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


The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction returns to humanity’s transformative impact on the environment, now asking: After doing so much damage, can we change nature, this time to save it?


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““The strongest argument […] is also the simplest: What’s the alternative? Rejecting such technologies 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, at this point, is not whether we’re going to alter nature but to what end?”

Following up on her Pulitzer Prizewinner The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert tackles the hubris of humans as we try to solve the problems we’ve created by creating more things that beget different problems. She reports on the work of scientist doing everything from gene-editing coral reefs to withstand rises in water temperature to possibly sending tons of calcium carbonate into the atmosphere to cool the Earth by “dimming the fucking sun.”

Full of wit and verve, Kolbert explores the irony and the ethics of what scientists are trying to accomplish without being fatalistic. Instead, her “funny because it’s true” barbs and quips, though dark, compel the reader to embrace a glimmer of hopefulness – however dim it might be.”


That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it’s said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. Along the way, she meets biologists who are trying to preserve the world’s rarest fish, which lives in a single tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave; engineers who are turning carbon emissions to stone in Iceland; Australian researchers who are trying to develop a “super coral” that can survive on a hotter globe; and physicists who are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to cool the earth.

One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face.

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