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Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

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The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction returns to humanity’s transformative impact on the environment, now asking: After doing so much damage, can we change nature, this time to save it?

That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it’s said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. She meets scientists who are trying to preserve the world’s rarest fish, which lives in a single, tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave. She visits a lava field in Iceland, where engineers are turning carbon emissions to stone; an aquarium in Australia, where researchers are trying to develop “super coral” that can survive on a hotter globe; and a lab at Harvard, where physicists are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere in order to reflect sunlight back to space and cool the earth.

One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face.

234 pages, Hardcover

First published February 9, 2021

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolbert

27 books1,981 followers
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,495 reviews
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
December 19, 2021
On Barack Obama his reading list 2021 📖
A book about people trying to solve problems created by people who created problems when trying to solve other problems
Pissing your pants will only keep you warm for so long

A fascinating peek at geo engineering, gene drives and the overall ethics of humanity's relationship with technology and nature. The adagium of the road to hell being paved with good intentions is very clearly shown in Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert. The anthropocene is real, here to stay and will give us a lot of hard questions.

Louisiana losing more land to erosion than the whole of Rhode Island
In essence the book is about the control of the control of nature. From unintended side effects from rivers being connected by canals to the introduction of a carp to reduce nutrients in water (and loo and behold an invasive species kills of all other fish in a major river area), the effects of human interventions seem to be more impactful and multifaceted than beforehand imagined.
Untangling the great lakes and Mississippi river would cost 25 years and USD 18 billion according to some estimates from the army corps of engineers for instance.

Kolbert visits New Orleans, and zooms into the fact that the Mississippi is not setting of enough sediments due to human interventions controlling the river. The whole tale of Louisiana shrinking and being effected by ground settling in, doesn’t impress me as much from my Dutch background and our country already being far below sea-level and managing that.

First you ship a species all over the world and then you poison it from a helicopter.
How difficult it is however to keep species and ecosystems alive, and how easy it is to upset the balance, is very clear. Even a very small population of fish in the vicinity of Death Valley brings about more efforts than one can possibly imagine upfront.
No wonder that some scientist are turning to new technologies to make species more adaptive to changing circumstances, for instance by "assisted evolution" of corals (in response to The Great Barrier Reef, which is greater than Italy, losing 50% of its coral through a heat shock in the past decade) and other attempts to harness CRISPR’s enormous power.
Margaret Atwood like situations however lurk in this field, for instance male chickens who glow green by spliced jellyfish genes, leading the species to be easier and more effectively bred, might be more sustainable in a sense, but gives me a deep sense of unease. Or ideas on how suppression gene drives can kill off a whole animal (invasive) species, with 100 of such genetically manipulated mice being able to eradicate a population of 50.000 mice on a island according to simulations.
All in all it's a grim reminder that we live in a world were people outweigh wild mammals 8 to 1, and including our livestock and the ratio increases to 22 to 1.

The environment
One of every 3 Co2 molecules is emitted by people.
In the last part of the book Kolbert turns her attention to climate change. Already in 1965 the first report on potential climate changes was issued to Lyndon Johnson. And still the figures are sobering: 250 billion ton of ice melting on Greenland in a year, with 95% of the ice sheet impacted in a year. And despite concerns about China's economic rise 30% of cumulative emissions are by the 4% of people in the USA and 22% being due to the 7% of people in the EU. Negative emissions (literally sucking Co2 out of the atmosphere) on gigantic scale would be needed in 101 of the 116 IPCC scenario’s, capturing Co2 in a myriad ways to compensate 40 billion tons of Co2 production a year (which is still rising even taken the Covid-19 blip into account).

Some people have innovative ways of seeing the problem, with someone for instance making the following comparison: See Co2 as sewage, no one will tell you don’t need to produce it, but you are also not allowed to shit everywhere
And some take ideas to a whole new level with stratospheric geo engineering, emitting huge amounts of little diamond dust through airlifts to up the reflective properties of the atmosphere (hence the White Sky of the title) and buys us some extra years. It is however clear that the "natural world" is not magically going to return without large changes in either behaviour or in our dealing with the side effects of behaviour.
Kolbert ends hence with a quote that is very fitting: If we want everything to remain as it is, everything needs to change.

And all this while we as a species do not have a very strong record of taking into account all the complexities and extremities of ecosystems, as shown in every chapter of Under a White Sky.
An important, highly readable and interesting book for our current times.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews594 followers
December 5, 2020
Suppose that the world — or just a small group of assertive nations — launched a fleet of SAILs (Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Lofters). And suppose that even as the SAILs are flying and lofting more and more tons of particles, global emissions continue to rise. The result would not be a return to the climate of pre-industrial days or to that of the Pliocene or even that of the Eocene, when crocodiles baked on Arctic shores. It would be an unprecedented climate for an unprecedented world, where silver carp glisten under a white sky.

I have a friend who’s an eco-fatalist (she would call herself a “realist”) and she has long teased me for being a naive optimist: while it’s true that I have hope that human ingenuity will think us out of our various anthropogenic-caused crises, my friend believes that humans are inherently brutish and selfish and willfully committed to profiting off destruction unto the end of the Earth. Wading into this debate, author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert (whose last successful book, The Sixth Extinction, didn’t really inspire me as much as I had hoped it would), returns with Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. In her latest offering, Kolbert revisits familiar material (hopping around the globe to report on species at risk), but of even more interest to me, she reports on the work of scientists who are racing against the doomsday clock, using cutting-edge science to repair the damage we humans have wrought and knowingly changing the planet in order to save the planet. Ultimately, this book is hopeful — smart people are at work behind the scenes — and it also asks us to consider the consequences of our interventions: If lofting tons of calcium carbonate into the atmosphere would cool the planet, would we even notice (or care) if the sky slowly turned white? And to those who would complain that a white sky isn’t natural, scientists can point to every square meter on Earth to show that it has already been changed by the presence of mankind; changing nature is what we do. Overall: an informative work that left me much to think about and employ in debates with my more fatalistic friend. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

The way (Klaus) Lackner sees things, the key to avoiding “deep trouble” is thinking differently. “We need to change the paradigm,” he told me. Carbon dioxide, in his view, should be regarded much the same way we look at sewage. We don’t expect people to stop producing waste. “Rewarding people for going to the bathroom less would be nonsensical,” Lackner has observed. At the same time, we don’t let them shit on the sidewalk. One of the reasons we’ve had such trouble addressing the carbon problem, he contends, is the issue has acquired an ethical charge. To the extent that emissions are seen as bad, emitters become guilty. “Such a moral stance makes virtually everyone a sinner and makes hypocrites out of many who are concerned about climate change but still partake in the benefits of modernity,” he has written. Shifting the paradigm, he thinks, will shift the conversation. Yes, people have fundamentally altered the atmosphere. And, yes, this is likely to lead to all sorts of dreadful consequences. But people are ingenious. They come up with crazy, big ideas, and sometimes these actually work.

Under a White Sky is all about the crazy, big ideas. Kolbert starts with scientists who are trying to fix the unintended consequences of past scientists’ best-intended interventions (like dealing with the Asian carp infestations in American waterways — fish that were intentionally introduced after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring called for the end of chemical pesticides — and efforts to protect New Orleans from future flooding — apparently decades of diverting water away from the city has prevented the natural deposits of sediment that underpin it). And there’s quite a bit on species at risk due to climate change — and just like in The Sixth Extinction, I found it sometimes hard to get worked up over what Kolbert chose to write about. Here, she reports at length on the fate of the Devils Hole pupfish (a minnow-sized fish that lives in one small cavern in the Nevada desert), and while their numbers in the wild range between fifty and two hundred, there is also a multi-million dollar facility nearby that houses a climate-controlled replica of the Devils Hole cavern, with scientists working around the clock to support a captive-bred population. Personally, I am moved by the tragedy of rhinos being hunted into extinction by human greed, but I can’t really connect with the fate of this over-specialised, and biologically isolated, species; the Devils Hole pupfish seems like an evolutionary failure and I’m gobsmacked by the resources devoted to keeping it around (yet I am philosophically challenged by the defender of the similarly-fated Owens pupfish, Phil Pister, who when asked, “What good are pupfish?”, replied, “What good are you?” Touché.)

