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Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and staff member of The New Yorker magazine. She spoke to the UD community about her reporting on climate change as part of the 2021 Common Reader program.

Can we save the world?

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Kolbert

Author Elizabeth Kolbert discusses her book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” with the UD community

Dimming the sun. 

Like a rocket-fueled jetpack or invisible Aston Martin, this techo-capability reads like something out of a James Bond flick. But such innovation is not the domain of international men of mystery so much as international scientists of desperation. Some real-life researchers contend that spraying tiny sulfate particles into the stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays back into outer space may help ameliorate global warming and the existential threat it poses. 

Humanity is a funny thing. This is a species committed, seemingly, to engineering its own downfall, destroying the environment upon which people depend. This is also a species committed to saving that environment through such extreme (and extremely costly) measures. A sci-fi-sounding strategy like solar geoengineering could be both necessary and devastating, potentially leading to a cascade of new problems — including excessive cooling — that would require new technological interventions.   

In her latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert explores this paradox. While the title references the color that Earth’s sky would turn should the world move forward with the aforementioned scheme, the author takes readers around the globe to investigate a variety of planet-saving plots, from electrifying rivers to genetically altering rodents. Hers is a book, she says in the final chapter, about “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” A tale of human ingenuity and vulnerability, it was selected as the University of Delaware’s 2021 Common Reader, the book read by all new-to-campus students in a tradition administered by UD’s First-Year Seminar program. Recently, Kolbert spoke to the UD community about the book and her work. 

“There is a lot of celebration of technology in our world — of disruptive technologies — that I think can be kind of mindless,” she said. “And there is a lot of condemnation of technology that I also think is not terribly well thought out, and I didn’t want to do either of those. I just wanted to follow out this idea and ask what I think are some pretty important questions along the way.”

Kobert, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, offered a recap of how her book came to be, or — more specifically — where it came to be: a little island called Mokuoloe off the coast of Oahu featured in the opening credits of Gilligan’s Island. At a marine laboratory here, the reporter interviewed Ruth Gates, the late scientist behind a large-scale coral reef restoration project. The goal is determining what makes specific corals resistant to climate change-induced bleaching — an aquatic death knell — so these organisms can be bred to create a so-called Super Coral. You can think of the strategy, Gates posited, as assisted evolution. 

Is this idea that humans can improve upon natural selection — a process existing in nature since time immemorial — the delusional epitome of human hubris? Or, if there is any possibility of success, do humans have a moral obligation to intervene in this way, given how much destruction the species has wrought? 

“In some cases,” Kolbert said, “the sense is we really don’t have a choice.”

This unanswerable question of whether our technologies will ultimately save or destroy us is what drives Kolbert throughout the book, from the Mississippi Delta to Icelandic lava fields. Around the world, she encounters so-called CHANs, or coupled human and natural events. A recent example is COVID-19. Thanks to innovations (automobiles, trains, planes), people continue spreading the virus that imperils the population. Also thanks to innovations (vaccines and other medical therapies), the population stands a fighting chance. 

McKay Jenkins, self-described “frenetic tree planter” and the Cornelius Tilghman Professor of English, Journalism and Environmental Humanities at UD, moderated the discussion: “The things you mention make me think we’re living in some weird hybrid of Jurassic Park and The Matrix,” he told Kolbert, referring to movies, before adding that “we cannot escape the reality that we have created. We suffer — we have climate grief, we have climate depression, we have climate anxiety. We cannot pretend that’s not true. So we unfortuantely are both super sensitive global organisms and incredibly destructive, ham-handed, idiotic destroyers of global systems at the same time. It is a very weird dilemma to be in as a human being.” 

Undergraduates posed several questions, including what steps they can take to mitigate the environmental crisis, given that well-intentioned interventions have led to so many new problems. According to the author, the more pertinent question might be: What types of actions should you stop taking?

“I’ve come to believe: One of the things we need to do is… to not do things,” Kolbert said. “And that is a message that is not always greeted with open arms. This means starting at our own lives and going up to the level of the university and the level of the community and the level of the state and nation, looking at [wasteful] things we don’t need to do.”

Jenkins, who co-chairs the University’s Sustainability Council, acknowledged that this is a tall order for such a consumption-happy society (“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”), but he encouraged students interested in working the problem to get involved with the council’s efforts.  

But all this talk about helping the environment begs the question: Is there any point? Or have humans pushed the planet to its breaking point, dooming ourselves to a future marked by drought, wildfire, natural disaster, despair? 

According to Kolbert, despite a grim outlook, there are reasons to feel buoyed. For one thing, the Nobel Peace Prize recently went to three scientists who have modeled (and warned the world about) climate change, highlighting an increased gravitas assigned to this issue. For another thing, the planet’s situation is set to grow only more dire, which will likely inspire greater demand for legislative action in this realm. 

But perhaps the most compelling cause for hope in the face of a depressing reality — one where dimming the sun lives within the realm of possibility — is that there isn’t any other choice. For the sake of this generation and all generations to come, humans need to mitigate future environmental damage as much as possible, while adapting to the changes we can no longer reverse. In other words, we have to keep trying to solve the problems we have created by trying to solve problems. 

“We can never just say it’s too late,” Kolbert said. “That is just not really an option.”

2021 Common Reader Essay Contest Winners

Eight students earned prizes in the 2021 Common Reader Essay Contest, in response to Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under A White Sky. In addition to receiving monetary awards for their essays, the undergraduates attended a virtual meet and greet on Tuesday, Oct. 19 with the author and UD officials. Here are the winners:

First place: Joshua Ciliberti, a university studies major from Maple Glen, Pennsylvania.

Second place: Jessica Griffith, an environmental science major from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

Third place: Maya Weaver, an Honors College student, Community Engagement Scholar and anthropology major from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Honorable mention:

  • Amanda Heil, an Honors College student and international relations major from West Chester, Pennsylvania.

  • Juliana Castillo, an Honors College student and philosophy major from Wilmington, Delaware.

  • Priya Thamburaj, an Honors College student and environmental science major from Matawan, New Jersey.

  • Ian Leduc, an Honors College student and accounting major from Marlboro, New York.

  • Gabriela Taveroni, an Honors College student and nutrition major from Washington Township, New Jersey.


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