The Deep Read 2023—Under a White Sky
Under a White Sky: the Nature of the Future
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Crown (hardback) 2021, Crown (paperback) 2022
reviewed by Seana Graham
Last Wednesday saw the final event of this year’s The Deep Read, a recently inaugurated UC Santa Cruz event that is also meant to engage the greater community of Santa Cruz, California and many points beyond. It is a brain child of the Humanities Institute, co-directed by Irena Polić and Sean Keilen, and fostered by many other local organizations and individuals. Rather than just review the book, as I would typically do here at Escape Into Life, I thought I would give you a window into this bigger project as well.
Under a White Sky is the third book in Elizabeth Kolbert’s series on climate change. The first was Field Notes From a Catastrophe and many may recognize her name from her second book, The Sixth Extinction, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015. Some of this latest work may also be familiar, as portions of it appeared in The New Yorker, where Kolbert is a staff writer. Unifying its different topics is a discussion of how the human race is trying to engineer its way out of the climate crisis it has brought upon itself, and how well that is and isn’t working out.
Or as Kolbert herself says as the book draws to a close:
This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems. In the course of reporting it, I spoke to engineers and genetic engineers, biologists and microbiologists, atmospheric scientists and atmospheric entrepreneurs. Without exception, they were enthusiastic about their work. But, as a rule, this enthusiasm was tempered by doubt. The electric fish barriers, the concrete crevasse, the fake cavern, the synthetic clouds- these were presented to me less in a spirit of techno-optimism than what might be called techno-fatalism. They weren’t improvements on the originals; they were the best that anyone could come up with, given the circumstances…
What you come away with from this work may vary given both your temperament and your current mood. I persuaded my book group to read it, and we had a lively discussion, but while some of us veered toward a more sociological view (i.e., aren’t people strange?), others found it a tough read emotionally since Kolbert is talking about enormous problems that could get anybody down. How do you reverse the depredations of an invasive species like the Asian carp or the cane toad? How do you keep an entire coral reef from dying? And what do you think about shooting diamond dust into the sky in order to reflect the sun’s rays back into space and maybe keep the earth a little cooler than it would be, although sacrificing the sky’s blue color in the process? Personally, I couldn’t quite get my mind around the quixotic efforts to save the pupfish, which live in an extremely remote and equally fragile environment in one particular pool in a cave in Death Valley. After all, we’re the same species that fairly recently blithely hunted giant whales nearly to extinction. Collectively, we are an odd lot.
The Deep Read approached this work from a variety of angles. Starting in late April, a weekly email arrived in participants’ inboxes, asking them to consider different aspects of the book and of both reading and journalism. Comments in an online forum were encouraged to aid conversation between participants. There was a whole class on the book for UCSC students. Then there was a faculty discussion which people could attend in person as well as via Zoom. I particularly enjoyed this segment both this time and at last year’s Deep Read (which featured Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom), as the faculty members taking part weren’t all from the lit department, and different sorts of concerns came up. This time, for instance, the question of Kolbert’s viewpoint was analyzed critically by a South American environmental artist who thought the author should have made her position as a white North American more explicit in her writing.
For the main event, Kolbert was interviewed in person at the marvelous UCSC quarry amphitheater by podcaster and UCSC alumnus Ezra Klein in front of a large and receptive audience. The mayor, Fred Keeley, showed up to proclaim both Elizabeth Kolbert Day and Ezra Klein Day (successively) in the City of Santa Cruz.
Finally, and I think quite importantly for a work like this, there was a further community salon off campus at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, where connections were made to current local environmental projects. An emphasis on consulting with the onsite communities before starting on some of the gargantuan projects Kolbert describes was one idea of a safeguard that arose from many of these discussions.
Maybe you’re feeling a little bit jealous of me right now because I got to attend this event. But you don’t have to be. In the links below, you’ll find one for the Deep Reads website itself, which in turn has links to all the articles and videos that I have described. And there’s always next year.
I can’t wait to find out what we’re reading next.
(Pupfish image from Wikimedia Commons)
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.