In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Kolbert provides examples of humans interfering with the natural world, such as the ill-fated introduction of Asian carp into the Chicago River, and describes contemporary efforts to ameliorate the effects of those initial interventions. While many of these efforts are unconventional and could indeed compound the detrimental impacts, Kolbert contends that ambitious action—from building new infrastructure to transforming the United States’ energy system—likely will prove necessary.
Listen to the Podcast
- People finding ways to fix past mistakes in the environment: “The book is about ways that we—humanity—have intervened in natural systems … sometimes consciously or purposefully, sometimes unconsciously and unwittingly. And now, we are realizing we don’t really care for the results of that, so we’re looking for new ways to intervene—to counteract or ameliorate the effects of the first intervention … All of these things were done for reasons that people thought were good at the time; they just haven’t quite worked out that way.” (3:00)
- Convoluted attempts to solve human-caused problems: “Chicago undertook a massive construction project that had the effect of not just reversing the flow of the Chicago River, but of connecting the Great Lakes water system to the Mississippi water system. Now, you have [the invasive] Asian carp right on the threshold, basically at the entrance to the Great Lakes … So the idea that the Army Corps of Engineers comes up with to try to keep them out of the Great Lakes is to zap them with a lot of voltage.” (9:24)
- Irreversible human impacts on ecosystems: “We don’t have any choice anymore. We’re not going back. There’s a sort of romantic stream in the environmental movement, which I myself participate in. It’s this notion that if we left things alone, maybe we could all just lead much simpler lives, and the world would be a much better place. That’s certainly true. But we’re not going back. We’re not getting the climate back; we’re not getting that heat out of the oceans; we’re not getting back those creatures that we’ve driven to the brink of extinction; we’re not getting those invasive species out of the landscape.” (18:22)
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The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week we talked to New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. The book is a fascinating and, at times, a darkly funny exploration of how humanity is trying to manage the negative effects we've had on the natural world. Using examples like the Asian carp, endangered desert pupfish, the Great Barrier Reef and solar geoengineering, Elizabeth interviews leading experts around the world who are using new technologies to try and counteract the harms done by old technologies. It's a fascinating book and we had a really fun conversation. Stay with us.
Okay, Elizabeth Kolbert from the New Yorker—which happens to be my favorite magazine in the world, and you are one of my favorite authors in it. It's really a pleasure to have you today on Resources Radio.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, thanks for having me.
Daniel Raimi: Elizabeth, we're going to talk about your new book, which is called Under a White Sky, and it's a fascinating book. I'm really excited to ask you some questions about it. But first we ask all of our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues in the first place. So what attracted you to reporting on environmental issues?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, even as a kid back a long time ago, I was interested in and concerned about environmental issues—so I wouldn't say there's a single moment in my life. What really launched me on my current sort of trajectory was when I went to the New Yorker 20 years ago now. I got this idea in my head—this was a time when there was still a lot of so-called “debate” about climate change—and I got this idea in my head that I was going to settle this debate once and for all. Yeah, it was a wonderfully naive notion. But that's sort of what got me on my current writing about climate change now for a good 15, 16, 17 years.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Your work on the topic has been so influential for many of our listeners, I'm sure, and for many more people in the United States and around the world. The new book Under a White Sky is really fascinating. I imagine many of our listeners have read it already, but some probably have not. So for those few people in our audience who have not yet purchased and read the book, could you give us just kind of a quick overview of what the book is all about and maybe highlight a couple of the cases that you study?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Sure. So the book is about ways that we—humanity—have intervened in what I will call for lack of a better phrase, “natural systems,” sometimes consciously or purposefully, sometimes unconsciously and unwittingly. And now we are realizing we don't really care for the results of that, and so we're looking for new ways to intervene, to counteract or ameliorate the effects of the first intervention. As I put it in the book, not for control of nature but the control of the control of nature, this sort of second order intervention. Some of the examples that I look at are, in one case, an effort to try to save a fish whose habitat was wrecked by pumping from an aquifer. This second intervention has involved building the fish an entirely fake habitat to live in.
I also talk about coral reefs which are being very, very badly damaged by rising water temperatures, and now a group of scientists trying to figure out how we can manipulate corals—which are these tiny little animals that build coral reefs— so that they can withstand higher water temperatures. That's a practice that's been dubbed “assisted evolution.” So I'd go to some folks who are doing gene editing in an attempt to undo a great deal of damage that was done by bringing species of toxic toad to Australia. That is the sort of second wave of interventions, Earth 2.0.