Kolbert travels to Australia to visit a coral research/breeding facility (which I can totally get behind, a coral reef having more biodiversity per square meter than the Amazon Rainforest and performing an unclear function in the oceans), and while in the country, she visits with those scientists who are working on eradicating the invasive cane toad (another unintended consequence of someone in the past intervening in nature) and those scientists who are gene-editing mice to try and eradicate their presence in habitats where they don’t belong (rats and mice having followed humans everywhere they’ve travelled, often to the devastation of local species). Kolbert flies all around the continental US, goes to Hawaii and Greenland, and after thusly circling the globe, Kolbert visits with scientists from Climeworks in Iceland — a company she subscribes to that offsets personal carbon footprints by capturing carbon in the air and fixing it in the rock deep underground. What I most appreciated in this book (and what I thought was missing from The Sixth Extinction) was the discussion around the morality of personal behaviour and the ethics of large-scale scientific intervention in nature (and especially when so much of Under a White Sky deals with our current efforts to fix past scientific errors); I remain hopeful that the smart people working on these problems have thought through the consequences.

The strongest argument for gene-editing cane toads, house mice, and ship rats is also the simplest: What’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back. The choice is not between what was and what is but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing. This is the situation of the Devils Hole pupfish, the Shoshone pupfish, and the Pahrump poolfish, of northern quolls, yellow-spotted monitor lizards, and the Tristan albatross. Stick to a strict interpretation of the natural and these — along with thousands of other species — are goners. The issue, at this point, is not whether we’re going to alter nature but to what end?

Everything about this book was interesting to me and I found it well-written and engaging, but if I had a small complaint, it would be that it feels just a bit unfinished (and as Kolbert writes about research trips that ended up being cancelled due to COVID travel restrictions, this abruptness is understandable). Again, there’s hope to be found here, and that’s no small thing today.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,395 reviews4,904 followers
February 20, 2023

4.5 stars

In her 2015 book 'The Sixth Extinction', author Elizabeth Kolbert sounds the alarm about humans imperiling the Earth in the current 'Age of Man' - dubbed the Anthropocene.

Kolbert observes that humans have transformed more than half the ice-free land on Earth. We've dammed or diverted most of the world's major rivers; our fertilizer plants and legume crops fix more nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems combined; and our planes, cars, trucks, and power stations emit about a hundred times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes do. These kinds of changes have led to atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication, species extinction, and other unwanted events.

Kolbert continues the theme of human-caused destruction in this book, which describes transformations that have had unforeseen repercussions. Kolbert also recounts proposed 'fixes', many of which seem as chancy as the original alterations.

To gather data, Kolbert traveled widely and interviewed scientists, engineers, and other experts. Kolbert's narrative is detailed and filled with scientific explanations, statistics, and personal observations. There are also light moments, like the time Kolbert was body-slammed by a jumping carp or lunched on a tasty New Orleans po-boy sandwich.

I'll provide a brief description of some of the changes Kolbert describes. For additional examples, specifics and anecdotes, I'd encourage you to read the book.


Kolbert's first example is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC), essentially a man-made river that was created to re-route Chicago's waste so it doesn't enter Lake Michigan - which is Chicago's source of drinking water. Instead, the CSSC carries effluent the other way, so it flows into the Des Plaines River, and eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

This huge 'river reversal' upended the hydrology of roughly 2/3 of the United States and is forcing a whole new round of interventions, like electrification of the CSSC. These new interventions are necessary to prevent migration of the Asian carp - a VERY aggressive invasive species - from the CSSC to the Great Lakes.

Invasive Asian Carp

Asian Carp jumping out of the water

The Asian carp themselves are an example of human folly. They were originally imported from China to the southern United States, to keep aquatic weeds in check. The carp soon spread north, and it's feared that, if they reach the Great Lakes, the carp will outcompete native species and disrupt the Great Lakes ecosystems.

Electric Fish Barriers are designed to keep Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes


Kolbert next details the erosion of the state of Louisiana. On maps, Plaquemines Parish looks like a muscular arm extending into the Gulf of Mexico, with the Mississippi River running down its center. But seen from the air, the parish looks very different, very emaciated, with only thin strips of land along the river. The fact is, Plaquemines Parish is eroding, as is the entire coast of Louisiana. Kolbert notes, since the 1930s Louisiana has shrunk by more than 2000 square miles.

Historic Plaquemines Parish

Erosion of Plaquemines Parish

The reason is the thousands of miles of levees, flood walls and revetments built to manage the Mississippi River. This system, built to keep southern Louisiana dry, prevents sediment from replenishing the land along the Louisiana coast. The land constantly erodes, and when - sediment doesn't replenish it - disappears completely.

Mississippi Levee

Once again, new interventions are necessary to repair the damage, and various redresses have been proposed. One suggestion is to pump sediment from the Mississippi River, transport it by pipes, and spread it over the land. This would cost about $30,000 per acre. Another idea is to punch holes in the levees along the Mississippi, and gate and channelize the openings, to divert sediment back onto the land. This would be a VERY complex and difficult project.


Kolbert then addresses Devil's Hole, a Nevada geologic formation located in a detached unit of Death Valley National Park. Devil's Hole cavern contains a pool that's home to the only naturally occurring population of the endangered Devil's Hole Pupfish.

A Devil's Hole Pupfish has an average length of 2.3 cm (0.9 in)

The fish have evolved to thrive in the high temperature, low oxygen environment of Devil's Hole, and can't survive anywhere else. In an attempt to boost the pupfish population, scientists have built a concrete simulation of Devil's Hole, and monitor it carefully.

Author Elizabeth Kolbert working with scientists in 2019 to count pupfish numbers at Devil's Hole

Humans haven't always tried to preserve species, however, but rather the exact opposite. Kolbert notes that man has caused the extinction or near-extinction of many animals, such as Wild Turkeys, Eastern Elk, Passenger Pigeons, Bison, Woolly Mammoths, Woolly Rhinos, Mastodons, North American Camels, Moa Birds, Dodo Birds, Red Rail Birds, and many more. These losses extend across all continents, all oceans, and all taxa.

Flocks of Passenger Pigeons once darkened the skies

Extinct North American Camels

Conversely, humans have boosted the populations of other (perhaps less desirable) animal species, termed synanthropes, that benefit from human habitats. These organisms include raccoons, American crows, Norway rats, Asian carp, house mice, and many species of cockroach. 😝 Ditto for some plants, called apophytes, that grow in abandoned fields.

Humans inadvertently create hospitable environments for house mice


One of the world's most serious problems is the devastation of coral reefs. The warming oceans have caused coral bleaching, which happens when corals expel the symbiotic green algae that live in their tissues. Without the algae, the corals turn white and die.

As a possible solution to the problem, some biologists suggest artificially breeding hardier corals in a kind of 'assisted evolution.' Other suggestions include pumping deep water to the surface, to cool the reefs; and cloud brightening, to reflect sunlight back into space.

Cloud brightening has been proposed to help save coral reefs


Another blunder perpetrated by humans was the importation of Cane Toads from South America to Australia, to control pest beetles on sugar cane crops. The toads, which are toxic, spread far beyond the original habitat and are now a major problem.

Cane Toad

Sketch showing the spread of Cane Toads in Australia

Many species that eat cane toads have crashed, including Fresh Water Crocodiles, Yellow-Spotted Monitor Lizards, Northern Blue-Tongued Lizards, Water Dragons, Common Death Adders, and the Northern Quoll - a cute marsupial.

The Water Dragon population crashed

The Northern Quoll population crashed

Suggested remedies include editing the Cane Toads' genome using a technology called CRISPR, to make the animals less toxic; and genetically engineering “daughterless” toads, turning the pests all male and destroying their populations.


Among the biggest problems facing humanity is global warming, caused by humans injecting carbon into the atmosphere. This problem began in the late 18th century, when the steam engine kick-started the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution resulted in massive amounts of carbon being spewed into the atmosphere

Higher temperatures have caused droughts, storms, heat waves, wildfires, rising sea levels, increased melt-off of Antarctica, and more.

Global warming causes huge changes in the environment

Scientists believe we've already emitted so much carbon into the atmosphere that we must not only curb emissions, but must remove carbon to keep temperatures at safe levels. One proposed solution is to suck carbon out of the air and inject it into the ground, where it forms stone. Another proposed remediation is to add a mineral called olivine to the oceans, which would induce the seas to absorb more carbon. These solutions are difficult to implement and very costly.

Carbon dioxide injected into basalt forms stone in about two years

A more draconian proposal to reduce global warming is called solar geoengineering. The idea is to inject a gazillion reflective particles - such as microscopic diamonds or sulfates - into the stratosphere, so less sunlight will reach the planet.

Solar geoengineering has been suggested to help reduce global warming

On an aesthetic note, this would change the appearance of the sky, which would look white instead of blue.

Solar geoengineering might result in a white sky

Solar geoengineering has been variously described as dangerous beyond belief; a broad highway to hell; unimaginably drastic; and also as inevitable. (This sounds like the script of a disaster movie to me.)

