Apocalypse Forever.

AuthorLueders, Bill
PositionBOOKS - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert s new book on scientific responses to environmental crises is in many ways even more frightening than her last, as difficult as that is to fathom. Whereas The New Yorker writers Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 tome, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, documented the wholesale eradication of species due to the heedlessness of human beings, Under a White Sky crushingly demonstrates how bereft we are of recourse that is not also potentially catastrophic.

It is, as she puts it, "a book about the world spinning out of control" amid earnest efforts by scientists to curb the damage as best they can. These efforts include electrifying waterways to block the spread of leaping invasive fish and splicing genes into living things to program them to self-destruct. ("What could possibly go wrong?" Kolbert wonders, facetiously.)

At this moment, people all over the world are staging massive interventions to save individual endangered species. Research teams are engaged in "assisted evolution" to breed coral that can withstand rising ocean acidity. Some scientists are working on ways to suck carbon from the air and inject it underground. Others are looking to blast particles into the atmosphere to block the sun to reduce global temperatures that are rising because of other gunk we've already put there.

All of these approaches are risky and none are elegant. They don't represent progress so much as desperate attempts at coping. They are not, as Kolbert notes, "improvements on the originals."

And yet, genetic engineering might be the only way to bring species back from the brink-if not the fact-of extinction. Virtually every positive scenario for the future conjured up by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change requires some negative emissions-that is, the removal of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The problems created by technology will require technological solutions, at least to some extent, if they are to be solved at all.

"We are as gods and might as well get good at it," Stewart Brand wrote in the first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. Others disagree. "We are not as gods," replied biologist E.O. Wilson. British writer Paul Kingsnorth nailed it: "We...

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