The people who try to save nature with the help of technology

In late March, the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribal Council voted to terminate a preliminary agreement with the lithium Nevada extractive company to install an open pit near the reserve. The Thacker Pass near the Oregon border is home to the largest lithium deposit in the United States. Proponents of the mine say it could produce up to 66,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year, a component in rechargeable batteries that car and truck manufacturers can use to build millions of solar-powered and electric cars over the next five decades, which is a key requirement Part of President Biden’s plan to reverse the progress of climate change. Yet it carries many risks of its own: According to the EPA, waste from the mine could leave traces of uranium, mercury and arsenic in the local watershed, where it would linger for the next three centuries. Whether or not a private, for-profit company like Nevada trades lithium with the best of intentions, any attempt to dig lithium out of the ground is likely to result in chaos.

Such dilemmas are becoming more common and show how even the most benevolent attempt at environmental advancement can lead to other forms of destruction or loss. Journalists who may have tried in the past to describe the scope and depth of humanity’s impact on the natural world now focus on the surreal or frightening consequences of human plans to protect the earth from harm.

The questions they ask are more difficult than before and morally less satisfying. Two of the most famous journalists studying these issues are Elizabeth Kolbert, whose The Sixth Extinction marked the most intense period of species extinction in 66 million years, and Nathaniel Rich, of Losing Earth, a report on fossil fuel companies who wrote Suppression of evidence of the 1980s climate crisis. While these books read like detective thrillers with unmistakable victims and antagonists, the heroes and villains are harder to find in the authors’ latest works.

Kolberts Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future and Rich’s Second Nature: Scenes from a World, both released this spring, cover a similar area and describe mankind’s tinkering with the natural world today, many of which are aimed at this , Handicrafts to correct the past. The writers bring a lot of skepticism into their subjects, but relatively little judgment, and by and large the setting feels less like a courtroom than a museum or science fair. Neither Kolbert nor Rich can imagine any corner or aspect of life on this planet that could be left untouched by human activity, benevolently or otherwise, and the individuals they encounter seem more or less ready for that accept brave new world. “People grow up with the idea that the nature they see is ‘natural’,” one scientist told Rich, “but there was no truly ‘natural’ element in the entire time people were there on earth.”

(Photos: Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, left; courtesy Crown)

Some of the projects they write about are narrow or just for fun. Kolbert is trying a home crispr kit designed by Josiah Zayner, a garage biohacker, to make a batch of the E. coli antibiotic. (Another project in the kit is adding a jellyfish gene to yeast to make it glow in the dark.) She also visits a 40 acre section of Death Valley National Park, where an extremely rare and fragile species of puppy fish relies on an artificial habitat to survive, its population hovers in the low hundreds. Meanwhile, Rich speaks to the investors and techno chefs involved in making laboratory-grown meat and introduces readers to the work of Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian artist who changed the genetic code of an albino rabbit. Under ultraviolet light, the rabbit – like yeast – turns neon green.

Other efforts are more ambitious. To learn more about the passenger pigeon, a North American bird that was critically endangered by European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, Rich interviews experts looking to revive the species Jurassic Park-style by collecting preserved samples of the genetic material used by the pigeon. He also describes the terrible ubiquity of PFOA – a chemical ingredient in laundry detergents, floor sealants, duct tape, and nonstick frying pans – manufactured and released into water supplies by chemical giant DuPont for decades near Parkersburg, West Virginia. It’s the only chapter in the book with an obvious villain.

Similarly, Kolbert largely refrains from taking sides when reporting on some of the more avant-garde techniques proposed to reverse the effects of climate change. This includes the direct recording of emissions in basalt stones, which can then be buried underground, and “solar geoengineering”, a theoretical method of spraying reflective particles into the air to remove heat and light from the sun back into space to sprinkle. For any expert who thinks such technologies are a harmless waste of time, someone else will conclude that they are unforgivably stupid. A plan that some consider a “wide highway to hell” is treated as “inevitable” by others.

Kac, the artist in Second Nature, seems more concerned with normalizing the scary fringes of science than angering the viewer with something weird. He seems to be arguing 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, happily places his work in the centuries-long process of human governance over the flora and fauna of the planet. “People think of all the bad examples of environmental change,” he says Kolbert, undeterred by the range of mild criticism and death threats his university office has received. Many are concerned about the unintended consequences or the possibility that fossil fuel companies could find an excuse to continue to cause harm. “To people who say that most of our technological fixes go wrong, I say, ‘Okay, did agriculture go wrong?'”

Things have gone wrong in Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated branch of southeast Louisiana that both authors explore for more than a few pages. Over the years, the settlement and development gradually threatened to turn the parish’s dry land into a salt marsh. To keep its 2,567 square miles on the Gulf of Mexico livable, Plaquemines has relied on a variety of gates, dams, and backwatering systems that are constantly being dismantled and redesigned. These systems are undoubtedly resource intensive, complex, and sisyphical, but there is no question of abandoning them. More than three-fifths of the community is currently underwater, and that number is guaranteed to rise as sea levels rise and the Mississippi continues to divert, mainly to accommodate the delta’s major refineries and freight traffic. (Since 2011, NOAA has removed more than 40 place names from maps of the area, which Rich compares to “a maple leaf engulfed in its veins by cancer worms.”)

For any expert who thinks such technologies are a harmless waste of time, someone else will conclude that they are unforgivably stupid.

Any plan to protect the homes and livelihoods of local residents must also consider the impact that various diversion programs will have on wildlife. The results cannot be unraveled: in 2019, the local commercial oyster industry was devastated when the Army Corps of Engineers opened sections of a crucial flood control mechanism that fed freshwater pulses into Lake Pontchartrain. This also endangered the habitats of pale sturgeon and West Indian manatees. Virtually every stakeholder – from conservation groups to the Department of Commerce – was injured enough to file a lawsuit. “A Mississippi that has been buckled, straightened, regulated, and handcuffed can still exert godlike power,” notes Kolbert. “It’s hard to say who, if anyone, is occupying Olympus these days.”

For every ecological conundrum they consider, Kolbert and Rich predict a future where no one is accountable and everyone is a potential litigator. But that’s about all they can say for sure that can explain why passages in both books can feel sleepy, meandering, or with no revealing bite. Kolbert’s description of Zayner’s GMO kit for the home is much to enjoy, but not much to learn, and he reports in Rich’s encounters with Shin Kubota – the world’s leading expert on Turritopsis dohrnii, an “immortal” jellyfish with no fixed lifespan the singing career of the biologist, which is as touchingly long as it is pointless.

The work these authors put into describing the magnitude and pace of a crisis like global warming has to be grueling, and hard to blame for turning to more playful and less consistent topics to address one Kind of take a break. However, given the worsening climate crisis, we can only hope that their pause won’t last too long. Talents like Kolberts and Richs are still valuable and urgently needed – even in places like the Thacker Pass, where the worst violations have not yet taken place and hubris has not yet fully exercised.

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