For all these proposed solutions we must ask "Do humans have the right to do this? And will it work? And what is the alternative?"

In this narrative Kolbert presents an alarming picture of the future of Earth if we humans don't take immediate steps to address the problems we've caused. Everyone should read this book.

You can follow my reviews at https://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot.com
Profile Image for Numidica.
386 reviews8 followers
July 24, 2023
Elizabeth Kolbert has written a book about all the ways in which we are destroying the natural world which nurtured us and gave humans the chance to create civilization, science, etc. She uses several examples, and she starts with our attempts to control the Mississippi River, which have resulted in the gradual dissolution and sinking of southern Louisiana, and moves on to the introduction of exotic species in that river, notably Asian Carp, which are destroying the ecosystem of the Mississippi Basin's waterways. From there she moves on to examine the endangered fish which populate the waters of desert caverns in the western US and the attempts to save them by creating artificial environments, and thence to the story of scientists trying to breed hardier corals to withstand warming oceans.

I've seen beautiful and diverse coral reefs diving in the Caribbean, but something the author said stopped me: the degree of biodiversity per cubic meter on a healthy tropical coral reef exceeds that of the healthiest patch of Amazonian rainforest, which would be its closest terrestrial competition. Coral reefs are, as far as is known, the most biodiverse places on Earth. Approximately one in four fish on the planet lives at least part of their lives on a coral reef. And the reefs are dying, worldwide, because of the warming of the oceans. The scientists who are working on breeding hardier corals view their work as a way to save, not everything, but at least a portion of the reefs that are so vital to ocean life, as a bridge to a future where we have somehow stabilized the climate. And that way of thinking among scientists is a theme that runs through the book.

Kolbert next describes how frighteningly easy it is to modify the genetic code of an organism with CRISPR, to the point that one is put in mind of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam books. And yet, used responsibly, genetic modification can solve problems; it can give us back the American Chestnut, which was killed off by, of course, an invasive species in the form of an imported Asian fungus. The genetically modified blight-immune chestnuts already exist at a New York university, but are confined by law to greenhouses for now, as transgenic species requiring federal permitting. Conversely, genetic modification can also produce bacteria that are immune to antibiotics, or viruses that are more deadly than Ebola and spread more rapidly than the South African variant of COVID.

Finally, the crux of the book is in asking the question, what now? Forget about mankind's dangerous fiddling with the ecosystems of pretty much everywhere via introduction on non-native species, or even our so far modest actions in creating genetically modified organisms of various types. It is quite likely that the global warming that mankind has put in motion is too big to control without drastic measures, if it even can be controlled. And given our admittedly poor record at anticipating the consequences of our actions, what do we dare do? Shoot particulates into the stratosphere to dim the sun? Well, maybe. Because even if we do everything else we must do: decarbonize, deploy technology to scrub CO2 from the air, change our farming techniques, et cetera ad nauseam, it's too slow. The oil and coal companies managed to stop real action from being taken 30 years ago, when the timeline was reasonable to avoid the 1.5 C of warming that looks more and more like a tipping point. We will (and are beginning to) go through a period of time when temperatures rise to levels unseen in millennia, i.e., since before human civilization existed.

But we could possibly avoid maximal disaster, including the collapse of most agriculture, by the "white sky option" of injecting a reflective particulate into the upper atmosphere, which is an option fraught with risk and uncertainty and moral hazard. Just as no one who was cancer-free would ever voluntarily submit to chemotherapy, in the world of the past with a "normal" climate we would not even think of doing such a thing as dimming the sun. Because safety is not guaranteed. The problem is, as one scientist put it, that we live in a world where "dimming the f-ing sun" might actually be the better option; it's where we are, sadly; we might have to use it to buy time to save ourselves, so we better understand it as well as we can. But the first thing everyone has to understand, if sun-dimming technology is to be used is this: sun-dimming is not a solution. It does not reduce the acidification of oceans by CO2, and it does not free us from the urgent need to decarbonize; it simply buys us time to get to a decarbonized world.

And yet....if one looks at Greenland ice cores (and Ms. Kolbert tells an interesting story of how the US Army produced the first such cores, incidental to an idiotic Cold War initiative involving shuttling ICBM's around in ice tunnels), they tell us something both interesting and frightening: the last seven thousand years have been a tremendously unusual climactic period in Earth's history. The climate has been far more stable in the current period than at any time in the previous hundred thousand years, and that stability is the key to why human civilization exists. Exactly because the climate of the last seven thousand years was relatively reliable, relatively dependable in terms of rainfall, agriculture came into existence, and cities, and universities, and science, and all the rest. And the conditions that made it possible appear to have been a fluke, a lucky roll of the dice. Easily destabilized. Which we have done. Whatever happens, whatever decisions are made, the next ten years will be critical to humans and to nature, of which we are a part, whether we think so or not.

A very good book, and important for as many people as possible to read and understand, because hard decisions await.
Profile Image for Claudia.
960 reviews556 followers
May 24, 2021
A big dissapointment compared to The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Feels like the author gathered some articles and put them together, the only common point being, as she put it, "people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems." And that's exactly what this book is about: people messed with the environment and now they are trying to fix it.

Asian carp, brought to solve algae problems in US rivers, are now a like a plague, and all efforts are directed to keep them out of the Great Lakes. Cane toad in Australia, brought to deal with a cane bug, are now everywhere, and being toxic, wipe out local species. Carbon acumulation in the athmosfere is another huge problem, one which I don't see it ever to be solved.

Even if all these issues are indeed of utmost importance, none of them are new, and neither the efforts to solve them. Felt like a book made on demand, and rushed to meet the deadline. There are better documentaries on these topics anyway.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
811 reviews1,270 followers
September 26, 2021
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future is a book about people who are trying to fix problems people have created. They are using techniques such as gene drives to cut back on invasive species, assisted evolution to help vulnerable species adapt to a changing world, and geoengineering to lessen global warming.

While there were some sections I enjoyed, such as the one about Devils Hole pupfish that exist nowhere on Earth except for Devil's Hole in Death Valley National Park, most of this was information I already knew.

Also, as my regular review readers might recall, I don't like personal details in science books. I didn't care to read about the clothes the scientists wore when she met them, the hairstyles they sported, or where they went to school.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, If I want that sort of personal stuff I'll read a memoir or biography. I don't want it in science books.

I appreciate Ms. Kolbert's effort in bringing awareness to the issues she writes about, but this just wasn't in depth enough for me. It was a quick read though, and if you aren't familiar with the methods she writes about, you might enjoy this more than I did.

Two and a half stars but I'll bump it up to three because those Devil's Hole Pupfish were fascinating to learn about.

Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
June 15, 2021
Not a direct quote, but it is stated that this is a book about solving the problems created by those trying to solve problems. Problems we humans have caused either through tampering with nature or our lack of caring enough to take care of what we have been given in our natural world. From the Asian carp to the tiny pup fish in Nevada, from the coral in the barrier reefs which is dying due to the warming of the oceans, to the huge frogs imported to the Caribbean, which have now spread to Australia. Looking at the long range effects of our climate change in many different areas, and what is being done to combat this devastation.

Carbon exchangers, assisted evolution, Crisper and its gene editing, man made habitats to replace those that have been lost, attempts to grow hardier coral hoping to replace what has died. This book takes one on a journey to see what is being done by various scientists, engineers, hoping to stave off further damage.

Interesting and informative though I did see a few PBS specials in some of the areas discussed. Others were eye opening. It is such a shame that climate change, like Covid has become politicized. No one wins when this happens.

ARC from edelweiss.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews658 followers
August 2, 2022
It was a lot easier to imagine changing the river once again—with electricity and bubbles and noise and anything else anyone could dream up—than changing the lives of the people around it.

I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.

But as is so often the case, solving one set of problems introduces new ones. In this case, big ones. Humongous ones.

The strongest argument for gene editing cane toads, house mice, and ship rats is also the simplest: what’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back. The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert pulled together a wide array of current research to argue persuasively that we are in the middle of a human-caused extinction event. In Under a White Sky, Ms. Kolbert takes a logical next step: examining the different ways people are attempting to undo the damage we have wrought upon our planet.

Under a White Sky is loosely organized into sections covering the sea, land, and sky. The opening section explores how scientists are attempting to stop the spread of invasive species like the Asian carp, and how others are attempting to combat the land loss in places like New Orleans that have been caused by our attempts to redirect rivers and the like. The middle section shows biologists protecting rare pup fish through the creation of preserves, trying to breed coral through “assisted evolution” that will be able to withstand higher temperatures, and using genetic engineering to keep pest populations in check. The final section examines attempts to roll back climate change, from businesses trying to scale up carbon recapture to “solar geoengineering,” an volcano-inspired idea about flooding the atmosphere with reflective particles to reduce the surface temperature.

