Humans Screwed Up the Environment. Can We Engineer Our Way Out?

In 'The Unnatural World,' journalist David Biello argues that while humans have gotten Earth into a mess, we also have the power to fix it

The "earthrise" view from Apollo 8, photographed in 1968, has been called one of the most influential environmental photographs ever taken. David Biello introduces his book, 'The Unnatural World,' with the scene. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1968, a member of the Apollo 8 mission took a photograph from space: Earth in a single frame. Most of us will never get this truly global perspective: we have a hard enough time thinking past our immediate point of view, stuck five or six feet above the ground. When the photo first appeared, it sparked a new consideration of human impact on climate and the environment that extended well beyond our personal bubbles. 

This is the story environmental journalist David Biello uses to open his first book, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age ($26; Simon and Schuster), out November 15. The title signals his book’s lofty goal for an equally expansive view of the earth and its future. The setting is the Anthropocene, our current geological epoch defined by dominant human influence on nature. Depending on who you ask, this age began anywhere from 250 to 50,000 years ago. Most agree, however, that there is no end in sight and that we aren't good news for the environment.

But, Biello argues, this period isn’t marked just by our negative interference, but also by our capacity for control and adaptation. We are the protagonists of this age, “turning the wildest wilderness into a kind of farm or a living system that serves human needs,” Biello writes. Instead of overlords, he places us as Earth’s “unwitting gardeners.” We may have arrived here out of mistake or ignorance, but we now have the option, and increasingly the capability, to either nurture and tend or remake wholly anew. 

While other authors and journalists focus solely on the looming dark cloud or the indomitable heat wave, Biello arrives with positivity—“despair is an ideology we cannot afford”—and tools: monitoring forests with drones, geoengineering our oceans, cloning extinct species, creating the electric car. These tools are undeniably optimistic options, and Biello doesn’t gloss over the complications. In the book’s first chapter, he dives right into a controversial attempt to “fertilize” a patch of ocean off the Galapagos with iron, which would stimulate plankton growth and then oxygen production. It’s a fascinating example of the ethical questions that will only become more common in the coming decades: Are the processes that made life on Earth possible are no longer enough? Do we really know that the risks aren’t greater than the benefits? And who should have the power to decide?

Our hands have always shaped our environments—hunting of large mammals en masse, early forms of agriculture, urbanization. Today, Biello notes, they're responsible for “uprooting forests, besmirching the skies, and befouling the seas, with results that are all too visible.” These results may well be visible to the alert ecologist, glaciologist, and climatologist. But for most of us, they’re far from view. They are the disappearing old-growth forest hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the glacier calving in the Arctic, and the bleaching coral far off shore. The challenge today lies in bringing these global examples, both stark harbinger and hushed innovation, into the living rooms of many, and The Unnatural World does so with vivid characters—not just the Elon Musks of the world—and storytelling. 

All of this lends The Unnatural World refreshing energy, especially in a time when most news on the environment is exceedingly grim. But all of this positivity can most likely be attributed to the one deliberate gaping hole in the book: there’s hardly any mention of politics. Biello rarely alludes to the millions of people who deny anthropomorphic climate change, blame vast and uncontrollable terrestrial and even cosmic forces, and challenge the idea that we need to change and adapt. Our capacity for constructive action—reshaping our habits and landscapes for good—is often undermined by a susceptibility for inaction and willful blindness. Biello can't be blamed for not directly addressing these concerns; if he had, the book would be twice as long. But this is The Unnatural World's dark cloud. Whether we actively pave over a grassland or passively ignore the acidification of an ocean, both are characteristic of the Anthropocene. 

Biello is clearly on the side of action. “Perhaps the purpose of this Anthropocene idea is to encourage us to plant seeds,” he writes. But some of the tools he presents as options for future environmental stewardship will be read as Band-Aid solutions that accept our cinder-coated habits as unfaltering. Two examples: Fracking with CO2 to trap the gas underground and “air capturing” CO2 after it is emitted. The question of a stable future lying not in cultural change but in adaptation, technological or otherwise, is one that may not sit well with more zealous environmentalists. 

True, many think that the answer is to step back, let nature be nature, and all will correct. But Biello’s case is worth hearing out. We aren’t standing before a verdant garden in need of some weeding; we are at the gate of one that is already covered in patches of brown and grey. A future that is both economically prosperous and environmentally stable will require a heavy hand. As a scientist tells Biello early in the book, “There’s no point in hanging on to things or saying it used to be like this. That’s changed, anyway. We’ve changed everything.”

Filed To: Books / Science / Nature
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