Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

  • Plaquemines Parish — southeastern tip of Louisiana
  • distinction of being among the fastest disappearing places on earth
  • since the 1930’s, LA has shrunk by more than 2K square miles
  • every hour and a half, LA sheds another football field worth of land
  • evidence of a man made natural disaster, the sunken fields
  • straightened, regularized, harnessed, shackled by humans
  • vast system is the very reason the region is disintegrating, coming apart like an old shoe
  • because the Mississippi is always dropping sediment, it’s always on the move
  • New Orleans in 1718, during floods, sand and other heavy particles tend to settle out of the water first, creating what are known as natural levees
  • levee in French means “raised”
  • they raised artificial levees atop the natural ones
  • early levees failed frequently, but established a pattern that endures to this day
  • Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
  • to match the pace of land loss, the state would have to churn out a new BA-39 every nine days — tilling the land, basically
  • when the Mississippi bursts through its levees, be they natural or man made, the opening is called a “crevasse”
  • when they open the gates to the city, simulating flooding, sediment rich water would rush across Plaquemines into Barataria Bay
  • after a few years, enough sand and silt would be deposited that terra semi firma would start to form
  • in contrast to projects like BA-39, it would continue to deliver sediment year after year
  • New Orleans is referred to by residents as the “bowl”, most of it lies below or at sea level
  • some parts of NO dropping by almost half a foot a decade
  • pumping water out of the ground exacerbates the very problem that needs to be solved
  • the more water that’s pumped, the faster the city sinks
  • the more it sinks, the more pumping is required
  • proposals to allow parts of the city to revert to water were floated and then rejected, politically
  • the city will look more like an island in the coming years
  • Atchafalaya — any struggle against natural forces, when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth
  • Louisiana delta is now often referred to by hydrologists as a coupled human and natural system
  • in terms of mammal/creature loss, the difference once we hit the 19th century was the sheer pace of violence
  • advent of technologies like the railroad and the repeating rifle turned extinction into a readily observable phenomenon
  • possible to watch creatures vanish in real time
  • extinction rates are now hundreds, perhaps thousands of times higher than the so called background rates that applied over most of geological time
  • whole ecosystems are threatened, and the losses have started to feed on themselves
  • one way to make sense of the biodiversity crisis would simply be to accept it
  • the impact that brought an end to the Cretaceous wiped out something like 75% of all species on earth — eventually new species evolved to take their place
  • now, there are creatures we’ve pushed to the edge and then yanked back — “conservation-reliant”
  • “Stockholm Species” — utter dependence on their persecutors
  • over the course of the 1980’s, something like half of the Caribbean’s coral cover disappeared
  • in 1998, a so called global bleaching event, caused by a spike in water temperatures, killed more than 15% of corals worldwide
  • futurist — acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural
  • to Darwin, Nuns and fantails and tumblers and Barbs provided crucial, albeit indirect, support for transmutation
  • by choosing which birds could reproduce, pigeon breeders had developed lineages that barely resembled one another
  • nature’s power of selection
  • great barrier reef isn’t a reef so much as a collection of reefs — some 3K in all — that stretches over 135K square miles, an area larger than Italy
  • number of species that can be found in a healthy patch of reef is probably greater than can be encountered in a similar amount of space anywhere on earth
  • nitrogen and phosphorus are in short supply
  • how reefs support so much diversity under such austere conditions is Darwin’s paradox
  • one theory is that they have developed the ultimate recycling system: one creature’s trash becomes its neighbors treasure
  • estimated that one out of every four creatures in the oceans spends at least part of its life on a reef
  • natural selection — indifferent, but infinitely patient — that had given rise to life’s astonishing diversity
  • CRISPR is shorthand for a suite of techniques that make it vastly easier for researchers and biohackers to manipulate DNA
  • CRISPR allows its users to snip a stretch of DNA and then either disable the affected sequence or replace it with a new one
  • a way to rewrite the very molecules of life any way we wish
  • using our understanding of biological processes to see if we can benefit a system that is in trauma
  • cane toads are a menace in Australia because just about everything eats them — they are poisonous