Each chapter of Under a White Sky is interesting in itself, a series of first-person stories of the people and their efforts. And the overall theme—“[t]his has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems”—is too chilling to be ironic. Still, perhaps because Ms. Kolbert admits her research was interrupted by the pandemic, the book doesn’t feel fully integrated. On the other hand, the lack of a satisfying conclusion may just be because she’s exploring an immense, important subject that at present has no solution. Still, recommended.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
June 27, 2021
Yeah we're basically screwed. I loved Kolbert's book The Sixth Extinction about the anthropocene and this one seems like a followup and serves as a catalogue of all the crazy things humans are doing and have done to shape the environment. It's not data driven--but rather she focuses on individuals and communities and the habitats they are changing--for good and for bad. It's all pretty bleak.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
902 reviews137 followers
December 20, 2022
"Pissing in your pants will keep you warm for only so long."

I swear if the scientist had a good solution, it was not accepted. The solutions if they come up with to cure climate change are almost useless and some sound actually dangerous. So to me it sounds like there's still pissing in their pants.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
1,007 reviews373 followers
August 7, 2022
The author travels extensively (Louisiana, California, Australia, Iceland, Greenland…) to analyze different ways scientists are trying to overcome the deteriorating conditions on our planet brought on by men’s continual alteration of the natural habitat.

She visits ecologists near Chicago who are trying to prevent the invasion of the fish named Asian carp from going into the Great Lakes. The same for the cane toad in Australia. She takes the Anthropocene viewpoint that we human beings have now altered the environment so extensively and detrimentally that we must use artificial intervention to save ourselves. For example, she discusses that merely reducing CO2 emissions is no longer adequate. There is just too much of it now in our atmosphere that it must be removed; she meets with scientists working on various solutions – none of them easy. And CO2 is just one problem - rising water levels, increased atmospheric turbulence – all of which threaten food production.

She interestingly points out that it is only in the last ten thousand years that the climate has been stable. This allowed man to cultivate crops and gather in ever-growing communities.

The author lost me at times when she brought up genetic engineering in Australia in the discussion of the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef – and also hydrology for the protection of the city of New Orleans.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth Kolbert is an engaging writer. The ecological warnings that various groups gave us during the 1960s and 1970s were ignored. As the author states, much more drastic action will now be required to save the future for our children.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,108 reviews749 followers
April 10, 2022
Near the end of this book the author offers a succinct summary of the book, "This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems." One would think that the lesson here is to stop trying to solve problems and stop messing with nature.

But humans have been messing with nature for millennia and can't quit now. Ever since humans learned how to start fires, practice agriculture, and transform heat into energy to perform work (a.k.a. industrial revolution), humans have been messing with nature. Consequently the stability of earth's climate is now threatened, and we have no choice but to engineer a solution.

In order to illustrate this point the author reviews a number examples where earlier solutions to problems led to new problems that needed to be solved. The first example went back to the 1960s when new rising concerns about the use of chemicals raised by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. led to the importation of Asian Carp as a "natural" nontoxic way to keep aquatic weeds in check. They escaped their original pond in Arkansas, entered the Mississippi River, and proceeded to outcompete the native fish until they’re practically all that’s left.

Normally, the carp would now be confined to the Mississippi River watershed, but due to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened in 1900 there is a waterway connection to the Great Lakes. Naturalist have warned that if Asian Carp enter the Great Lakes it would devastate its aquaculture. Thus complicated and expensive electric fish barriers now need to be maintained in order to keep the carp from passing into Lake Michigan. Here's A LINK to a NYT article about the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, and climate change.

The book then moves on to other examples of efforts to solve problems caused by earlier solutions. Any reader who knows anything about science will know where this book is headed—to climate change. After describing several examples of saving threatened species she visits some scientists that are trying to speed up evolution by developing coral that can tolerate the changing chemistry and temperature of the oceans.

Then she deals directly with possible ways to keep the climate from going out of whack. In the long run the best solution would be to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Trees do it naturally but there's not enough arable land to do the job. Energy is required to artificially remove it from the air so ultimately the deserts need to be filled with solar collectors powering CO2 removal equipment converting it to calcium carbonate rock. But there's no realistic possibility of this happening in the near future.

A more technically feasible solution in the near term is solar radiation management, most frequently referred to as solar geoengineering. This involves scattering reflective material in the stratosphere to cut down the level of energy entering the atmosphere. You need to read the book to see the arguments of this solution, but for those who question the wisdom altering the earth's climate it needs to be remembered that we already are doing that. This is an effort to undo what we've already done.

The need to eventually reach net-zero still exists. Geoengineering is a way to mitigate problems while long term solutions involving CO2 removal are developed and implemented.

How Oman’s Rocks Could Help Save the Planet, (NYT article that describes one method for removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.)
Profile Image for La Crosse County Library.
572 reviews159 followers
September 13, 2022
In many ways, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future is the continuation of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction, in which humanity has been shown to have a mind-boggling amount of agency and power to shape their environment on a global scale—for good or ill. And that when the scale has swung decidedly towards bad—see climate change—that there are humans fighting back with interventions just as grand. Fighting fire with fire.

Because the scale of global change is overwhelming for any human mind to contemplate—I can’t exclude myself from this—Kolbert zooms in to highlight just some of the intensive efforts being undertaken to save humanity from itself, along with the rest of the creatures we share planet Earth with. Ironically, all the cases discussed in Under a White Sky require interventions of a scale that caused the problem in the first place.

“If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.”

From geoengineering to turning CO2 into rock to using genetic engineering tools like CRISPR to eradicate invasive species or design heat-resistant coral, Kolbert showcases to readers that the world we lived in has already been altered by humans to the point that nature isn’t very natural.

As she was discussing all these Herculean—dare I add, Sisyphean—interventions becoming increasingly necessary, even with all the unintended consequences, I couldn’t help but recall a book I read not too long ago, The Ministry for the Future. In The Ministry for the Future, drastic measures of all kinds were taken to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, while the sparse habitat fragments remaining on the planet were linked by human-created corridors (something to the effect of “biodiversity highways”).

And then, I also thought of Termination Shock, a more cynical take on human actions to fight climate change in which a big sulfur dioxide gun (cheekily named after the Pinatubo volcano, whose major eruption in 1991 cooled things down for a bit until 1993) was built in Texas (notable home of everything big, especially big guns) to induce a cooling effect and slow down sea level rise. Neglecting the issue of continued CO2 emissions and ocean acidification.

Funny enough, “termination shock” as a concept was brought up in the section Kolbert touches on the oft-taboo topic of geoengineering. That once such a grand undertaking was started, to stop it would risk a catastrophic and sudden rise in global temperatures, counterproductive to the original objective.

“Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself—not so much the control of nature as the control of the control of nature.”

I found the premise of Under a White Sky to instill in me both an acute sense of existential crisis, yet also a kind of wonder at all the tools in humanity’s arsenal to fight back (and awe and fear at the scale involved in using such tools).

What a time to be alive!


See also:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Ministry for the Future (2020) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Termination Shock (2021) by Neal Stephenson

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (2021) by Walter Isaacson (a good source to learn more about CRISPR)

Find these books and other titles within our catalog.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,388 reviews115 followers
January 1, 2022
Human activity has been so successful at changing the environment that it is now the dominant influence in the natural world. Kolbert’s excellent reporting recounts how efforts of humans to solve one ecological problem often invite new ones (eg. the importation of the Asian Carp that now threatens the Great Lakes; flood control efforts on the Mississippi that is now causing land depletion in the Louisiana Bayou). Kolbert met with a number of scientists that are trying to reverse the course of these man-made environmental disasters. Fascinating!

The big problem in managing the Anthropocene is that everything is connected to everything else. Sobering details are contained in the reports regarding what scientists are discovering in the ice core samples on Greenland that recount climate changes over the past 100,000 plus years. Substantive climate change has happened multiple times during this period. Indeed, one of the longest periods of stability is the one in which we now live [The Greenland ice core findings are also discussed in ‘The Ice at the End of the World’ by Jon Gertner.] Troubling news for the hope of a stable future in the face of climate change.
Profile Image for L.G. Cullens.
Author 2 books78 followers
October 4, 2021
The title, Under A White Sky, refers to weird side effects we might see as a result of injecting particles into the stratosphere to mitigate global warming. Geoengineering being but one of the topics Elizabeth Kolbert covers in this wide ranging book.

