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“Under a White Sky” explores whether you have to play with nature to save it

Under a white sky
Elizabeth Kolbert
Crown, $ 28

In 1900, the city of Chicago completed a 45-mile-long canal that altered the hydrology of two-thirds of the United States.

That was not the intention, of course. The plan was to reverse the flow of the Chicago River to divert waste from the city’s drinking water source: Lake Michigan. The engineering feat worked, but it also connected the basins of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, two of the world’s largest, and hitherto isolated, freshwater ecosystems, allowing invasive species to spill through the opening and wreak havoc.

Elizabeth Kolbert opens Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future with this parable of humans' hubristic attempts to control nature. We wrote, we set our minds on blocking or diverting most of the planet’s rivers, replacing vast stretches of natural ecosystems with crops, and burning so much fossil fuel that 1 in 3 molecules of atmospheric carbon dioxide came from human action. We have warmed the atmosphere, raised sea levels, wiped out countless species and forged an uncertain future for humanity and the planet.

Our collective ingenuity has put us in this mess and Kolbert explores whether that same ingenuity can get us out. This is “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems,” he writes. Proper follow-up to its sixth Pulitzer Prize-winning extinction (SN: 22/02/14, p. 28), the book will satisfy readers interested in skeptical research into how innovation could save coral reefs or transform warming. climate. carbon in stone.

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Kolbert takes a first-hand look at many of these interventions. It starts on a boat, traveling down the Chicago Canal to inspect the electrical barriers designed to prevent the invading Asian tents from altering the Great Lakes forever. The Asian carp was introduced into the Mississippi River basin in the 1960s as a biological weedwacker to control invasive plants. But the tents have swum across the basin and are now knocking on the door of Lake Michigan. The simple closure of the canal would protect the lakes, but it is largely disregarded for being too disturbing for the city. On the contrary, humans innovate. “First you invest in a river,” Kolbert writes. "Then electrify him."

Each chapter is based on this topic of increasingly elaborate (or desperate?) Interventions aimed at limiting the consequences of prior problem solving. The breadth of the problems also widens, which could leave a reader’s head spinning, but Kolbert keeps his globe trot in immersive reports and repeated nods to the tragic and often comic absurdity of it all.

To save the endangered Devil Hole puppy fish (Cyprinodon diabolis), a two-inch-long sapphire streak found in a single desert pool in Nevada, researchers have built a $ 4.5 million replica of the pool for housing a backup population. The drill – which mimics the smallest details of the actual pool, including a surface shelf reconstructed from laser images of the real – requires 24-hour custody. While Kolbert notes that staff use tweezers to remove beetles that taste like new young fish, he notes how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run it.

cave in NevadaThis water-filled cave in Nevada is the only place in the world where Devils Hole puppies live in the wild.USFWS Pacific Southwest Region / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Saving larger ecosystems may require more powerful tools. In Australia, we come across researchers trying to genetically engineer less toxic cane frogs, an invasive species that is poisoning an incalculable number of native animals. Genetic propulsion technology, which loads inheritance data to drive certain mutations across a population (SN: 12/12/15, p. 16), could make all cane frogs safer to eat for generations. Other scientists are considering using genes to eliminate invasive rodents from islands like New Zealand.

Such power could prove difficult to handle, and many worry that it would backfire. Mouse-killing gene units can escape from an island and spread around the world.

Kolbert does not explicitly argue for or against these measures, but frankly acknowledges the bets. "What's the alternative?" she writes. "Rejecting such unnatural technologies will not return nature. The choice is not between what has been and what is, but between what is and what will be, which is often nothing."

Humanity’s boldest idea to curb the collateral damage of modernization is geoengineering. By filling the stratosphere with reflective particles, Kolbert explains, we could almost immediately begin to reverse global warming. But it would also turn the sky white, revolutionizing weather patterns and who knows what else. The fundamental resource of all life, sunlight, would be intentionally obscured.

If we acted decades ago to curb greenhouse gas emissions or limit habitat destruction, such schemes would still be science fiction. But we threw the can down the road too long. Gene editing species or geoengineering can be completely crazy and baffling, Kolbert writes, but if they can get us out of the hole we dig for ourselves, don’t we have to at least take it into account? Kolbert can’t tell if these technologies can save us and the planet, or just make it worse.

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