Technologies of the Future in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky

Exploring the cutting-edge climate solutions currently under development. (Image:
Exploring the cutting-edge climate solutions currently under development. (Image:

Published earlier this year, Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, synthesizes some of the most cutting-edge (and, often, controversial) climate solutions currently in development. Many of these solutions demonstrate what Kolbert terms “the recursive logic of the Anthropocene,” which understands our current attempts to fix the environment as correctives to our previous attempts to fix the environment. Simply put, Kolbert describes her project as “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” 

Following on the heels of Kolbert’s previous environmental nonfiction writing (including The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize), Under a White Sky chronicles her journey across the United States (from Hawaii to Louisiana) and the globe (from Australia to Iceland). Along the way, she introduces us to a lively assortment of biologists, engineers, and physicists working to reverse sundry anthropogenic environmental disasters. The book is organized into three sections, which present increasingly unconventional climate solutions. 

The book’s first section, “Down the River,” includes two aquatic stories: one, of attempts to mitigate the fish population by electrifying the Chicago River canal, and the other, of drainage systems meant to avail the sinking cities of southern Louisiana. But it is not until Kolbert travels “Into the Wild” — as the middle section is titled — that things truly take a turn for the uncanny. She introduces us to the rarest fish in the world: the pupfish of Devils Hole, California, which live in two places only: in the depths of a cavern slowly being permeated by radioactive water from the Nevada Test Site, and in a hundred-thousand-gallon refuge tank nearby, which is an exact replica of the original pool (what Kolbert describes as “a kind of fishy Westworld”). She subsequently delves into efforts to save coral reefs, where she takes us into two labs — one in Hawaii, one in Australia — that subject their specimens to “calibrated stress” in order to raise stronger coral and experiment with other reef-saving measures (e.g., “deploying underwater robots to reseed damaged reefs, developing some kind of ultra thin film to shade reefs, pumping deep water to the surface to provide corals with heat relief”). 

The final chapter of this section finds Kolbert purchasing a genetic-engineering kit, which includes vials of E. coli and all the materials necessary to rearrange its genome from the comfort of her home. With some hands-on experience under her belt, she then travels to the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, where researchers are using CRISPR to edit the genome of poisonous cane toads in an effort to render the invasive species less dangerous to the native fauna that eat them. Here, Kolbert anticipates her readers’ pushback: “The strongest argument for gene editing…is also the simplest: what’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back…. The issue, at this point, is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end?” These moments, which offer a more philosophical take on the stakes of climate technology, are some of the book’s strongest.

Another highlight is the clarity with which Kolbert explains the technology, as in “Up in the Air,” the third section, which opens with a chapter on negative-emissions technologies (NETs). One solution involves scrubbing carbon emissions from the air and injecting the CO2 underground, where it hardens into rock; another, called BECCS (short for “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”), combines reforestation with underground injection, and is favored by the IPCC for its resulting negative emissions and electrical power. This, Kolbert opines in one of the book’s most optimistic passages, is “a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too arrangement that, in climate-math terms, is tough to beat.”

The following chapter pivots from carbon removal to solar geoengineering, a subject of deep controversy. Kolbert is quick to acknowledge, especially in comparison with the previous solutions, how this tactic takes a dive off the deep end. “Even in an age of electrified rivers and redesigned rodents, solar geoengineering is out there,” she writes. “It has been described as ‘dangerous beyond belief,’ ‘a broad highway to hell,’ ‘unimaginably drastic,’ and also as ‘inevitable.’” Recounting conversations with the chemists and physicists who helm the field, Kolbert explains the current research that lends her book its title. Attempts to offset carbon dioxide levels by injecting particles into the stratosphere, for instance, “would change the appearance of the sky. White would become the new blue.” As with the “fishy Westworld,” Kolbert revels in the evocative artificiality of these engineered environments.

As the book closes, Kolbert struggles with the implications of climate technology, and of solar geoengineering in particular. Though the scientists she met demonstrated enthusiasm about their work, she notes a pervasive sense of doubt. The solutions “were presented to me less in a spirit of techno-optimism than what might be called techno-fatalism,” Kolbert observes. “They weren’t improvements on the originals; they were the best that anyone could come up with, given the circumstances.” We inhabit an imperfect world with imperfect solutions, and “It’s in this context that interventions like assisted evolution and gene drives and digging millions of trenches to bury millions of trees have to be assessed,” she concludes. “Geoengineering may be ‘entirely crazy and disconcerting,’ but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of ‘the pain and suffering away,’ or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered?”

Kolbert also walks it back a bit as she wraps up the book, thinking about the complexity of actually enacting these solutions on a larger scale. As several of her interview subjects have pointed out, “scientists can only make recommendations; implementation is a political decision. You might hope that such a decision would be made equitably with respect to those alive today and to future generations, both human and nonhuman. But let’s just say the record here isn’t strong. (See, for example, climate change.)”

All told, the book offers a comprehensive look at the ethics of using diverse technological approaches to solve problems that we have created ourselves (often, getting back to the Anthropocene’s recursive logic, through the use of other technologies). In general, Kolbert refrains from taking a definitive stance on these solutions. But this objectivity is one of the book’s strong suits, for it enables the reader to think beyond the boundaries of “good” and “bad.” Instead, we’re asked to consider the inherent nuances involved in addressing a problem of this scale and severity: after all, a complicated issue demands complicated thought.

About The Author

Elisabeth is a writer and researcher who earned a PhD from Cornell University.

Elisabeth Strayer

Writer at The Impact

Elisabeth Strayer is a writer and researcher who earned a PhD from Cornell University, where she studied literature through an environmental lens and taught courses on climate change narratives. Having recently entered the tech world, she is interested in intersections between technology and sustainability, as well as how environmental issues are communicated.

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