“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.” ~ Elizabeth Kolbert

This and more contributing to the ongoing sixth great extinction event*, which is the subject of the last book of her's that I read. Biodiversity (filling niches) and ecological homeostasis (balancing interactions) are the objectives by which the natural world develops and maintains productive ecosystems. The greater and more accelerated that environmental changes occur, the more severe the consequences existing life forms will suffer.

Where some credible scientific journalists focus on individual species and their benefits to the biosphere**, Elizabeth Kolbert focuses on a broader spectrum of species and effects, presenting both sides of any sound issues. She does this through explaining well researched and verified effects on the biosphere in their context, and noting the activities, findings, and viability opinions of many scientists. Among the topics included are some a reader might not be aware of, or at least not understand the full implications of.

One exchange that I particularly liked was in the first chapter of the section Into the wild :
“Phil Pister, a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, spent the next several decades working to save the Owens pupfish and also the Devils Hole pupfish. People would often ask him why he spent so much time on such insignificant animals.
“What good are pupfish?” they’d demand.
“What good are you?” Pister would respond.”

Something else I found interesting, and frightening, is a chapter on gene editing (third chapter of the section Into the wild). A telling description of the ethos of one active entity was “Dr. Moreau joins Friends of the Earth.” You might be surprised, even also frightened, by the advances that have been made. Imagine these tools in the hands of humankind, who doesn't know enough to keep from destroying the biosphere they are dependent on to exist.

Did you know that even if we could stop all our CO2 emissions today, global warming will continue for centuries? Do you know why?

All in all, this is a book that will help the reader gain a better and more realistic understanding of our environmental problems, and get a handle on the mitigating solutions being considered so far.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocen...

** The Wolverine Way by Douglas H. Chadwick
American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee
Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb
Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg
Profile Image for Nicola Bramwell.
42 reviews12 followers
March 27, 2022
[ Cross-posted to the Nicola Bramwell Blog ]

I honestly wasn’t a big fan of Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction—I thought it was too long and meandering—so I’m happy to report that I enjoyed this book a whole lot more. It was much shorter and to the point, and it provided a lot of interesting information about conservation efforts that I had never heard of before.

While Kolbert reviews the various environmental issues plaguing us today, she spends less time describing these issues in detail and more time on the various methods that the world’s best scientists and engineers are exploring to potentially resolve these issues. Kolbert covers several major topics, including loss of biodiversity, widespread coastal flooding and loss of landmass due to rising ocean levels, worsening weather patterns, and the melting of glaciers.

The book feels more like several smaller works strung together rather than one cohesive book with a main idea, but I didn’t mind that because it allowed Kolbert to trim out the excess narration that I felt plagued The Sixth Extinction and focus more closely on delivering important information.

That said, I have read more informative and in-depth books on conversation efforts and environmental issues in recent years, so this one falls firmly in the “slightly above average” category.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,070 reviews241 followers
January 15, 2022
Elizabeth Kolbert takes readers on a journey around the world in search of the latest scientific thinking with regard to reversing the damage done to the planet by humankind. Climate change is only one of the areas of focus. She also covers invasive species and other interventions that may have been intended to help, but have actually hurt, the environment and must now be contained, or reversed, if possible.

It reads as a collection of essays. I was particularly interested in the method of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and injecting it underground where pressure turns it into calcium carbonate. The section on solar geoengineering is excellent. The pandemic seems to have halted Kolbert’s travels just as the she was getting into an in-depth analysis of cores taken in the Greenland ice sheet. Other topics include Asian carp in Illinois’ waters, desert fish in Nevada, flooding in the Mississippi Delta, genetic engineering using CRISPR, invasive cane toads in Australia, and the decline of coral reefs.

I had previously read and very much enjoyed Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. This book takes a similar approach, shedding light on some of our global issues and what is being done to address them. There is some optimism to be found here; however, it will require people working together and agreeing on solutions, and as the author points out, we do not have a great track record. I found it informative and relevant.
439 reviews7 followers
February 6, 2021
When I saw that Elizabeth Kolbert's newest book was coming out I was quite excited - The Sixth Extinction was a fantastic book.

Sadly, Under a White Sky did not captivate me the same way. It wasn't really what I was expecting, either. It's essentially a collection of science journalism focused on the environment - specifically, the ways that humans are interfering with the environment in an attempt to solve the problems created by previous attempts.

It's quite interesting...but it's missing something. Under a White Sky's 'thesis' is certainly more subtle...but it's missing the passion and sense of urgency that made The Sixth Extinction so compelling.

I can easily imagine each of the three segments of this book as pop-science documentaries - which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
672 reviews93 followers
January 30, 2022
This is a well-written but very depressing book.

The capacity of human race's destruction has already reshaped the natural world. We live in a depleted world. In order to “control” nature, we end up creating problems, then we create more “controls” to control the control. The problem of Asian carps, introduced to the United States to control the harmful chemicals in the water, is now threatening the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Another example the author explained is that various projects in Louisiana to fight against the land loss. Yet, the land loss is an artificial problem created by three hundred years of flood control. Better solutions do exist, but even a disaster as big as Hurricane Katrina couldn’t make them happen. The global Net Zero carbon emission is nowhere in sight. Carbon extraction and geoengineering are on politicians' table. Yet, the best speculated solution of using Solar Geoengineering to hinder global warming is equivalent to using methadone to “cure” heroin addiction, and that is the best case scenario. The only thing I find uplifting in the book is probably Assisted Evolution for saving coral reefs, although what can be saved on a global scale is very very limited.

But, what else can we do? Sure we must do something. Human race is not best known for its ability to consider long term consequences and act accordingly. A green revolution needs a cognitive revolution of the entire population on the earth, but how is that possible?
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,931 reviews438 followers
January 13, 2022
'Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future' by Elizabeth Kolbert is a review of various theoretical and some current scientific test experiments. The scientists want to either increase the hardiness of species in order for them to survive a hotter environment or to slow down the incoming catastrophe of global warming through manipulation of what is in the atmosphere.

Global warming is inevitable. The fixes people are exploring to solve the problems in slowing down its inevitable arrival and at the same time save civilization cover a LOT of theoretical territory. Kolbert's book offers some hope, but in my humble opinion, the Earth all of us that are alive now know is not going to be the same one for our grandchildren.

Below I've copied the cover blurb:

"That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it’s said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. Along the way, she meets biologists who are trying to preserve the world’s rarest fish, which lives in a single tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave; engineers who are turning carbon emissions to stone in Iceland; Australian researchers who are trying to develop a “super coral” that can survive on a hotter globe; and physicists who are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to cool the earth.

One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face."

I cannot see at all that there is any political will whatsoever in any of the developed countries to give any more than lip service and minor half-hearted support to these ideas and experiments Kolbert describes. Every single one of them involve astronomical economic burdens and require unprecedented cooperation of all the tribal territories/governments of Earth. Many of the ideas are theoretical and untried or, if currently being implemented, are not easily scaled up or not possible to scale up. Kolbert writes of ideas that were tried in the 1970's and proved a failure. Nor is it known if the sideways consequences of some of the ideas to slow global warming might be worse than the original problem. For example, increasing the reflection of heat/light back into space could cause catastrophic failure of agricultural crops.

The book has Notes and Credits sections.

My personal thoughts:

People being what they are, I predict a future Earth full of warring dystopian societies for a long while before any true civilization returns. I think there will be only wealthy people, not wealthy countries. The scale of disruption caused by global warming is literally global, but the experiments scientists are doing today involve small caverns, or a field, or a reef, or an island. Stop and start, stop and start, funding permitting. There are almost 200 countries on Earth - each one populated by self-interested and tribal xenophobic humans, with every current society having layers of competing haves and have nots...

I am going to be 70 years old soon. Frankly, as an ordinary low-income and maybe humble individual, I am very happy after finishing reading this book that the existential problems future generations will be struggling with in dealing with global warming very probably are ones I will not have. Good luck.

I highly recommend The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
Profile Image for Canon.
688 reviews79 followers
September 14, 2023
"A new question stubbornly refused to leave her alone: Is Nature really natural?" - Liu Cixin, Death's End

Kolbert's answer to this question is that in our current epoch known as the Anthropocene, no. At least, nature is no longer (if it ever was) a clearly demarcatable category, one that can be usefully separated from and opposed to the artifacts of human culture. Hence, the irony that this book organizes itself around is that "people [are] trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems."

If the prospect of "humans playing god" disturbs some people, Kolbert shows that humans have already been exercising a godlike or demonic power to decreate the world in their image.

