Under a White Sky is a fascinating survey of novel attempts to manage natural systems of all sizes, from preserving tiny populations of desert fish to altering the entire atmosphere ... Kolbert has for many years been an essential voice, a reporter from the front lines of the environmental crisis. Her new book crackles with the realities of living in an era that has sounded the death knell for our commonly held belief that one can meaningfully distinguish between nature and humanity ... Kolbert has a phenomenal ability to communicate complex scientific information ... She moves us gracefully across numerous scales, from aerial views of clouds reflected in Louisiana lakes right down to an individual scientist picking aquatic beetles from a mesh screen ... One frustration I had was the omission of Black voices in the chapter about land loss and environmental disaster in Louisiana. A significant aspect of managing natural systems has to do with the paternalism of such projects ... Though as a writer she has a transporting ability to conjure place and atmosphere, Kolbert can at times be a strangely elusive presence in her own book. At many points, I wanted desperately to know how she felt about things ... the voice of reportage, like the voice of scientific papers, carries enormous cultural power. It bespeaks objectivity. It’s the voice we are told to use when we want to be taken seriously, when we don’t want our conclusions to be interpreted as simply being emotional; we’re taught such things muddy the force of truth ... Beautifully and insistently, Kolbert shows us that it is time to think radically about the ways we manage the environment; time to work with what we have, using the knowledge we have, with our eyes fully open to the realities of where we are. Rigorous analysis and science journalism, the form in which Kolbert truly excels, is needed now more than ever.
... an arresting montage of just how hard it is to return balance to our exquisitely interconnected biosphere, and the extraordinary efforts people go to in the attempt ... this is Kolbert at her most compelling — producing visceral, engrossing journalism with clear explanations of both science and social context ... An element of the ridiculous is ever-present in the dance between human hubris and desperation. Kolbert orchestrates this comic strand with aplomb, never sacrificing empathy or the humanity of her characters. It is only a shame that the focus is entirely on problems and solutions in rich countries, given the global nature of the Anthropocene and the inequity of its burdens ... There’s a grim fatalism to all this. We are so far down this path of global change that to turn back now is unthinkable, even impossible — like the old lady of the rhyme, who inevitably swallows the horse. Kolbert lays out this paradox perfectly. But she does so in the detached manner of an observer: always the reporter, documenting events but never asserting her own opinion. The book ends abruptly when the coronavirus ruins her plans for further research trips, leaving as much unresolved within its pages as outside them. It is, then, a superb and honest reflection of our extraordinary time.
In this new book, Kolbert once again looks down the barrel of the Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch where human activity represents the most powerful force shaping the machinery of Earth's planetary evolution ... The consequence of the extraordinary power we're exerting on the Earth is that the planet is changing. It's sliding out of the state we found it in 10,000 years ago when the last ice age ended. But this new planet seems like it's going to be a lot less hospitable to our 'project of civilization' than the one we've started with. In response to this sobering fact, communities across the world are trying to shift from inadvertent impacts on the natural world to conscious and intentional control. Kolbert's book is, essentially, reporting from the front lines of these frenzied efforts ... What unites Kolbert's reporting in all these stories is the sense of scale that comes with the problems we face targeting a reasonable outcome for our Anthropocene ... What makes Under A White Sky so valuable and such a compelling read is Kolbert tells by showing. Without beating the reader over the head, she makes it clear how far we already are from a world of undisturbed, perfectly balanced nature — and how far we must still go to find a new balance for the planet's future that still has us humans in it.