Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

The danger of modified nature

ECOLOGY / With technological measures moving in all directions, researchers are faced with sky-high challenges. One of them is human ignorance linked to its indifference.

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Publisher: The Bodley Head, UK

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of the book The Sixth Extinction. In the sequel Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, she presents us with people trying to solve problems – created by people trying to solve problems.

Scientists declare: Humans have reduced more than half of the earth’s ice-free land masses – around 43,5 million square kilometres – and indirectly half of what remains. Our success as the planet’s rulers has led to side effects such as the warming of the atmosphere, acidification and rising of the sea, reduced glaciers, and desertification – among other things. In the human age, the Anthropocene, we have nowhere to seek refuge anymore. If there is an answer to the problem of ruler control, Kolbert suggests, it seems to be more control.

Elizabeth Kolbert is an author who likes the hands-on testing of science. She takes us on a very special river cruise. We are on the leisure vessel City Living on the straight-as-a-ruler, grey-brown Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Otherwise, traffic consists of cargo boats with sand, gravel and petrochemicals. Just outside Chicago’s city limits are the outlet pipes from Stickney, supposedly the world’s largest sewage treatment plant, which spew sewage into the water each time the system is flooded. Before the canal was built, all the city’s rubbish was dumped into the river. The pigsty was so massive that hens used to walk on it with dry feet. Then it flowed out into Lake Michigan. The lake was, and is, the city’s only source of drinking water. Outbreaks of typhus and cholera were common.

Before the canal was built, all of the city’s garbage was dumped into the Chicago River.

Ecological consequences

Something had to be done to the canal, which opened in the early 20th century. So, the water current in the Chicago River was turned around. From then on, it did not flow into Lake Michigan but backward into the Des Plaines River and from there via the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers out into the Gulf of Mexico. The New York Times reported that the river was now almost fluid again.

The reversal of the Chicago River was a gigantic engineering feat, a textbook example of what was ironically called control of nature. The excavation of the canal took seven years. But after this, hydrology in two-thirds of the United States was disrupted. It had ecological consequences, which led to financial consequences and a new round of interventions in the turned-around river. This is what Kolbert is out to watch on board City Living. Near the finish line, she encounters several warning signs. In the end, it says: «Danger! Electric fish barrier. High risk of electric shock.»

The electrification of the canal was the solution to stop fish, both invasive species and others, from coming from both the north and the south and causing chaos, including economic and ecological ruin. At the same time, it was important not to prevent the movement of people, their cargo and their rubbish. The solution was chosen after various other possibilities were considered, including poisoning the duct, lighting it with ultraviolet light, and pumping in nitrogen. The latter was rejected because of the cost – $250,000 per day. The current barrier was put into operation in 2002. To end the particularly skilled invading Asian carp (introduced initially to clean up water pollution), the level of electricity was increased, and loud noises and bubbles were added. The price of the bubble barrier was initially estimated at $275 million, after which it increased to $775 million. However, the problems expanded further into the areas of politics and justice and are far too many to be integrated into this text. In summary, first, you force a 251-kilometre-long river to turn around, then electrify it. As a result, we have fucked-up nature, one that can no longer correct itself.

Before the reversal, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan.

The Chicago Canal illustrates the cascades of unforeseen fatalities in the wake of harassing the laws of nature. Standing with backs to the wall, scientists are looking at all possible technological saving measures, convinced we cannot solve problems with the same mindset we created them with.

Scientists are facing sky-high challenges. One of them is human ignorance paired with indifference. Biologist Phil Pister, who for decades fought to save a small fish called the Devils Hole pupfish, found only in Devils Hole, Nevada, was asked, «What is the Devils Hole pupfish good for?» Pister answered with the question: «Well, what are you good for?» It must be a consolation for scientists to know that they are in demand like never before.

Synthetic gene editing

Genetic modification has now reached its middle age. The first genetically modified bacterium was produced in 1973. Over the past decade, genetics has undergone its own modification and grown into various techniques. Now you can give life to ants that can not smell, monkeys with sleep problems, salmon that do not lay eggs, and slender mice. You can make rain and more. The boundary between the laboratory and nature has been blurred in a world of synthetic gene editing. Can we then use this to save the climate and species diversity to create an environment we can thrive in? A ‘yes’ answer goes: «What is the alternative? If we reject new technologies as unnatural, it does not bring nature back.» A ‘no’ answer goes: «If we leave it to science to find solutions to today’s biggest challenges, we invite passivity in other areas.»

However, the author does not try to arrive at the Answer via argumentative analysis. Instead, she unfolds the scenarios everyone can and must relate to. An urgent task, for example, is seen to suck enough carbon out of the air to prevent an uninhabitable hot planet. Researchers operate with «negative emissions» and different climate manipulations. Solutions are desperately needed.

A brief look at pandemic statistics also gives insight into how much each can contribute. While the coronavirus ravaged at its worst, in April 20202, global emissions sank with approx. 17 percent compared to the same period the previous year. Already next month, the carbon dioxide level rose to a record high of 417.1 PPM (parts per million). The sad thing is that once this cumulative substance is in the air, it stays there until we find a way to intercept it on a large scale. Additional headaches result from the fact that capturing CO² from the air requires energy. As long as that energy comes from fossil fuels, that will have to be added to the CO² we need to remove. And then – the money. Who can convince the biggest carbon dioxide emitters that they have to pay fortunes when they get away with blowing carbon into the air for free?

Elizabeth Kolbert concludes: There is no silver bullet. But there are many bullets of a different calibre. So we – all – have to aim straight. Now.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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