Book Review: “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” by Elizabeth Kolbert

| Advocacy, Climate Change, Colorado Native Plants

Review by Tom Swihart

If you liked Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” or “The Sixth Extinction,” you may like her new book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.” Kolbert provides a number of extraordinary stories about projects to “save” nature, by intensive human efforts, from the problems created by other human efforts.
You may already know something about the invasive species concerns arising from the reversal of the Chicago River. And we all have heard generally of the many projects to hold back the ocean from inundating New Orleans. Most of us do not know about research to modify the invasive Cane Toad in Australia to make it less toxic. I also suspect that few of us know the scale of effort devoted to preserving the Devil’s Hole pupfish in its minute habitat west of Las Vegas.

The “White Sky” reference in the title refers to how injecting millions of tons of sulphur dioxide each year into the atmosphere would reduce incoming solar radiation but also make the sky less blue. Are we approaching the point at which such massive global interventions are wiser than failed efforts to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases?

Closer to home, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife reports that, “There are 117 plant species in Colorado considered to be globally imperiled and vulnerable to extinction. Of those, 68 species are found only in Colorado, and nowhere else in the world.” The Denver Botanic Garden informs us that “Prioritizing and determining needed actions to conserve a rare plant species takes a lot of data and a large effort to create thoughtful and meaningful management plans.” Which species can be protected against extinction? At what cost?
Kolbert’s book is all about “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” It seems to me that our interest in transforming lawns and landscapes toward native species falls in that category. For example, we are forced to consider assisted migration of plants in the face of intensifying climate change. We implicitly make decisions about which pollinating insects and other organisms we might favor and whether promoting native landscapes will increase water use. We also decide the degree to which our priorities advance the interests of underserved communities.
I wonder what risks each of us in Front Range would be willing to endorse to reduce the impacts of invasive plants. Would we accept genetically-engineered insects designed to prey on the unwanted plants, even if there might be complications? Although chemical or bio-engineering projects to reduce those environmental harms have their own risks, is it sometimes better to take the chance on them over the alternative of seemingly irrepressible range expansions? No matter what we decide, the choices are difficult and may have uncertain and unintended results.
As in her previous books, Kolbert does not view it as her job to provide a series of answers to these troubling questions. That is left to all of us.