Book Review: Under a White Sky

There are those who walk among us who don’t worry about the climate crisis. They believe that Science has the answers – which is a bit worrying, because not even Science is happy with the answers that it thinks it might have.

‘Under a White Sky’ is the latest book from Elizabeth Kolbert, journalist and author. It was the title  that grabbed me – and now that I’ve read it, I understand why I was worried.

The thrust of the argument is that Science has come up with some extraordinary solutions to complex problems but, too often, hasn’t had the imagination to foresee the consequences of those interventions. Under a White Sky tells the stories of Asian Carp in the US river system; the continual (losing) battle with containing the Mississippi river; the efforts to protect a tiny population of fish in the Mojave desert; cane toads introduced into Australia to protect the sugar cane crop; gene-shredding of small mammals. As Kolbert says: “what could possibly go wrong?”

Kolbert’s writing style is easy and you can imagine her addressing, and mesmerising, a live conference audience (remember those?) But all of the above is just a softening-up act for the final section. This is where the ‘white sky’ comes in.

The final section addresses the climate crisis and what it will take for Science to play its part. This is really a book about solar geoengineering or, to put it crudely, ‘dimming the sun’. A lot of Science reckons that, because of the inertia within the global climatic system, it is likely that, even while we reduce our carbon to zero, we will still experience an overlap; temperatures will continue to increase while crops fail, sea-levels rise, millions die.

Science’s answer for a short term solution? We spray tiny particles into the stratosphere, continuously,  from thousands of airplanes. Its reckoned that, to launch a fleet of Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Lofters (SAILs)  would cost around $20 billion per decade. That used to be an unimaginably colossal figure – until Covid-19 came along.

The intended result is to reflect a percentage of sunlight back into space. The consequence of doing that is we must learn to live under White Skies. The lighting industry has embraced natural light as the fundamental ‘good source’ for illuminating our built environment. But what do we do when Science – and politicians – determine that there is a bigger problem to resolve and give the go-ahead to ‘dim the sun’. No more blue skies and an attenuated light spectrum. Where do we go for our melanopic lux in that scenario, because a walk in the park may not cut it?

Science has spun the Wheel of Fortune’ many times and left us on the losing side. The entire climate crisis is due to a spin of the wheel two hundred and fifty years ago when we backed James Watts’ steam engine. The intended result was to free energy generation from fixed, natural, sources (via water and wind power) and, in so doing, lift the (mostly northern hemisphere) human population to a standard of living and technology unimaginable to earlier generations.

 The consequence of that Science has been, however, the climate crisis. If we allow Science to test out their solar geo-engineering theory we may experience consequences that are unimaginable to us today – and not in a good way.

  • Title: Under a White Sky – The Nature of the Future
  • Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
  • First published by: Bodley Head in 2021
  • ISBN: 9781847925459 (paperback edition)


John Bullock is the editor of The Light Review

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