If geo-engineering sounds far-fetched, Kolbert shows that humans have already been acting as unwitting geo-engineers, with disastrous results.

Having arrived at this hazardous juncture, humans will have no choice but to use the same Promethean powers that brought on our climate crisis to try to solve it.

Our best prospects are far from some return to a pre-Industrial Eden (just as the hope of "returning to normalcy" after Covid has gradually been relinquished) — it is merely a less deadly future: "Geo-engineerings 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?"

Kolbert's answer to this question is yes. At least, it seems like humanity is increasingly being pushed into a corner, and will have to consider many solutions.

Ironies abound in this account. In a characteristic reversal of power, human hubris tightens the sense of fatedness; ideals of civilization and environmental control bring degradation and precariousness; the very human ingenuity that has brought the crisis must be relied on to address it; only actual disaster may move humans to act proactively; a greater awareness of the non-human environment is profoundly anthropocentric, born of concern with our survival.

Speaking with "engineers and genetic engineers, biologists and microbiologists, atmospheric scientists and atmospheric entrepreneurs," Kolbert surveys technologies from electric fish barriers to synthetic clouds that have been proposed, and in some cases actually used, to address environmental and climate crises.

The scientists Kolbert speaks with are enthusiastic about their work, but also skeptical, and the solutions they are working on are "presented... less in a spirit of techno-optimism than what might be called techno-fatalism." In other words, we've arrived at the future.

For those who've read other things by Kolbert, her vignettes and episodic style will be familiar. The sense of envy that as a premier journalist she gets paid to travel the world and do all sorts of extravagant things may also ring a bell (don't worry, she pays a company in Iceland to offset her carbon footprint by converting carbon dioxide into rocks).

Each chapter looks at a particular technology and the people who are working on it in relation to some facet of our unfolding climate catastrophe. I'm generally not a fan of journalistic narrative, but I've always found Kolbert's writing engaging and enjoyable.

In line with the ironies I mentioned above, this book left me feeling neither wholly optimistic nor wholly pessimistic, though tilted toward the latter. The international and US governmental response to Covid did not, let's say, leave me feeling confident about the ability of humans to collectively address our burgeoning climate crisis. I would be fibbing if I said I didn't feel relief that I don't have kids who would grow up to live in this world's future.

Nevertheless, Kolbert is not a pessimist, and she's not saying hope is lost. In fact, she points to many possible solutions. But again, the existence of solutions is not the main issue — the “political will” to use them is.

Or, if there are many in the American public who express willingness to address the issue, the problem is the disconnect between political will and the exercise of power. Or, if one country does take significant legislative action on climate change, as for example the United States has in the last couple of years, others may not follow suit.

This gets to troubling lines of thought about the inadequacies of democracy to address our common problems, precisely because of its democratic dysfunction — it does not actually enact the will of the people or have the capacity to achieve a common good, and insofar as it can be said to, it’s slow-moving. And even if there are local successes, there are enormous challenges to enacting an international response to a global problem. This is to say nothing of countries that continue to exacerbate the problem — including those that have made progress.

In any event, the state of our politics and government, like the whole of human life, is deeply intwined with that of our planet. One can imagine Kolbert saying, "It's the endgame."
Profile Image for marta the book slayer.
426 reviews1,063 followers
November 24, 2021
"I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.”


Absolutely informative from start to finish.

Elizabeth Kolbert begins this novel in the Chicago river. She discusses the history of the Chicago ecosystem and the project to reverse the flow of the river to prevent invasive species from migrating into Lake Michigan. This sets the scenes for her journey into finding out ways humanity is trying to reverse the destruction they have caused before it's too late.

She travels the world and interviews various scientists to discuss topics ranging from:
∙invasive species of carp in Mississippi
∙the city of New Orleans
∙pupfish in Death Valley
“What good are pupfish?” they’d demand. “What good are you?” Pister would respond.

∙carbon capture
∙geoengineering coral to withstand hot temperatures
∙ways to decrease the temperature of the planet.

This novel is fascinating from start to finish. Despite the wide range of topics, I did not lose focus reading this book and it was extremely difficult to read anything else (I even took it to my hair colorist, where I spent the 20 min waiting for my hair to bleach trying to understand CRSPR)

I love the way she writes because the science background she provides is sufficient enough to understand the issue. I'm looking forward to eventually reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

TL;DR: "This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems."

part of race against time challenge (aka read all 2021 releases before the year ends.)
Profile Image for Wojciech Szot.
Author 16 books1,112 followers
May 16, 2022
- W tej historii zaintrygowało mnie wszystko - pisze Elizabeth Kolbert o karpieńcach diablich, które żyją w Devils Hole, niewielkim acz głębokim zbiorniku wodnym w amerykańskim stanie Newada. Walkę o przetrwanie małych rybek, których liczebność waha się od kilkudziesięciu do ponad stu osobników, prowadzą biolodzy i biolożki z kilku instytucji, a jej koszty sięgają milionów dolarów. Żeby uchronić zwierzątka przed turystami zbudowano nawet Devils Hole Junior, która imituje oryginalną pieczarę, co ma umożliwić rozmnożenie gatunku. Nie jest to łatwe, bo natury - jak się okazuje - nie można skopiować. Choć walka o to trwa na różnych frontach.

W tej historii zaintrygowało mnie wszystko - powtarzam słowa ameryka��skiej dziennikarki mając na myśli jej książkę “Pod białym niebem. Natura przyszłości”. To dzieło imponujące skalą - Kolbert odwiedza Grenlandię i Australię, lata z naukowcami nad deltą Missisipi i pływa po kanałach zarybionych przez tołpygi białe, które wypierają inne ryby i mogą przyczynić się do degradacji bioróżnorodności w Wielkich Jeziorach. Każde zdanie w tej książce to efekt gigantycznej pracy, która ma na celu pokazanie czytelnikom w jaki sposób walczy się dzisiaj z katastrofą klimatyczną, w jaki sposób badacze i badaczki zajmujący się tą nierówną walką próbują wyprzedzić rzeczywistość i skierować losy świata na nowe trajektorie. Od imponujących projektów, jak geoinżyniera solarna, której twórcy uważają, że dzięki wypuszczonym w stratosferze cząsteczkom uda się rozproszyć światło i zmniejszyć ilość energii docierającej do ziemi (oraz sprawić, że niebo będzie białe), po projekty mikroskopijne w skali, a mające - być może - decydujące znaczenie dla naszej przyszłości, jak właśnie walka o przetrwanie karpieńców.

Kolbert zagląda do laboratoriów, gdzie poddaje się genetycznej modyfikacji zwierzęta, tak by kolejne pokolenia nie miały genów odpowiedzialnych za reprodukcję, czyta raporty omawiające zmianę klimatu - od tych z lat 60., po najnowsze ustalenia. I choć każdy z przedstawionych przez dziennikarkę sposób walki o przyszłość planety wydaje się być usprawiedliwionym i słusznym, to w każdym Kolbert dostrzega też niebezpieczeństwa. Nie brak w tej książce fascynacji autorki kolejnymi rozwiązaniami, ale również trzeźwego i krytycznego oglądu. Na każdy z problemów patrzymy w tej książce z wielu punktów widzenia i dostrzegamy, że walka o zachowanie bioróżnorodności jest walką o kontrolę nad i tak już kontrolowaną naturą.

Jaki jest sens wydawać miliony dolarów na zachowanie karpieńców, których łączna waga jest równa rybnemu kotlecikowi dołączanemu do bułki w sieci fast-foodów? Zwłaszcza, gdy w innej części Stanów odmawia się ratowania przed zalaniem przez morze ziemi należącej do rdzennych plemion? Człowiek niszczy planetę przez jej kontrolę. Pomysły na ratunek - zawracanie rzek, budowę sztucznych zapór, czy przechwytywanie dwutlenku węgla, który zamieniany jest w skałę - to też kontrola. Dlaczego każda próba odwrócenia tego procesu wciąż jest kontrolą kontroli? To - pisze Kolbert - jakby leczyć uzależnienie od jednej używki, drugą.

