The People Trying to Use Technology to Save Nature
Elizabeth Kolbert and Nathaniel Rich, environmental writers par excellence, survey human solutions to the human-caused mess we’re in
At the end of March, the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribal council voted to cancel a preliminary agreement with the resource company Lithium Nevada to explore installing an open-pit mine near the reservation. Thacker Pass, near the Oregon border, is home to the largest deposit of lithium in the United States. Supporters of the mine say it could produce up to 66,000 tons per year of lithium carbonate, a component in rechargeable batteries, which car and truck manufacturers can use to build millions of solar-powered and electric cars over the next five decades, buttressing an essential component of President Biden’s plan to reverse the progress of climate change. And yet it poses plenty of its own risks: according to the EPA, waste tailings from the mine could leave traces of uranium, mercury, and arsenic in the local watershed, where they’d linger for the next three centuries. Regardless of whether a private, for-profit entity like Nevada Lithium is acting with the best of intentions, any attempt to dig lithium out of the ground is likely to make a mess.
Such dilemmas are increasingly common, and they illustrate how even the most well-meaning attempt at environmental progress can lead to other forms of destruction or loss. Journalists who in the past might have sought to describe the scope and depth of humanity’s impact on the natural world are now focusing on the surreal or frightening consequences of human schemes to protect the earth from harm.
The questions they ask are trickier than before and less morally satisfying. Two of the best-known journalists looking at these problems are Elizabeth Kolbert, whose The Sixth Extinction portrayed the most intense period of species erasure of the past 66 million years, and Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Losing Earth, an account of fossil-fuel companies suppressing evidence of the climate crisis in the 1980s. While those books read like detective thrillers, with unmistakable victims and antagonists, the heroes and villains are harder to find in the authors’ latest works.
Kolbert’s Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future and Rich’s Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade, both published this spring, cover similar ground, describing humanity’s present-day tinkerings with the natural world, many of which are aimed at correcting tinkerings of the past. The writers bring plenty of skepticism to their subjects, but relatively little judgment, and by and large the framing feels less like a courtroom than a museum or science fair. Neither Kolbert nor Rich can imagine a corner or aspect of life on this planet that might remain unaffected by human activity, benevolent or otherwise, and the individuals they meet seem more or less ready to embrace the brave new world. “People grow up with this idea that the nature they see is ‘natural,’” one scientist tells Rich, “but there’s been no real ‘natural’ element to the earth the entire time human beings have been around.”
A few of the projects they write about are narrow in scope or clearly just for fun. Kolbert tries an at-home Crispr kit designed by Josiah Zayner, a garage biohacker, to engineer a batch of antibiotic E. coli. (Another project in the kit involves inserting a jellyfish gene into yeast so that it glows in the dark.) She also visits a 40-acre subsection of Death Valley National Park, where an extremely rare and fragile species of pupfish relies on an artificial habitat to survive, its population hovering in the low hundreds. Rich, meanwhile, talks to the investors and techno chefs involved in producing lab-grown meat, and he introduces readers to the work of Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian artist who altered the genetic code of an albino rabbit. Under ultraviolet light, the bunny—like the yeast—turns neon green.
Other efforts are more ambitious. To learn about the passenger pigeon, a North American bird that was hunted into extinction by European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, Rich interviews experts who intend to revive the species, Jurassic Park style, using preserved samples of the pigeon’s genetic material. He also describes the terrifying ubiquity of PFOA—a chemical ingredient in detergents, floor sealants, adhesive tape, and nonstick frying pans—produced and released into the water supply near Parkersburg, West Virginia, for decades by the chemical giant DuPont. It is the only chapter in the book with a obvious villain.
Kolbert, similarly, mostly refrains from taking sides when she reports on some of the more avant-garde techniques being proposed to reverse the effects of climate change. These include the direct capture of emissions in basalt stones that can then be buried underground, and “solar geoengineering,” a theoretical method of spraying reflective particles into the air to scatter warmth and light from the sun back into space. For every expert who believes such technologies are a harmless waste of time, another will conclude that they are unforgivably stupid. A plan that some regard as “a broad highway to hell” is treated by others as “inevitable.”
Kac, the artist in Second Nature, appears to be more intent on normalizing the uncanny edge of the sciences than on upsetting viewers with something weird. He seems to argue that this is simply the world we live in, and we might as well get used to it. David Keith, founder of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, mentioned in Under a White Sky, cheerfully places his work in the centuries-long process of human governance over the planet’s flora and fauna. “People think of all the bad examples of environmental modification,” he tells Kolbert, undeterred by the range of mild criticism and death threats received by his university office. Many are worried about its unintended consequences or the possibility that it could give fossil-fuel companies an excuse to continue doing harm. “To people who say most of our technological fixes go wrong, I say, ‘Okay, did agriculture go wrong?’”
As it happens, quite a bit has gone wrong in Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated branch of southeastern Louisiana that both authors spend more than a few pages exploring. Over the years, settlement and development have gradually threatened to convert the parish’s dry land into a salt marsh. In order to keep its 2,567 square miles on the Gulf of Mexico livable, Plaquemines has come to rely on a massive array of gates, levees, and reverse-irrigation systems that are constantly being broken down and revised. These systems are undeniably resource intensive, complex, and Sisyphean, yet abandoning them is out of the question. More than three-fifths of the parish is currently underwater, and this figure is all but guaranteed to increase as sea levels rise and the Mississippi River continues to be rerouted, mostly to accommodate the delta’s ample refineries and cargo traffic. (Since 2011, NOAA has delisted more than 40 place names from maps of the area, which Rich compares to “a maple leaf devoured to its veins by cankerworms.”)
For every expert who believes such technologies are a harmless waste of time, another will conclude that they are unforgivably stupid.
Any plan to protect the homes and livelihoods of local residents must also consider the effect that various rerouting schemes will have on wildlife. The results are impossible to untangle: in 2019, the local commercial oyster industry was devastated when the Army Corps of Engineers opened sections of a crucial flood-prevention mechanism that fed pulses of fresh water into Lake Pontchartrain. This simultaneously put at risk the habitats of pallid sturgeon and West Indian manatees. Virtually every stakeholder—from conservation groups to the Department of Commerce—was aggrieved enough to file a lawsuit. “A Mississippi that’s been harnessed, straightened, regularized, and shackled can still exert a godlike force,” Kolbert observes. “It’s hard to say who occupies Mount Olympus these days, if anyone.”
For every ecological conundrum they consider, Kolbert and Rich predict a future in which no one is in charge and everyone is a potential litigant. But that’s about all they can say for sure, which may explain why passages in either book can feel sleepy, meandering, or lacking in revelatory bite. Kolbert’s description of Zayner’s at-home GMO kit offers plenty to enjoy but not much to learn, and in Rich’s encounters with Shin Kubota—the world’s foremost expert on Turritopsis dohrnii, an “immortal” jellyfish with no fixed life span—he gives an account of the biologist’s singing career that is as touchingly long as it is pointless.
The work these authors have put into describing the scale and pace of a crisis like global warming has got to be exhausting, and it’s hard to blame them for turning to subjects that are more playful and less consequential in order to take some kind of a break. But given the ever more dire developments of the climate crisis, we can only hope their break doesn’t last too long. Talents like Kolbert’s and Rich’s are still precious and badly needed—including in places like Thacker Pass, where the worst violations haven’t happened yet and the hubris hasn’t fully played out.