Under a White Sky | Elizabeth Kolbert

Summary of: Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
By: Elizabeth Kolbert


In ‘Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future,’ Elizabeth Kolbert delves into the complex relationship between human intervention and nature, and the impending consequences. The book explores the delicate balance of ecosystems and the continuous cycle of altering, controlling, and correcting the environment. By investigating various instances in which humans have attempted to combat the entwined problems of climate change, invasive species, and ecological disruption, the book highlights the challenges faced by humanity. In this summary, you will join Kolbert on her journey through a rapidly disappearing Louisiana, Chicago’s waste management, and Australia’s cane toad invasion, all while engaging with innovative and thought-provoking solutions.

Louisiana’s Disappearing Coastline

Plaquemines Parish and Louisiana’s coastline are shrinking at an alarming rate due to the extensive levee system installed to prevent flooding. Before human intervention, the Mississippi River carried sediment that deposited along the surrounding plain, creating the Louisiana coastline. However, with the installation of levees, sediment deposition has slowed down, and the existing soil is becoming more compact over time, resulting in land shrinkage. Although sediment dredging projects are ongoing, they aren’t fast enough to keep up with the rate of land loss. Hence, the Mississippi’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority proposed a bold solution to punch massive holes through the levees, allowing the river to deposit sediment naturally and reestablish the sediment deposition process.

The Environmental Consequences of Chicago’s Sanitary and Ship Canal

The Sanitary and Ship Canal was built in the early 1900s to combat the human waste and pollution problems in Chicago’s drinking water source, Lake Michigan. However, diverting the Chicago River caused ecological issues that persist today. The canal connects Lake Michigan with multiple rivers, making it easy for invasive species like the Asian carp to enter and disrupt fragile ecosystems. To prevent this, electric barriers have been installed in the canal, but they are not failsafe. To create a demand for carp, an idea for CarpFest was proposed. However, the author raises doubts about this as a solution, emphasizing the message that tinkering with nature can have long-lasting consequences.

Gene-editing Could Restore Ecosystem Balance

In the mid-1800s, the cane toad species was introduced to the Caribbean to counter beetle grubs that destroyed sugarcane plants. Later on, they were brought to Australia where they became a disaster for the native species due to their toxicity. However, scientists have proposed genetically modifying the cane toads using CRISPR technology. A scientist named Mark Tizard worked with Caitlin Cooper to remove the gene that codes for bufotoxin hydrolase, a toxic enzyme released by cane toads. Although the methods for using detoxified toads are still uncertain, scientists suggest using it as a training device for other animals. Gene-editing may feel uncomfortable for some, but it involves altering small pieces of DNA and restoring balance to ecosystems already modified by invasive species.

The Precarious Fate of the Devils Hole Pupfish

The Devils Hole pupfish, a rare and unique species found only in one location in California, is on the verge of extinction. Developers’ land buying and water pumping in the 1950s and ’60s greatly reduced the size of the pupfish’s habitat, causing their numbers to dwindle. Today, biologists make special efforts to ensure the survival of this species, conducting a pupfish census four times a year and delivering supplemental meals to the Devils Hole. Additionally, a fake refuge tank a mile away from the real cavern was created to mimic the environment without harming the fish. The key message is that the survival of species like the pupfish depends on human intervention. As a society, we cannot afford to remain indifferent to the plight of conservation-reliant animals who can only survive with our help.

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