Surviving the Anthropocene

Can we reverse-engineer our way out of catastrophe?

Invasive Asian carp, like these in the Illinois River, are spreading through the entire Mississippi basin. (Jason Lindsey/Alamy)
Invasive Asian carp, like these in the Illinois River, are spreading through the entire Mississippi basin. (Jason Lindsey/Alamy)

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert; Crown, 256 pp., $28

Under a White Sky, writes Elizabeth Kolbert, is “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” Humanity’s tinkering creates environmental crises that we attempt to fix through further finagling in a kind of reverse (or reverse reverse) engineering that only deepens the difficulties, like a Möbius strip that spins itself into a whirlpool. The process even turns on the author: “Here I was, trying to finish a book about the world spinning out of control, only to find the world spinning so far out of control that I couldn’t finish the book.”

White Sky is a companion to Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sixth Extinction (2014), which surveyed the dismaying spectrum of disappearing species, driven over an evolutionary cliff by humans, mostly through climate change. White Sky offers a parallel panorama of attempts to slow, and maybe undo, those metastasizing disruptions. Unsurprisingly, the chosen examples show that it is much simpler to break than to build, just as it’s politically easier to intervene in nature, over and over, than to intercede against harmful human behavior.

Three clusters of examples, recrystallized into parables of the Anthropocene, organize Kolbert’s book. “Down the River” opens with the truth-stranger-than-fiction saga of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which in 1900 “flipped the [Chicago] river on its head.” Instead of dumping Chicago’s wastes into Lake Michigan, the city’s sole source of drinking water, it began sluicing them into the Des Plaines River, which carried them to the Illinois and then the Mississippi. Like a ripple swelling into a rogue wave, the river reversal galvanized other crises, some of which have boomeranged back to Chicago.

Meanwhile, America’s waterways were clogging with aquatic weeds. Following environmentalist Rachel Carson’s admonition to scrap chemicals in favor of biological controls, and the 1972 Clean Water Act’s imperative to improve municipal sewage ponds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imported four species of Asian carp. The carp escaped from an experiment station and a sewage treatment lagoon, both in Arkansas, entered the Mississippi, multiplied, and are now working their way through the entire Mississippi basin. The feral carp are eating everything. Silver carp are especially noxious because they leap in swarms and can slam painfully against boaters and fishermen. (“Protective gear is highly recommended!” Kolbert writes.)

With the carp now threatening to follow the rerouted Sanitary and Ship Canal to Chicago and the Great Lakes, the Corps of Engineers has installed electric barriers to repel the invaders. Opinions are mixed with degrees of fatalism as to how well the scheme will work. A fallback position is to begin using the carp for fertilizer and food. Perhaps people can eat the carp faster than the carp can eat the Mississippi.

Kolbert completes her paradigm of the Anthropocene by following the flow of mishaps down the Mississippi. Here subsiding land, rising seas, and attempts to protect New Orleans, a city built to flood, allow southern Louisiana to wash out to sea. From inverted headwaters to subverted delta, it’s a tale not just of good intentions gone awry, but of a whole ecology of interacting crises.

In “Into the Wild,” Kolbert applies this template to three examples concerned with biodiversity. The first is a study of Devil’s Hole, the sole home to an endemic desert pupfish in Nevada. Meticulous monitoring of the fish’s existing population combined with the creation of an artificially replicated habitat elsewhere illustrate a strategy Kolbert calls “conservation-reliant.” Meanwhile, scientists are employing another strategy—“assisted evolution”—along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is slowly disintegrating as the seas continue to warm. Here they are attempting to crossbreed a more resilient coral that can withstand changes in climate. An even more ambitious biohacking approach known as “gene drives” would remove unwanted and invasive species by using specially designed genomes. In effect, humans are replacing natural selection with human-tweaked genomic selection. If it fails, another gene drive could presumably repair the damage, and then another. As Kolbert sardonically quips, “What could possibly go wrong?”

“Up in the Air” completes the triptych with an inquiry into climate change. Kolbert first reviews experiments in carbon capture that remove and lithify carbon dioxide (“enhanced weathering”). Next, she explores attempts to halt incoming solar radiation by injecting particles into the stratosphere, somewhat as volcanoes do (“solar geoengineering”). Critics see this strategy as akin to treating one drug habit by acquiring another. Among other effects, the sky would turn white. A final case study travels to Camp Century in Greenland, where ice cores track sudden bouts of frost and thaw and raise doubts about humanity’s capacity to manage a climate full of unknowns and quick pivots.

The entrepreneurs and schemes show an amalgam of hope and fear—we have to do something. Humanity weighs heavily on Earth, literally. Our biomass, combined with that of our domesticated species, exceeds that of terrestrial wildlife; our built environment outweighs the biosphere. There are simply too many of us doing too much too quickly. We are a start-up species, a biotic Facebook—moving fast, breaking things, hoarding ever more for a shrinking few.

“Humans are producing no-analog climates, no-analog ecosystems, a whole no-analog future. … And so we face a no-analog predicament,” Kolbert writes. One wonders whether we also face a no-analog literature. Her book is like a Klein bottle: opening and closing into itself, leaving her story with no endpoint. Oddly, when confronted with intractable problems, Kolbert does what the scientists and engineers she sketches do—doubling down on what has been done in the past, reversing literary formulas instead of rivers, and piling up the absurdities, paradoxes, and contradictions she encountered during her research such that her text boils with ironies, like leaping silver carp ready to smash into unprotected readers. Applied literature seems to offer no better way out than has applied science.

If you prefer problematizing to problem solving, this is the book for you. But if you want to imagine an endpoint for surviving the Anthropocene beyond an angle of repose in a scree field of irony, you might wish to look elsewhere.


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Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the Human Dimensions Faculty, School of Life Sciences, at Arizona State University and the author of a score of books, including The Ice, How the Canyon Became Grand, and the multivolume Cycle of Fire series, which is surveying the larger history of fire on earth. Its latest edition is Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada.


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