Kolbert’s most recent book evokes another disquieting sensation, a novel breed of vertigo. In Under a White Sky, she tracks the spiralling absurdity of human attempts to control nature with technology. Grand, Promethean interventions of the sort of which modernity’s boosters were once so proud – a river’s flow reversed to carry waste to a more convenient location, an aquifer tapped to grow alfalfa in the desert, coal and oil extracted from great depths and burned to move machines – spawn unforeseen disasters. Ever grander interventions ensue, which bring fresh calamities, which require still cleverer interventions. By the end of the book, as the zany twists into the full-on apocalyptic, you are left reeling, with little hope to spare.
The last part of the book turns to geoengineering. Many proposed schemes to reduce global warming are giant-scale: shooting salt water into the Arctic air from fleets of ships to create a reflective fog; provoking or simulating volcanoes (the eruption of Tambora in 1815 famously caused the “year without a summer”); launching hosts of artificial diamonds into the stratosphere. The last sounds magical — “like sprinkling the world with pixie dust”, Kolbert comments — but the results might not be. Particle shading might give us the white skies of the title, an effect already common over polluted cities.
Many of the characters Kolbert speaks to are conservationists whose zeal for the creatures in their care is inspiring, if a little quixotic. Take, for instance, the wardens of the Devils Hole pupfish, a tiny creature that lives in only one cave, in Death Valley, in a population that weighs less than a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. This cave is threatened by seeping toxic waste, so the US Fish and Wildlife Service has built the pupfish an almost exact replica. Swimming about in this “fishy Westworld”, the pupfish are now a “Stockholm species”, dependent on people for their survival.