In 2015, New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert received the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for The Sixth Extinction (Holt), which used field reporting and storytelling to examine humanity’s devastating impact on the earth. Under a White Sky (Crown, Feb.) uses the same methods to explore the technological innovations that just might be the planet’s salvation. Here, she discusses this latest work, which PW’s starred review called “brilliantly executed and urgently necessary.”
What inspired your new book?
We live in this extraordinary moment when we’ve become the dominant force on planet Earth. An interesting article came out just the other day that said in 2020, the weight of man-made stuff on the planet—some of which included things like gravel, which had to be mined and wasn’t exactly man-made, but human-created in a certain broad sense—now is equivalent in weight to the biomass of all the living matter of the world, which is an interesting turning point. So in a sense it was inspired by the news.
Do humans have the ability to reverse any of the damage wrought during the Anthropocene?
One thing I want to say is that the book is not “Elizabeth Kolbert tells you what we should do.” It’s very much a reported book: going out into the world, talking to people who are in different fields, working on different ways to address different aspects of what I would argue is the same phenomenon. Now, my own personal belief—do I think we can reverse all of these? I think that’s one of the through lines of the book: some things are irreversible. You can try to ameliorate them, you can try to counteract them, but you can’t exactly reverse them.
What surprising innovations turned up in your reporting?
One of the chapters of the book takes place in Australia, where I visit two gene editing experiments. In one, they’ve successfully genetically engineered these invasive toads, which are highly toxic and have caused tremendous ecological damage, to be nontoxic or a lot less toxic. That was proof of concept of what can be done with these new gene editing tools, particularly CRISPR. Another experiment was looking at this idea of a gene drive, which is not just genetically engineering a creature to have new genetic material but loading the inheritance “dice” in favor of a certain trait. That’s potentially an extremely powerful tool: one application people are looking at is whether you could suppress mosquito populations that way. That work is going on as we speak, but it’s highly fraught because you’re putting these organisms out into the world and what the impacts are going to be—and this is another through line of the book—are not necessarily all foreseeable.
What sort of reception do you envision for the book?
I like to think of it as a light look at global disaster. I’m a huge believer in the idea that there has to be some pleasure in the reading experience, otherwise just write a technical paper for those who are interested. You have to try and broaden the audience and reach people who wouldn’t pick up a white paper on climate change. It’s a very heavy topic, but I’ve tried to write it as a very dark comedy.