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Environmentalists Argue That To Save The Planet, We Must Play God


To solve the myriad challenges to the natural order that humankind has created over the years, Elizabeth Kolbert believes “if there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control.”

In Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Kolbert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New Yorker, travels the world in search of crises we have created and are now fixing, however haltingly. Similarly, journalist Nathaniel Rich limns a portrait of ecological challenges in Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade. Both authors apply sensitive, searching scrutiny to major and minor ecological issues and, through their reporting, attempt to forge a path forward for humanity to humbly but effectively overcome harms inflicted on the natural world.

Rich traverses the treacherous ground of human-created natural disasters, including the poisoning of groundwaters in West Virginia by a DuPont Teflon plant, the accidental venting of millions of cubic feet of natural gas from a Southern California Gas facility in northern Los Angeles, and the erosive effect on the Louisiana coastline of oil and gas extraction.

He also explores the hard work of individuals striving to use technology to help humans transcend our natural boundaries—or, if you like, our human-created problems—such as Nate Park, a product developer at Hampton Foods cultivating slaughter-free chickens and eggs. Then there’s Auden Schendler, who leads sustainability efforts at the Aspen Skiing Company and forged an unlikely partnership with Bill Koch to capture methane from a coal mine and thereby power the entire resort, and Shin Kubota, a Japanese marine biologist whose jellyfish research seeks to turn back time and achieve nothing less than immortality.

Meanwhile, Kolbert dives deep into the water world along the southern American coastline. Every 90 minutes, Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land, and every few minutes, another tennis court’s worth disappears. The levees, first built by the French in the early 18th century, have simultaneously saved and threatened New Orleans, flushing floodwaters away from populated areas into spillways that generate new hydrological problems.

Human and Natural

“This vast system, built to keep southern Louisiana dry,” Kolbert observes, “is the very reason the region is disintegrating, coming apart like an old shoe.” Nevertheless, the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has plowed ahead. It plans a $1.4 billion diversion project that will channel the mighty Mississippi into what amounts to a brand-new river that would rank as the twelfth largest in the United States, measured by waterflow.

Rich, who chronicles the fight against this master plan by the Save Louisiana Coalition of, fishermen and environmental activists, labels it an “ecological monster—the product of human engineering, compromise, brute force.” In fact, the delta has become so heavily engineered hydrologists now refer to it as a “coupled human and natural system.”

Similarly, Rich, who lives in New Orleans, documents the city’s halting recovery from the depredations of Katrina, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward. He observes the invasion of the Lower Ninth by hitherto unseen species of flora and fauna in the wake of the hurricane’s massive depopulation resembled something of a “Frankenstein’s monster,” a hybrid of human and natural components.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s ambitious Nuisance Lot Maintenance Pilot Program aimed to mow or otherwise clear vacant properties to deprive invasive species of a congenial habitat. But that effort faltered, as Chinese tallow trees, great egrets, falcons, and even alligators replaced their human predecessors.

The extinction and endangerment of species present another thorny challenge. “One way to make sense of the biodiversity crisis,” Kolbert muses, “would simply be to accept it. The history of life has, after all, been punctuated by extinction events, both big and very, very big.”

But while asteroid landings, volcanic eruptions, and other natural phenomena have terrorized and devastated species since time immemorial, humanity feels differently when we contribute to those extinctions. “People are reluctant to be the asteroid,” Kolbert notes. Instead, we seem to fancy becoming those who breathe life into Lazarus, not only preserving endangered species but even reviving extinct ones.

In a section entitled “As Gods,” Rich examines the de-extinction movement championed by Stewart Brand, the conservationist best known for inaugurating the Whole Earth Catalog (motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it”) decades ago. At a Harvard Medical School symposium called “Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon,” Brand’s wife Ryan Phelan, a life sciences entrepreneur awed by a demonstration of genome-editing technology, noted that “de-extinction went from concept to potential reality right before our eyes.” Various teams are hard at work re-creating the California grizzly bear, the Tasmanian tiger, and the Carolina parakeet, among many other species.

Kolbert profiles the late Ruth Gates, a celebrated marine biologist whose life’s work entailed reinvigorating the population of wild coral through “assisted evolution” and other extraordinary means. “I’m a realist,” Gates told Kolbert. “I cannot continue to hope that our planet is not going to change radically. It already is changed.” Her methods included raising coral in controlled, stressful environments and releasing them into the wild to forge sturdier, climate-resistant populations.