Daniel Raimi: One other term that you use towards the end of the book is “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” That was my favorite way of thinking about it.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, exactly. All of these things were done, as I say, some consciously, some not entirely consciously—but they were done for reasons that people thought were good at the time. They just haven't quite worked out that way.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah. The toad example is another favorite of mine because my wife and I, one of our first dates was watching a movie called Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah. That's a wonderful cult classic movie, I really recommend it. It's from the 1980s now, but it's really a great movie.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. So we're not going to focus on Cane Toads today, to my wife's dismay, but instead I'm going to ask you a little bit about a different case in the book. Then we're going to talk about some bigger picture things after that. So let's start with the case of the four famous fishes. This is the way that you start, the book talking about these fish. Can you tell us about the four famous fishes, and how they got imported into the United States and then ultimately how it led to the Army Corps of Engineers electrifying a portion of the Chicago River?
Elizabeth Kolbert: So this is a long and somewhat tangled tale, but to try to give the thumbnail version of it: The four famous domestic fishes are raised together in aquaculture in China, very, very successfully—many, many, many billions of pounds every year. They do well together because they eat different things; therefore they can coexist well and, in fact, arguably promote each other. They were brought to the United States for different reasons precisely because they do have different feeding habits. One species which is known as grass carp was supposedly going to feed on invasive weeds and aquatic weeds. It's an herbivore. Another species was brought in because a lot of communities were under pressure—this was in the 1960s and 1970s—to upgrade their sewage systems because of a lot of nutrient loading from insufficiently treated sewage
The idea was the fish were going to eat the algae blooms, and this was going to help with this nutrient loading problem. So they were brought in for admirable reasons, and one of the interesting ironies is that this was the period right after Silent Spring. Some of those species were brought in in an effort to bio-control, which is what Rachel Carson recommends in Silent Spring. The argument goes: we shouldn't be dumping chemicals on the landscape, and we should instead set one species to do the job of the chemicals. If we don't like an insect, we should find a species that eats the insect. This was an aquatic effort: that we're not going to put herbicides in the water, but instead, we're going to bring in a fish. Unfortunately, there are many stories of bio-control gone awry, and this is one of them. The fish were probably perfectly good at doing what we wanted them to do, but they immediately escaped and, in this case, took over the entire Mississippi water system.
So there are parts of the Mississippi tributary system where Asian carp make up about 90 percent of the biomass. They're extremely efficient feeders, and they've just really crowded out native species. The second part of this story that we need to get to, is the reason why the Army Corps of Engineers has, in recent years, electrified part of a waterway outside Chicago. In the early part of the 20th century, Chicago—in an effort to get rid of its waste, which it was dumping into the Chicago River—reversed the flow of the river. The Chicago River used to run into Lake Michigan, and now it runs out of Lake Michigan.
In order to effect this change, Chicago undertook a massive construction project that had the effect, not just of reversing the flow of the Chicago river, but of connecting the Great Lakes water system to the Mississippi water system. So now you have Asian carp right on the threshold, they've worked their way up the Illinois River, basically at the entrance to the Great Lakes. There's a hue and cry from the Great Lake states: We don't want Asian carp in the Great Lakes. They will wreak the same kind of havoc they wrought on the Mississippi water system and perhaps other kinds of havoc. So the idea that the Army Corps of Engineers comes up with to try to keep them out of the Great Lakes is to zap them with a lot of voltage.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. I would really encourage people to read this section because not only is it fascinating in the history, it's so engaging, it's also totally madcap and hilarious. Throughout the book, there are all these instances of dry and sometimes dark humor that come up. One example is you describe how the first time you get hit by a flying Asian carp, it feels like getting smacked with a wiffle ball bat. So I'm curious as a writer, were you intentionally using humor as a way to kind of illustrate the absurdity of some of the situations that we've gotten ourselves into? Or did it just kind of flow naturally from the subject matter?
Elizabeth Kolbert: The book is definitely written—and I'm glad you found it that way—as a dark comedy. The absurdity of many of the situations that we're in, the gravity couldn't be realer. But the absurdities are also important to acknowledge, and more even than being important to acknowledge, you can get at the truth of a lot of situations with dark humor that's very hard to get to by just hitting people over the head. The book covers a lot of territory, and I think if I'd tried to do that in a very somber mood, it would just be a turnoff. How's that? It's definitely an attempt to convey information but in a way that is fun and readable. And I hope the book is fun.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, it is.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Thank you.
Daniel Raimi: I can confirm that. Obviously it's very different from the film Dr. Strangelove, but there's a little bit of similarity in that there are these really weighty issues that we're talking about, but it's also at the same time very absurd and very surreal.
Elizabeth Kolbert: That's my absolute favorite movie. I don't think I've seen any movie more times than Dr. Strangelove.
