I wish I could believe that everything will be all right, but I know that’s not likely to be the case. We’re continuously passing tipping points in the climate crisis, and our attempts to legislate our way to a greener world are halting at best. I know the grim projections well; I know about the corporations and patterns of consumption that have led us here. This year, though, I sought a different kind of knowledge: not despair-inducing facts about all that’s going wrong, but an understanding of how we can and should live in this changing world.
In Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (Crown Publishing, 256 pp., $28), I found a fascinating account of the technology we’re developing and deploying in an effort to counter the havoc we’ve invited by damaging various ecosystems. From levee and dam infrastructure in Louisiana designed to protect residents from flooding—systems that, unfortunately, compound the factors leading to floods—to a gene-editing project that could eradicate invasive cane toads in Australia, Kolbert unravels and explains the “recursive logic” of our Anthropocene era. Our attempts to maintain control of our environment inevitably press us to exert ever greater effort, blurring or even dissolving the lines between the laboratory and the wild. Our solutions often spawn new problems—sometimes literally, as in the case of Asian carp in the United States, which were originally imported to clean up treatment ponds, but then escaped. As we look to the water, land, and sky of the future, our choice, Kolbert writes, “is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing.” Thus our attempts at developing strains of hardy coral capable of surviving in warmer and more acidic oceans may leave us with “a kind of Okay Barrier Reef,” but even a diminished reef is better than none. Yes, humans are capable of great innovation, but it’s unfortunately much easier “to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.”
In writing about carbon-capture technologies, Kolbert explains that “cutting emissions is at once absolutely essential and insufficient.” This tension is further explored by author and organizer Daniel Sherrell in Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World (Penguin Books, 272 pp., $17). The book is written as a letter from Sherrell to his unborn son, a meditation on our responsibility to others and ourselves in light of “the Problem.” From the first chapter, I recognized myself in this book. Sherrell understands—more, even, than I do, given his role as an activist—what it’s like to try to hold such an incomprehensibly massive “slow-motion emergency” in our hearts and minds every day; the feelings that can veer from grief to despair to rage before often slipping into a kind of numbness or detachment as we continue to wake up and carry on with our lives. He is not interested in sugarcoating or fatalism: “It is not: we had the answer and here it is. It is more like: we didn’t, either, and kept trying.” Instead, he is interested in “the arts of noticing,” of paying attention to the world around us as a means of staying grounded, remaining open to the unexpected and never resigned to “something as narrow as fate.”
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