“Our project,” Gates proclaimed, “is acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural.” Rich believes that moment has already arrived: “What we still, in a flourish of misplaced nostalgia, call ‘the natural world’ is gone, if ever it existed.” Gates’s colleague Madeleine Van Oppen regards assisted evolution as buying time or “filling that gap, being a bridge between now and the day when we’re really holding down climate change or, hopefully, reversing it.”

Similar lessons apply to genetic engineering, which we’ve been practicing for decades but appears in recent years to have taken a quantum leap with the advent of technologies like CRISPR. Kolbert details successful efforts to detoxify the cane toad, an invasive species wreaking havoc on Australian biodiversity. Mark Tizard, who led the project, sought to “restore balance” to an environment upended by the toad invasion.

“The classic thing people say with molecular biology is: Are you playing God?” he explained to Kolbert. “Well, no. We are using our understanding of biological processes to see if we can benefit a system that is in trauma.” Rich echoes this medical metaphor, noting that environmentalists “have accepted that a threatened ecosystem requires steady interventive care, as might any patient in critical condition.”

Yet with CRISPR we seem to be treading ever farther into no man’s land. “In a world of synthetic gene drives,” Kolbert writes, “the border between the human and the natural, between the laboratory and the wild, already deeply blurred, all but dissolves.” As we play an increasingly intensive role in accelerating genetic change, “not only do people determine the conditions under which evolution is taking place, people can—again, in principle—determine the outcome.”

At the same time, aren’t technologies like CRISPR simply a technological advancement on techniques humans have employed for millennia to better our world? Ben Novak, a de-extinction researcher, told Rich that “people grow up with this idea that the nature they see is ‘natural,’ but there’s been no real ‘natural’ element to the earth the entire time human beings have been around.”

Hubris and Humility

How we think about hubris represents another challenge. On the one hand, it’s the height of arrogance to imagine that humanity, having intervened substantially in the natural order, can sit back and let it heal itself. “It’s just absolute hubris and so arrogant to think that we can survive without everything else,” Paul Hardisty, the head of Australia’s National Sea Simulator, which strives ambitiously to nurture and harden the entire Great Barrier Reef, told Kolbert.

On the other hand, believing that we can solve every problem, including the ones we create, is no less conceited. “Wasn’t it just another kind of hubris,” Kolbert wonders, “to imagine ‘all-of-reef-scale’ interventions?” By the logic of immovable objects and unstoppable forces, won’t we eventually create an environmental problem that we won’t be able to solve?

Perhaps the clearest, and subtlest, articulation of appropriate balance comes from Brand, who noted that, contrary to humanity’s attempts for thousands of years to “batter nature into submission,” we are now engaged in “a whole different approach: more humble and more adroit. The skill we’re learning is how to nuance nature.” Humility, nuance, and determination appear to be the sharpest tools in our small, but technologically advanced, kit.

Climate change represents another opportunity for scientific breakthroughs that arguably cast humans in the role of gods, and hopefully not in a Greek tragedy. With global temperatures on track for a 1.5-2-degree-Celsius rise in the coming decades, curbing carbon emissions seems to some to have become more urgent. With the world’s heaviest emitters in the developing world unlikely to take dramatic action, researchers have cast an increasingly wider net to ensnare more radical alternatives. Several competing teams have sought to capture carbon in the air, convert it to rock, and sequester it deep underground.

In the chapter from which her book takes its name, then, Kolbert explores the promising and terrifying field of solar geoengineering, an ambitious form of global tinkering premised on the idea of “throw[ing] a gazillion reflective particles into the stratosphere, and less sunlight will reach the planet.” White skies would supplant blue ones as tiny fragments of diamond, salt, or other minerals would absorb heat and lower global temperatures dramatically. The risks of agricultural damage and air pollution are significant, and we would be remaking the world in an unprecedented fashion, but we may soon have no alternative.

Harvard’s Dan Schrag, a prominent environmentalist, reckons that “such engineering efforts may be the best chance of survival for most of the earth’s natural ecosystems—although perhaps they should no longer be called natural if such engineering systems are ever deployed.” Indeed, we entered a hybrid natural-human world thousands of years ago, and the only way to preserve that world requires further, carefully calibrated interventions.

Both books would have benefitted from a reckoning with either (or both) religious philosophy and historical lessons about how humanity has interacted with our environment. But the contemporary vignettes that Kolbert and Rich sketch of a natural world confronting problems large and small—and the efforts humankind is making to ameliorate them—spur reflection and, one hopes, a resolve on our part to steward our world with determination and humility.