Daniel Raimi: Cool, so let's take a slightly different tack now, and I want to repeat to you a quote that you use a couple of times in the book from Stewart Brand, who was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. The quote is, "We are as gods and may as well get good at it." You talk frequently in the book about the ways in which we are as gods but we're not in fact very good at it. I'm wondering after all the reporting you've done in this book, you have a sense of whether we've gotten any better at it over time or whether we've learned anything. And do you think we can get better in dealing with our environmental and other problems despite the fact that we continue to be imperfect, of course?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, that is the central question of the book, and I don't have the answer to that. How's that? I quote Stewart Brand who has actually gone on to say, "Not just that we may as well get good at it, but we have to get good at it." He sort of modified it in recent years because since the days of when the Whole Earth Catalog first came out in 1968 or 1969, our impacts have only intensified and are greater than ever and unfortunately keep increasing. So he has changed that as they say, "Do we have to get good at it?" to which Ed Wilson has countered, "We're not gods and we shouldn't never imagine that we will be," to which Paul Kingsnorth, who's a British environmentalist and writer who I think has some very interesting work, has responded, "Well we are as gods and we're the gods of destruction."
I think that all of those are valid points. And I think that the honest answer to that I believe would be on some level, yes, we've gotten better. I don't think we would import Asian carp in the same cavalier way that we did. Precisely because each individual, each one of us, now has a great deal and more power, great deal and more computing power, a great deal and more impact on the planet in various ways. You can now do gene editing in your kitchen basically. The odds that we're in control of things, that everything is going to roll out exactly as scientific research suggests it should, I think is extremely naive.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. And in the book you do in fact purchase a gene editing kit and experiment with it in your kitchen from, I think the company is called Loki, which is a reference to a Norse God, right?
Elizabeth Kolbert: It's actually called the Odin, but yes.
Daniel Raimi: Oh right.
Elizabeth Kolbert: It's a reference to the most powerful God, I believe. I'm not an expert on Norse mythology but Odin is a very tricky God. He is constantly shape-shifting and very, very powerful.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. One of the questions that we were talking about internally as the Resources Radio team, and I've been asking some friends is, whether we can think of gods who are very powerful, but also kind of incompetent, in that they try to create worlds but maybe the trees are made of garbage or something like that. Did any analogies like that come to you?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I don't want to claim to be an expert on world religions but certainly many traditions that have many gods, pantheistic traditions, have gods who are certainly tricksters. You have gods who are just destructive and were constantly battling. The gods of creation and the gods of destruction that's the world. I think that really resonates and takes on a new meaning in a time like ours.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I'm definitely not an expert on those traditions either, which is why I was asking around.
Elizabeth Kolbert: It would be actually quite funny. Actually I read an Italian novel a couple of years ago that was translated by a friend of mine called I Am God. And then God was speaking, and he was kind of just an ordinary schlub in a way, and that was obviously an attempted humor, but it is an interesting idea. Yeah. When we think of God as omnipotent doesn't necessarily mean that he or she always knows what they're doing.
Daniel Raimi: So, a lot to stew on there. So let me change subjects again and kind of ask you a policy implications question, which I know isn't necessarily the driving force of the book but I wanted to ask you about it. In many cases the book poses questions that just don't have good answers, right? All of our options are bad or at least very uncertain. So as we move forward into the Anthropocene and what you described as a no-analog future, what lessons from this book do you think are relevant for policymakers who have to make decisions about environmental issues, health ethics issues, and these other really complex topics where the uncertainties are enormous and where all the options entail risk and uncertainty?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes. Yeah, that is really the conundrum. Once again, not to beat the same drum, but that's a conundrum at the heart of the book. Yes, we don't have any choice anymore, we're not going back. There's a sort of romantic stream in the environmental movement, which I myself participate in. It’s this notion that if we left things alone, maybe we could all just lead much simpler lives, and the world would be a much better place, and that's certainly true. But we're not going back, we're not getting the climate back, we're not getting that heat out of the oceans, we're not getting those creatures that we've driven to the brink of extinction, we're not getting those invasive species out of the landscape.
We can't put that back, that genie back in the bottle as it were. So then you say, “well, the only option is to move forward in some way and how can we weigh the imponderables of this course versus that course?” These are going to be case-by-case decisions, and I can say quite confidently that some of them are going to be made wrong, but I don't know which ones.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. And that makes me think of the portion of the book that focuses on solar geoengineering, which is a topic we've covered on this show. We've had David Keith on the show, who you interview in the book, and Gernot Wagner, who you also talk to in the book. The question that comes to mind is, as we try to move forward in this future where we're not going back, do you think it's inevitable that our interventions will get more and more complex, and therefore more and more harder to manage or predict? Or are there solutions that are potentially effective that could also simplify things? Are there any examples from the book that you can think of that either make the case for one or the other?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I do want to say, and this is moving somewhat beyond the scope of the book. Yes, we could simplify things very radically. We would have to live very differently and what we're committed to, what we continue to be committed to, and what very few conversations allow us to say is: well, we actually can't live this way. I don't even want to say “solve these problems” because they're not solvable, but they might be amenable to amelioration. There's bad climate change and disastrous climate change, so that's just one example. Yeah, we could all live very differently, much more modest lives in theory, that would be one form of radical simplification that I believe would have, environmentally speaking, a positive impact. But that is not even really part of a conversation even among those who are very, very committed to climate action.
