Summary and book reviews of Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

Under a White Sky

The Nature of the Future

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert X
Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
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  • Published:
    Feb 2021, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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About this Book

Book Summary

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction returns to humanity's transformative impact on the environment, now asking: After doing so much damage, can we change nature, this time to save it?

That man should have dominion "over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it's said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. Along the way, she meets biologists who are trying to preserve the world's rarest fish, which lives in a single tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave; engineers who are turning carbon emissions to stone in Iceland; Australian researchers who are trying to develop a "super coral" that can survive on a hotter globe; and physicists who are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to cool the earth.

One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face.

Chapter 1

Rivers make good metaphors—too good, perhaps. They can be murky and charged with hidden meaning, like the Mississippi, which to Twain represented "the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter." Alternatively, they can be bright and clear and mirror-like. Thoreau set off for a week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and within a day found himself lost in reflection over the reflections he saw playing on the water. Rivers can signify destiny, or coming into knowledge, or coming upon that which one would rather not know. "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth," Conrad's Marlow recalls. They can stand for time, for change, and for life itself. "You can't step into the same river twice," Heraclitus is supposed to have said, to which one of his followers, Cratylus, is supposed to have replied, "You can't step into the same river even once."

It is a bright morning following several days ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Kolbert's narrative is informed and informative, and she doesn't avoid questioning the potential ethical dilemmas posed by these new innovations. Admittedly, gene editing and turning the sky bright white with sulfates, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by two percent, could have unforeseen repercussions. However, as she presents ever-mounting evidence that current approaches for "saving the environment" simply don't work — in fact, have never worked — and other solutions exist, it's difficult not to be swayed...continued

Full Review (751 words).

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(Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Under a White Sky expertly mixes travelogue, science reporting and explanatory journalism, all with the authority of a writer confident enough to acknowledge ambiguity.

The New York Times
Important, necessary, urgent and phenomenally interesting.

MIT Technology Review
If you like your apocalit with a side of humor, she will have you laughing while Rome burns.

Nature
A superb and honest reflection of our extraordinary time.

Rolling Stone
To be a well-informed citizen of Planet Earth, you need to read Elizabeth Kolbert. . . . It’s a tribute to Kolbert’s skills as a storyteller that she transforms the quest to deal with the climate crisis into a darkly comic tale of human hubris and imagination that could either end in flames or in a new vision of Paradise.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
More top-notch environmental reportage from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction...Urgent, absolutely necessary reading as a portrait of our devastated planet.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Pulitzer-winner Kolbert focuses once again on the Anthropocene in this illuminating study of humans' "control of nature'...This investigation of global change is brilliantly executed and urgently necessary.

Library Journal (starred review)
A sobering and realistic look at humankind's perhaps misplaced faith that technology can work with nature to produce a more livable planet.

Booklist (starred review)
A master elucidator, Kolbert is gratifyingly direct as she assesses our predicament between a rock and a hard place, creating a clarion and invaluable ‘book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.’

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Genetically Modified Organisms: Past, Present and Future

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have received a bad rap. They're banned from being grown or used in food throughout most of Europe. They're caustically labeled on groceries in the United States. And they are frequently despised by foodies, farmers, environmentalists and the devoutly religious alike — for reasons ranging from health, to corporate greed, to technophobia, to ethics.

While there are valid arguments to be made against the use of GMOs, it's important to look at this issue from a balanced perspective. For some, anti-GMO sentiment is based more on anxiety than fact. For example, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in Under a White Sky, GMO use may be the only way to save Australia from being overrun by toads!

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