  • with CRISPR, guide RNA is used to target the stretch of DNA to be cut
  • when the cell attempts to repair the damage, often mistakes are introduced and the gene is disabled
  • if a “repair template” is supplied, a new genetic sequence can be introduced
  • there are genes that play by the rules and there are also renegades that refuse to
  • outlaw genes fix the game in their favor
  • such rule breaking genes are said to “drive”
  • CRISPR associated, or CAS, enzymes, which work like tiny knives
  • insert the CRISPR Cas genes into an organism, and the organism can be programmed to perform the task of genetic reprogramming on itself
  • with a synthetic gene drive, the normal rules of heredity are overridden and an altered gene spreads quickly
  • in a world of synthetic gene drives, not only do people determine the conditions under which evolution is taking place, we can determine the outcome
  • strongest argument for gene editing cane toads, house mice, and ship rats is also the simplest: what’s the alternative?
  • rejecting such tech as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back
  • the choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing
  • the issue is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end?
  • reasoning behind “genetic rescue” is the sort responsible for many a world altering screwup
  • Kingsnorth: “Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Sometimes it is the other way around.”
  • instead of allowing carbon dioxide to escape into air, the Hellisheioi plant in Iceland would capture the gas and dissolve it in water
  • suggested that deep beneath the surface, CO2 would react with the volcanic rock and mineralize
  • even without any help, most of the CO2 humans have emitted would eventually turn to stone, via a natural process known as chemical weathering
  • “eventually” means thousands of years
  • James Watt invented the steam engine, kickstarted the industrial revolution
  • as water power gave way to steam power, CO2 emissions began to rise, at first slowly, then vertiginously
  • one out of every three molecules of CO2 loose in the air today was put there by people
  • the threshold of catastrophe and then suck enough carbon out of the air to keep calamity at bay, a situations that’s become known as “overshoot”
  • to the extent that emissions are seen as bad, emitters become guilty
  • such a moral stance makes virtually everyone a sinner and makes hypocrites out of many who are concerned about climate change but still partake in the benefits of modernity
  • CO2 emissions are cumulative, like a bathtub
  • cutting emissions is at once absolutely essential and insufficient
  • with just 4% of the world’s population, the U.S. is responsible for almost 30% of aggregate emissions
  • negative emissions — as an idea — is irresistible
  • once captured, CO2 within two years, it’s stone, 1KM underground
  • enhanced weathering — bring the rock up to the surface to meet the CO2
  • in the Carboniferous period, vast quantities of plant material got flooded and buried
  • result was coal, which, had it been left in the ground, would have held on to its carbon more of less forever
  • reforestation, combined with underground injection = bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
  • plant trees — trees are burned to produce electricity and resulting CO2 is captured from the smokestack and shoved underground — have your cake and eat it too type deal
  • geoengineering — “solar radiation management” — if volcanoes can cool the world, people can too
  • first government report on global warming was 1965, LBJ
  • talked about “reflective particles”
  • 1970’s, climate engineering fell out of favor
  • David Keith, professor of applied physics at Harvard
  • best way forward, he says, is to do everything: cut emissions, work on carbon removal, and look a lot more seriously at geoengineering
  • opening up a range of options could inspire greater action
  • solar engineering would not just be cheap, relatively speaking, but speedy as well
  • not a solution though; addresses symptoms, not the cause
  • Project Iceworm — cold plan to win cold war in Greenland, tunnels in the ice sheet
  • nuclear missiles would be shuttled along the tracks to keep Soviets guessing
  • calm of the last 10K years is coming to an end — humanity has used the stability it lucked into — by studying the tunnels in Greenland, they found a ton of research on the climate changing
  • now Greenland scale instability
  • summer of 2019, Greenland shed almost 600B tons of ice, producing enough water to fill a pool the size of CA to a depth of 4 feet
  • enough ice on Greenland to raise global sea levels by 20 FT
  • this book is about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems
  • enthusiasm tempered by doubt
  • best that anyone could come up with, given the circumstances
  • scientists can only make recommendations; implementation is a political decision

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Adam Marks

Adam Marks

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.