Jestem zachwycony tym, że autorka “Pod białym niebem” nie podsuwa czytelnikowi odpowiedzi na rodzące się pytania i sama też - choć zafascynowana pracą ludzi, którzy są bohaterami i bohaterkami jej książki - ma do nich dystans. To książka niesamowicie uczciwa i imponująca skalą. A jednocześnie fascynująca, bo zabiera nas Kolbert w miejsca niedostępne dla zwykłego śmiertelnika, gdzie fascynaci i szaleńcy myślą o naszej przyszłości w nieszablonowy sposób. A czeka nas - jak pisze autorka - bezprecedensowy świat, w którym będzie panował bezprecedensowy klimat. I mimo starań i walki niż już na to nie poradzimy. Możemy aplikować lekarstwa, ale czy organizm wytrzyma eksperymentalną terapię? Raczej nie, ale próbować trzeba. Wciąż jednak największym problemem nie jest ludzka pomysłowość i wyobraźnia, a fundusze i polityka - większość projektów opisywanych przez Kolbert może w każdej chwili być zawieszona, jeśli politycy uznają, że są one zbyt kosztowne, a efekty zbyt mało imponujące, by chwalić się nimi w kampaniach wyborczych. Jesteśmy zakładnikami samych siebie.

Niezwykły jest również lakoniczny, a jednocześnie momentami całkiem poetycki, literacko sprawny styl pisania Kolbert. Udanie porusza się między artykułem prasowym, publicystyką, a reportażem dzięki czemu ta niezwykle bogata w treść książka nie ma nawet trzystu stron.

Świat widziany oczami naukowców opisywanych przez Kolbert jest światem, w którym ludzie nie tylko będą ustalać warunki przemian, ale i kontrolować - w najbardziej futurystycznych wizjach - ich rezultaty. W efekcie może i przetrwamy, ale czy naprawdę o to chodzi? Czy czeka nas życie “pod białym niebem” i czy nie zatęsknimy za niebieskim firmamentem? Lubię książki, które skłaniają do zadawania nowych pytań. To zdecydowanie jedna z nich. Bardzo Państwu polecam.
Profile Image for Brendan Monroe.
591 reviews150 followers
February 18, 2021
Have you ever watched any of those famous British documentary series on our planet? If you haven't, you absolutely should — they're phenomenal (how do they get that amazing footage??). Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, most — "Planet Earth," "Frozen Planet," "Blue Planet" — have aired on the BBC, but the most recent, "Our Planet," was released on Netflix.

Much of these series, particularly "Our Planet," focuses on the harm that humans are doing to the environment and the creatures and habitats that are threatened by man-made climate change. But to avoid being entirely all gloom and doom, there's always a few minutes towards the end where the producers make room for a bit on the effort a few good humans are trying to make to rehabilitate decimated coral reefs, save some species from extinction, or develop some sort of waste-reducing technology.

Many books in the climate change genre are the same way. Everything's looking very bad indeed, as David Wallace-Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming tells us, but let's spend a few lines talking about this technology that may offer up some hope.

Elizabeth Kolbert's previous book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, was the same way — around 300 pages of pretty bleak stuff with a dozen or so more hopeful pages tacked on at the end so we don't all just go kill ourselves.

This, then, is her sort of elaborating on those dozen or so pages. This is those few minutes in "Blue Planet" talking about the attempted restoration of bleached coral reefs blown up into book length form ... or something like it.

Because, in fact, "Under a White Sky" is a rather slim read. Clocking in just around 250 pages, or about six hours in the audiobook format, which is how I chose to imbibe it, it's tellingly shorter than many of those "we're completely fucked" climate change tomes that get released on an increasingly routine basis.

And if this does pass as the "good" news on the climate change front, that just goes to show how dire the situation really is. Because this book is full of ideas that scientists and others are working on that might help reverse some of the effects of global warming ... or that might make everything much, much worse. There's just no telling.

Towards the end, Kolbert writes that "Under a White Sky" is “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems,” and that sums it up perfectly.

As a result, "Under the White Sky" is a sort of travelogue of doom, in which Kolbert treks from place to place to see firsthand the effect that invasive species have had or measure exactly how many acres of Louisiana have been swallowed by the sea in recent years.

In one case, Kolbert investigates the city of Chicago's attempt back in the year 1900 to divert waste from Lake Michigan — the city's main source of drinking water — by reversing the flow of the Chicago River.

The city did succeed in reversing the flow of the river, but in doing so they connected the basin of the Great Lakes with that of the Mississippi River, which in turn resulted in an ecological calamity when invasive species from one poured into the other.

The message, in any case, is clear: for every possible solution that may exist to lessen the damage already being caused by global warming, there is an equally bad, if not significantly worse, outcome that may result.

So what are we to do?

Depending upon the scientists you're listening to, we've already reached a degree and a half Celsius of warming, meaning that surpassing the 2°C goal set by the Paris Climate Accords is already a foregone conclusion. Many scientists believe that we're well on our way to 4°C of warming, and possibly more, unless we take immediate measures to curb our carbon output, something that is, let's be honest, not going to happen.

So as scary as, say, "dimming the fucking sun" is, Elizabeth Kolbert asks the key question — “What’s the alternative?”

“Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back," she writes. "The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing.”

We could pine for what was, agonize over the things we should have done 10, 20, 30 years ago, but none of that matters anymore because the chance to preserve that planet is already gone.

So, in an effort to preserve today's planet, do we experiment with gene-editing tools like CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) in the hope that by doing so, we can edit the genes of a few invasive species and release them back into the wild so that'll hopefully eliminate their kin?

What climate change has left us with, then, is a 21st century version of the trolley problem. Would you dim the sun, experiment with gene editing technology, deploy light-reflective particles into the atmosphere — risking severe and in some cases certain negative consequences — if there's a possibility that doing so might save the planet?

In the words of Andy Parker, the project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, “we live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.”

With hopes like these, who needs despair?
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
624 reviews2,040 followers
January 21, 2022
A book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.

Elizabeth Kolbert (author of the Sixth Extinction - see my review of it here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) takes a lil’ peakiepooo at some of our possible futures which may (completely out of necessity) include any variety of climate environmental engineering tactics/disasters.

The title is derived from a solar-geo-engineering strategy that entails launching billions of tons of reflective particulate matter into the stratosphere, shielding us from solar radiation, and subsequently cooling the planet back down to “normal” (what ever that means) levels (we hope).

It may be the easiest, most practical, cheapest, most down and dirty way to save our biscuits from baking, burning and drowning, but (BIG BUT) it will probably necessitate launching tons more carbon into the atmosphere (making the actual cause of the actual problem WAY worse), and it will also have the awesomely inconceivable effect of turning the sky white.

If that doesn’t sound too bad, let it sink in for a moment…

What could possibly go wrong…

For those of you are still unconcerned about the whole white sky thing.

Please be concerned.


Because we have ABSOLUTELY no idea what the knock on effects of turning the sky white would be.

Birds and fish and stuff my not be able to migrate.

It could fuck the sleep wake cycles of literally every animal.

Not to mention the effects on agriculture.

You might not eat grains and plants.

But the cows and chickens you eat still do.

And a WOLE lot of people still do.

Particularly the ones who can’t afford to eat cows and chickens.

And that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

God (if you believe in that nonsense) only knows what else.

We may (at that point) need to do a bunch of other stuff to solve all the problems that the white sky thing made.

And those problems might have problems that need solving.

Cue downward spiral image and sound effect of choice 🌀


It would only be temporary, and if (for what ever reason) we had to stop doing it, the temperature would immediately revert to the hotter levels.

And if we continued to emit carbon for that whole time, we would go to that new level, and just like that, everything melts, sea levels rise, and a bunch of plants, people and cute cute lil’ kids and animals die too.

This is only one example of the 5 dimensional chess/poker/Russian roulette style geo-engineering options we may be forced to deploy.

And by we, I don’t mean some type of rainbow uniformed, united, cooperative international coalition.

The only thing less likely than reducing carbon emissions to zero, is global consensus and cooperation.

These types of geo-engineering projects would have global winners and losers, and would likely have to be enacted by one or several allied nation states, at the protest of others, and could conceivably spark WWIII (but that’s a different book).

Imagine if you will, Saudi Arabia unilaterally enacting a solar-geo-engineering project that turned the sky white, and made their part of the earth habitable, but turned Russia back into a glacier.

My guess is, that would make them grouchy.

Imagine the alternative scenario, where sea levels rise 20 feet due to melting polar ice caps, and whole nations gradually (or suddenly) disappear.

The amount of dislocated people would make the recent Syrian humanitarian crisis look minor in comparison.

So there’s all that…


Unless you’re a climate denier, when it comes to global climate devastation, you’re probably (a) completely overwhelmed, (b) frozen in dread and, (c) not trying to think about it too much.

Which means you’re probably not reading this.

But if you are.

Than start with The Sith Extinction (by the same author) and read this right after. It will wake you up, and probably keep you awake at night. But if there ever was a good reason to loose sleep.

This is it.

