry S. Truman added Devils Hole to Death Valley National Park. Truman envisaged the protection of “peculiar race of desert fish” that lived in the “remarkable underground pool” and “nowhere else in the world.” as meriting the utmost priority. But that very spring, the Department of Defense detonated eight nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site, about fifty miles north of Devils Hole. The following spring, it detonated eleven more bombs. These nuclear tests were directly at cross purposes with the proclamation of conservation of an endangered species. To make matters worse, an egregious developer named Francis Cappaert, nursing a dream of transforming the desert into an alfalfa paradise, began pumping water from the aquifer. The water level in Devils Hole began a dangerous trend of depletion. By the end of 1970, the pupfish’s spawning area had shrunk to the size of a galley kitchen.

Up In The Air deals with urgent efforts instituted or proposed to be implemented in the realm of geoengineering to suck CO2 out of the air. This logic of “negative emissions” has found favours with many physicists and geoengineers, prominent among them being Klaus Lackner of the Arizona State University, and David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard. Although sounding outlandish, some of the geoengineering methods proposed by its advocates seem to be part of the scanty arsenal available to humanity to reduce Carbon emissions. Just consider this proposal that has at its nub the employ of machines called, “auxons.” To paraphrase Kolbert, “The auxons would be powered by solar panels and, as they multiplied, they’d produce more solar panels, which they’d assemble using elements, like silicon and aluminum, extracted from ordinary dirt. The expanding collection of panels would produce ever more power, at a rate that would increase exponentially. An array covering three hundred eighty-six thousand square miles, an area as large as Nigeria but, as Lackner noted, “smaller than many deserts,” could meet all the globe’s electricity demands many times over. This same array could also be put to use scrubbing carbon.

An even more fantastic suggestion is the use of specialised custom made aircrafts flying at extraordinarily  high altitudes (as high as 60,000 feet) to inject Aerosols into the stratosphere.  Dubbed a Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Lofter, or SAIL, these aircraft would entail development costs would of about $2.5 billion. Deploying a fleet of SAILs would cost another $20 billion or so per decade.

Kolbert illustrates with astounding perspicacity both the enormity of the global warming challenges staring humanity squarely in the face and the woefully inadequate tools and techniques available to counter them. Paradoxically, the more absurd a proposed solution, the more is the compulsion to adopt the same and adapt to it. From shooting diamonds into the sky (literally) to replicate the cooling effects of a gargantuan volcanic eruption to CRISPR technologies to engineer genes of invasive species which once were touted to be of indispensable value, our tryst with the environment surrounding us has been a Quixotic comedy of errors. But we as a species have transcended the realms of tolerable experimentation and progressed into the touchy terrain of tyrannical extinction. We have succeeded beyond imagination in driving so many species to their extinction, that we are forced to resort to the only method of “assisted evolution” to least preserve the breed that are still living and breathing. “As for the forms of assistance they rely on, these, too, are legion. They include, in addition to supplemental feeding and captive breeding: double-clutching, head starting, enclosures, exclosures, managed burns, chelation, guided migration, hand-pollination, artificial insemination, predator-avoidance training, and conditioned taste aversion. Every year, this list grows.”

And as Kolberg somberly reminds us, we are still none the wiser in our deeds, or rather misdeeds.