It's not like, “okay everyone, we're not going to fly, we're not going to drive, we're just not going to be able to do these things.” It's more, “we're going to be able to do these things, but we're going to do it with a different energy source.” Now, if you imagine, for example, simply transforming America's entire energy system, well, that is going to create a lot of change. Some of that change, ultimately you could even argue the change is for the better, the net result will be for the better. But there's going to be a lot of changes along the way that people are not going to like and that they're going to fight like hell.
Daniel Raimi: The changes that you're describing are changes like the decline of fossil energy jobs, impacts on infrastructure. Are those the types of things we're thinking about?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, exactly. And this new infrastructure—I think it would be very interesting if you were a Martian, it would be very interesting, but as a human, it's more kind of disturbing. All of this new infrastructure has to go somewhere. People don't particularly want it, a lot of it. In every fight over every wind farm, even over many solar farms, there are a lot of land use issues, right of ways. You can wave your hands and say, “we need to transform our infrastructure” and that's absolutely true, but along the way, when you get down to the nitty gritty, there are going to be endless sources of contention.
Daniel Raimi: No doubt. And actually just a couple of weeks ago, we had an episode focused on that topic with Erin Mayfield from Princeton, who recently participated in a study that kind of lays out different pathways to decarbonize the energy system and the scale of infrastructure is just unbelievable, right? It's taking up an enormous amount of space. It's doable, but it's a real challenge.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes, exactly. That, I think, is the next thing just over the horizon.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. So let me ask you now a question that might be a little bit easier to answer, which is: at the end of the book, you note that at least one of your reporting trips was cut short by the pandemic. I think it was a trip to Greenland that you had planned, but I'm wondering if there were cases—either the Greenland case or others that didn't make it into the book—that you just think are really interesting, but you weren't able to include for one reason or another. Other examples of humans trying to solve problems that we created ourselves.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes. I had a lot of projects in the conservation realm that I didn't pursue all the way to the point of traveling. For example, one was in Scotland where an absence of modern forest management practices have left not enough rotting trees for a certain kind of insect, and now people are going around creating this porridge out of saw dust and filling in tree stumps that have been purposefully cut down to create the tree stump, put this porridge soup in the tree stump to try to create a habitat for these insects to lay their eggs, things like that. There were a lot of projects that involved creating fake habitas.
For example, another one, which I also almost went to visit, involves a very rare bird that migrates from Siberia to Southeast Asia every year and lays its eggs in Siberia. It's one of the most endangered birds in the world. And in England, they've tried to create, once again, a fake habitat for this bird. It's very difficult, it has to be cooled because England is a lot warmer than Siberia. The light regime is not right, but they have successfully managed to raise a couple of birds that way. But these are incredibly elaborate efforts to try to undo the damage of just habitat destruction.
Daniel Raimi: Those sound really fascinating. Makes me think of the Woolly Mammoth Project too, right? In Siberia where they're trying to bring back the wooly mammoths.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes. Pleistocene Park. That's a good one. That's a great example too.
Daniel Raimi: So many interesting examples of this. And I think from my perspective, the book, which again is called Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, is just a really fantastic place to start thinking hard about these issues. I know many people in our audience are already thinking hard about them, but to have some concrete examples and talk to leading experts in these different fields, it's a really great contribution. So yeah, I just wanted to tell people to get the book.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Absolutely. Thank you.
Daniel Raimi: So now Elizabeth, let's close it out with the final question that we ask all of our guests, which is, to ask you to recommend something that's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack. It can be related to the environment or not, but just something that you've read or watched or heard—it doesn't actually have to be a book—that you really enjoyed and that you think our listeners might be interested in.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes. So I am going to recommend a very new book that I read called Beloved Beasts, which is a history of the conservation movement and I thought it was very well done. I really consider myself someone who's fairly well versed in these issues, but I learned a lot from it. So it's Beloved Beasts, I believe from Norton by Michelle Nijhuis, that's spelled N-I-J-H-U-I-S, I believe.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, we'll have a link to it in the show notes so people can buy two books.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Exactly. Perfect. Yes. Buy books. That is one way you can support environmental writing. Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: There you go, and ideally at your local bookstore too.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Exactly.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, Elizabeth Kolbert from the New Yorker and the author of Under a White Sky, this has been really fun. Thank you again for coming on the show. I'm a big admirer of your work, and we really appreciate you taking the time.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Thanks for having me.
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The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi, join us next week for another episode.