‘I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.’ It’s a throwaway sentence, but one which neatly encapsulates the phenomenon Elizabeth Kolbert aims to portray in her fascinating new book. The context for this comment concerns the many years spent pumping water from the aquifer that feeds Devils Hole, a geothermal pool in Death Valley National Park, Nevada, during the late 1960s. The extraction lowered the water level in the pool by several feet, consequently threatening its inhabitants – a handful of inch-long Devils Hole pupfish, possibly the rarest fish in the world – with extinction. Quarterly surveys are now conducted to track the health of the pupfish population, with supplementary food delivered by the National Park Service to ensure they have enough to eat. The fish even have their own US$4.5 million artificial cavern constructed from concrete and fibreglass a mile away, a pool with perfectly controlled temperature and pH levels, as a back-up to the original habitat.
Such efforts might appear excessive, not to mention expensive, simply to save a species most people have never heard of. And yet the alternative – allowing the Devils Hole pupfish to fall off the face of the Earth – is arguably so much worse that it justifies such extreme actions.
It’s one of many powerful stories Kolbert shares in Under a White Sky, the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller The Sixth Extinction. She travels the world visiting places where people are undertaking what might appear to be unbelievable and/or ridiculous actions in order to fix problems caused by previous unbelievable and/or ridiculous actions. ‘A book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems,’ as she puts it. We might think of it as the ‘Old woman who swallowed a fly’ model of saving the world.
Another chapter is devoted to the electrification of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal was originally designed to reverse the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan in order to stop the city’s sewage entering the lake. A side effect saw Asian carp cross over from the Mississippi River into the canal, sparking fears that they would invade the Great Lakes and cause severe ecological damage. The electrification programme aimed to prevent this by erecting low-voltage barriers along the canal.
The huge project serves as a good example of humanity taking a look at how nature operates and deciding to try to do it better, only to stumble into unexpected problems that require further solutions, and around and around we go. As Kolbert points out, there’s an irony in the fact that the only reason there are Asian carp in the Mississippi in the first place is because of the publication of the famous book Silent Spring in 1962, which is widely credited with having started the environmental movement. Instead of filling the USA’s waterways with chemicals, author Rachel Carson argued for biological controls to keep aquatic weeds in check. The subsequent breeding and release of the carp by the US Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately led to the electrified canal.
Kolbert’s premise – a book full of imaginative, radical solutions to global problems – means it does become a bit of a Who’s-Who of grand ideas. Geographical readers may already be familiar with many of them, from Revive & Restore’s deextinction technology to the Climeworks carbonremoval business model. The most extreme of these interventions is the prospect of large-scale geoengineering – oft-proposed but as-yet-unrealised ideas such as seeding the stratosphere with diamonds, sulphur dioxide or perhaps calcium carbonate in order to simulate a volcanic eruption and reflect the sun’s rays to cool down the planet. Such solutions may be credible in isolation, but presented side by side in this book, each bold idea has the effect of undermining its neighbours.
Together, they come across as an extreme case of treating the symptoms instead of the disease, with potentially ruinous consequences.
Ultimately, the book feels bittersweet. The inspirational component, in which thousands of people work day and night and spend vast fortunes to solve some of Earth’s biggest problems (from ‘assisted evolution’ to improve the resilience of coral reefs, to $1.4 billion efforts to blow up levees and allow the lower Mississippi to flood in order to stop erosion in Louisiana) is offset by the absurdity that they have to exist at all. ‘If control is the problem,’ writes Kolbert, ‘then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.’