14 February 2021

Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Posted by Callan Bentley

Elizabeth Kolbert’s third book is now out! Under a White Sky is “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” These problems are environmental problems – they are instances of nature becoming less natural. As humans build cities and plant crops and make waste, we alter the world we live on, the ecology we live within. In Kolbert’s previous book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction, she examined ongoing crises with ocean acidification, invasive species, and novel diseases, all set against the geologic context of extinction, and the causes of mass extinction trauma in Earth’s deep history. Under a White Sky continues that work, but the direction of Kolbert’s gaze is different. The new book’s attention is focused instead on attempts to intentionally alter the future. From genetic engineering to pest control and nurturing of endangered species to carbon capture and solar radiation management, she examines strategies being taken by some humans in our world to try and make the planet of tomorrow better than it would otherwise be. Like all of her writing, the new book strikes a readable balance of background, reportorial anecdote, interviews with leading thinkers, and clever wordplay. It’s a delight to read, informative across a wide range of anthropogenic environmental issues and various attempts at solutions. This is a book about the Chicago River, the Devil’s Hole pupfish, the Greenland ice sheet, and calcite filling basaltic amygdules. It’s about coral spawning and gene drives and forest albedo and volcanic eruptions, and how all of these things are case studies in the human control of nature, in the continued existence of human civilization on this planet, and the other species with which we will be sharing our altered planet. Recommended.