5/5 little melted ice cap tears 😑😐😮😦😥
Profile Image for Dana Berglund.
1,078 reviews13 followers
January 1, 2021

4.5 stars.
It must be hard to be a science reporter in 2020. Finding the right balance between presenting the research, exploring the background, and trying to get your readers to care (or critique, or mobilize) would be quite the struggle. If, as scientist Dan Schrag says in the book, a scientist’s job is to describe the world as accurately as possible, then I think the job of *making people care about it* falls to the science reporters. Elizabeth Kolbert has picked up this mantle, showing us both the small and the gargantuan efforts to fix the environmental mistakes/disasters/problems that people have caused. She has made it interesting, accessible, and grounded, so that we can see both some possible “good news” and also some serious cause for alarm.
Humans have so thoroughly altered the patterns of flora, fauna, and climate that it may only be through more human action that we can mitigate the problems we’ve created. Some of the proposed actions may sound like Franken-science: electrified rivers! Genetically engineered invasive species! Spraying the stratosphere with diamonds particles! But each chapter tells the story of scientists who are diligently working to solve a problem or answer questions left by our other decisions. They are thinking up the big ideas that may save parts of the world’s coral reefs, or the whole peninsula of New Orleans. There was a lot to learn, be interested in, and look up more information on while reading this book.
Though Kolbert threads together the idea of human intervention, some of the chapters still feel more like separate articles, and your interest level may wax or wane with the particulars of that chapter. (But who wouldn’t want to learn more about destructive carp?) The final section, called Up in the Air, tackles three angles on global climate, temperature and carbon dioxide, coming together in a more cohesive section. It was a little more technically dense, but also more about the bigger picture. Invasive carp, or toads, won’t much matter if the global temperature raises 4 or 5 degrees. The ending feels a little abrupt, perhaps because of the timing of COVID, or perhaps not. We’re left wanting more--more data, more solutions, and more connections. But overall, a great science read for a non-scientist.
I received an ARC of this book from Crown as part of Goodreads Giveaways, but the opinions in this review are my own.
Profile Image for Kerry.
837 reviews101 followers
February 1, 2022
Took me awhile to get to this but am so glad I did. I loved Sixth Extinction and this was an excellent follow up. Very depressing however.
"This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems."

Can we fix the problems we have created--from Asian Carp to sinking Louisiana to the melting of the polar ice. Some of the solutions are scarier than doing nothing. So much to think about here. The writing is easy to understand. I used a hybrid of the print book and the audio. The book has lots of good diagrams so I would recommend it even if you listen to some of the audio. Highly recommend along with The Story of More by Hope Jahren. Both great science for the layman about climate change .
477 reviews151 followers
January 5, 2021
Kolbert is one of the few science writers whose articles in The New Yorker I always read as soon as they appear, and I'm not a big science reader. Her last book, The Sixth Extinction, won a Pulitzer in 2015 and was a bestseller. Deservedly on both counts.

Her new book, Under a White Sky likewise explores what mankind is doing to the world. It is sobering and serious -- even terrifying -- but it's written in with humor, lively curiosity, and a sensitive tone throughout. It's like hearing bad news from a really good friend. That's rather akin to the "spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" paradigm, I suppose, but it works well. The point is, after all, to get people to read the book, to pay attention.

Kolbert describes 'White Sky" as being "about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems." That is, an examination of unintended consequences. Early in the book, for example, she talks about one of the seminal texts of the environmental movement, Silent Spring. In that work, Rachel Carson roundly criticized what she described as an arrogant effort to try to control nature through the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides like DDT. Rather than chemicals, Carson advocated "biological controls:" selected parasites, useful predators, and so on. She wasn't wrong, of course -- the chemicals were doing horrible damage to wildlife, particularly birds. Reaction to the book and its argument was immediate, Kolbert tells us: "One year after Silent Spring's publication, in 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought the first documented shipment of Asian carp to America. The idea was to use the carp, much as Carson had recommended, to keep aquatic weeds in check." (She notes parenthetically that some of these weeds were themselves "introduced species.")

A valiant effort, and clearly well-intentioned. But: Today the Great Lakes, Illinois River, and even the Mississippi are plagued or threatened by an exploding population of voracious Asian carp that out-competes all indigenous species and has no predators. One, the so-called "silver-carp," actually jumps out of the water when startled (by, for example, outboard motors), injuring fishermen, boaters, Jet Skiers, and swimmers -- even knocking them out, because they're pretty big fish. All manner of interventions have been attempted to reduce the carp population and stop the spread. One such effort resulted in signs being posted along waterways warning people from, well, pretty much all water activities. One bright red sign reads "DANGER: ENTERING ELECTRIC FISH BARRIERS. HIGH RISK OF ELECTRIC SHOCK." Spoiler alert: The problem hasn't been solved.

Under a White Sky explores similar ill-fated efforts at controlling nature -- and what's being pondered now that global warming becomes more and more assured. There have been many examples of "global change" over the course of earth's history -- the extinction of dinosaurs, for one -- but nothing like what we're facing now. Kolbert's description is succinct: "Humans are producing no-analog climates, no-analog ecosystems, a whole no-analog future... And so we face a no-analog predicament."

Kolbert's book covers a lot of territory, conceptually, historically, and geographically:
• an endangered small species of fish, the Devil's Hole pupfish, which "may well be the rarest fish in the world." (This is the part of the book where I learned that Edward Abbey wrote most of Desert Solitaire, one of my favorite books, sitting in the bar of a brothel near Devil's Hole. That sounds about right.)
• efforts to save and revive the Great Barrier and coral reefs ("It's estimated that one out of every four creatures in the oceans spends at least part of its life on a reef.")
• genetic engineering technology (she mails away for a "bacterial CRISPR and fluorescent yeast combo kit" from a company in California and performs an experiment. "It felt a little creepy," Kolbert writes, "engineering a drug-resistant strain of E. coli in my kitchen.")
• ice core readings in Greenland that demonstrate jaw-dropping variations in temperature over as little as 50 years. ("It was as if New York City had suddenly become Houston, or Houston had become Riyadh, and then flipped back again.") The possible significance of these readings is, let's say, shattering, but I won't go into it here.
• research into what we might do to halt, slow, or reverse global climate change through solar geoengineering (Kolbert quotes one scientist as saying, "We live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.") One avenue of research might change our skies from blue to white (hence the book's title), but the sunsets would be glorious.
• and a whole lot more (I particularly enjoyed her discussion of cane toads, another "introduced specie:" they can grow to be the size of a chihuahua, are toxic -- "the list of species whose numbers have crashed due to cane-toad consumption is long and varied" -- and are expanding their habitats by some 30 miles a year! There's actually a device called "The Toadinator" used to try to slow their population growth. I can't wait for the SYFI-TV movie. )

Our "no-analog" situation is dire, Kolbert notes, but a lot of people are spending a lot of time thinking about what we can do about it. The challenge is perhaps best captured on a poster she saw at LSU, words attributed to Albert Einstein: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

My thanks to Crown Books for providing a digital ARC in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for jeremy.
1,133 reviews279 followers
December 7, 2020
in her first book since the pulitzer prize-winning the sixth extinction: an unnatural history, elizabeth kolbert delves once more into our anthropocenic epoch. under a white sky: the nature of the future finds the new yorker staff writer moving beyond a chronicling of the myriad calamities ahead and instead focusing on mitigation attempts, large and small, currently underway and/or under consideration. the underlying (if largely unspoken) question posed by kolbert's new book (so named for the blue-less skies that would likely result from widespread solar geoengineering) is that if human-induced climate change, habitat loss, biodiversity crashes, the proliferative destruction of invasive species, etc. were wrought by our own collective hand, what makes us think any attempt at benevolent meddling would actually work out the way we intended or even hoped it might? [spoiler: hubris springs eternal]

kolbert offers sobering, but fascinating looks into asian carp, the louisiana delta, pupfish, coral reefs, cane toads, crispr & gene-editing, and negative-emissions technologies to exemplify and explore the situations of and our responses to some very dire environmental consequences. kolbert's writing is always incisive, illuminating, and beautifully composed, often with traces of wit and humor to lighten an otherwise altogether distressing subject.

kolbert foregoes an alarmist bent, presumably because she trusts her readers to infer the urgency of her work. curiously, she doesn't explicitly situate her most recent reporting within an overarching or unifying context, which would almost certainly have benefitted both the narrative and readers unfamiliar with such subjects (sections of the book appeared previously in the new yorker, but it's lacking a thematic summation or intro/outro of some kind). nonetheless, kolbert's writing remains ever timely and engrossing, and under a white sky is another work of grave import.
the choice is not between what was and what is but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing.
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