Among Elizabeth Kolbert’s considerable gifts as a writer is her ability to find and thread various stories into a large and persuasive narrative, all in the service of helping the reader understand our environment and the threats posed by climate change.
A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999, Kolbert won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which explores the relevance of previous mass extinctions of animal and plant species to our plight today.
Next week marks the publication of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, another richly reported chronicle of the ways we are attempting to save our planet, sometimes by undoing previous efforts to “fix” nature.
Jim Kelly: In your new book, you look at the ingenious ways scientists are trying to shape nature back to a healthier state after centuries of destruction. You discuss how the introduction of the Asian carp into the waters in the Midwest, meant to solve one problem—to keep algae in check—created a much bigger problem as the carp population grew and threatened other fish species. Now there is a multi-pronged effort to keep the carp from invading the Great Lakes. Do you think it will succeed or will all of us be eating carp sushi in 10 years?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Everywhere you look these days, there are problems like Asian carp. These problems were caused by efforts at control that somehow got out of control. Now people are trying to address them with new forms of control. A similar problem, which I discuss in the book, is the disappearance of southern Louisiana. Eliminating flooding in the region has, paradoxically, led to catastrophic land loss. Now the state of Louisiana is trying to, in effect, re-introduce flooding, to save New Orleans. Will these new efforts succeed or are we just going around in circles? I think that’s very much an open question.
As far as carp go, one of the schemes for keeping them out of the Great Lakes involves coming up with really tasty carp-based dishes. The thinking is that by eating the fish—and here we’re talking about eating millions of pounds a year—Americans could keep their numbers in check. So if you could create a market for carp sushi, you’d be a hero.
J.K.: I also learned for the first time about Devils Hole pupfish, which are about an inch long and lack the fins other pupfish have. They exist only in a cavern near Death Valley, and, as you say, they may be the rarest fish in the world. They are also a highly protected species, complete with a chain-link fence and a cadre of scientists studying them constantly, to ensure their survival. Why is it so important to preserve a tiny school of fish that, according to a recent census, weigh less than a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich?
E.K.: The reason the Devils Hole pupfish is in trouble is the same basic reason tens of thousands of other species are in trouble: humans have modified—or, to be less polite about it, wrecked—their homes. What’s our obligation to these creatures? In the book, I quote a fishery biologist named Phil Pister, who was instrumental in saving several creatures that are found only in the Mojave Desert. People would ask Pister, “What good are pupfish?” His response was: “What good are you?” It’s a clever comeback that, I think, makes a pretty profound point.
J.K.: You have a wonderful section about the inventive ways of cutting down carbon emissions in the air that are being explored. Which do you think is the most promising?
E.K.: In principle, there are lots of ways we could take carbon out of the air. I visited a power plant in Iceland where they remove the CO2 from the waste stream and pipe it deep underground. Down there, it literally turns to stone. Alternatively, people have proposed that we plant a lot of trees. Trees take up CO2 as they grow. When they rot, they give up that carbon, so it’s been suggested that maybe we should plant trees, cut them down, and then bury them. With all of these ideas, the obstacle is the same. To make a measurable difference, you’d have to pursue them at a tremendous scale, and that’s tough.
J.K.: You traveled all over the world in reporting this book, and many of the characters you meet are, well, real characters. Did you have a favorite?
E.K.: I met a lot of wonderful people in the process of reporting the book. Though I don’t really have a favorite character, I’d say one of the best adventures I had was visiting Devils Hole with Kevin Wilson, of the National Park Service, and Jenny Gumm, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. As you mentioned, there’s a chain-link fence around the canyon, so I feel very fortunate to have been able to get inside that. And I’m filled with admiration for the whole crew that, against all odds, has kept the Devils Hole pupfish alive.
J.K.: As you say, Under a White Sky is a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems. And all of them are working on tiny pieces of the puzzle—a puzzle, however, that is best solved politically. Do you think the Biden administration is up to the task?
E.K.: The problems I discuss in the book range from the big—how to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes—to the mega-big—how to prevent disastrous climate change. I think there’s a lot the Biden administration can do to nudge the U.S. along a better path. But I don’t think we should imagine that a new administration is going to suddenly and magically solve problems that it took many decades, and in some cases many countries, to create.
J.K.: You write so fluently and engagingly about topics that can be dry and tedious. Early in your career you worked as the Albany bureau chief of The New York Times. It would be too corny, of course, to suggest that covering Albany prepared you for researching the Pleistocene epoch, but how did you migrate from politics into natural history?
E.K.: I think there actually are a surprising number of similarities between covering Albany politics and writing about natural history. In both cases, you’re dealing with a topic that can seem dry and distant. But both subjects are actually quite fascinating, and totally relevant to people’s lives. The trick is finding the stories that convey this.
J.K.: Your narrative style and boundless curiosity remind me of the writer John McPhee, a fellow New Yorker writer. Have you met him, and are there other writers you admire?
E.K.: Just before I embarked on the reporting for Under a White Sky, I got in touch with McPhee, whom I’d never met even though we work for the same magazine. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, and, for this project, I was particularly inspired by his book The Control of Nature. I decided that I wanted to tell him this. I was a bit nervous about approaching him, since I figured he hears from a lot of groupies. We ended up having lunch, and he couldn’t have been kinder or more gracious.
J.K.: It seems to me it is quite easy to get deeply depressed about climate change. Any tips for those of us so inclined?
E.K.: There’s the old curse—attributed to the Chinese, but apparently apocryphally—“May you live in interesting times.” Well, we do. The only advice I can give at this point is: Get interested. And get involved.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future will be published on February 9 by Crown
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL