Why We Can’t Leave Nature Alone

We shouldn’t be so bashful about tinkering with the environment to save it.
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If a fish goes extinct in the desert but nobody knows it existed, did it ever actually exist? That was the question I kept returning to while reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky.

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Kolbert, a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker, has spent the last several decades on the front lines of ecological catastrophes large and small, documenting the changes, from local environments to the global climate, that humans have wrought. In her latest book, we follow along as she profiles scientists attempting to keep invasive Asian carp from laying waste to aquatic ecosystems across the Midwest, keep the Mississippi River in its channel, save the Great Barrier Reef, and keep the global climate from spinning out of control.

Trotting around the globe with Kolbert, attempting to figure out what to do about gigantic and hideous invasive toads that are poisoning wildlife across Australia while also figuring out how to keep Greenland’s ice sheets from collapsing, the entire endeavor often seems a fool’s errand. Our many assaults upon nature seem to require ever more elaborate interventions.

Consider the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. At the end of the nineteenth century, the city of Chicago dug a channel to keep its sewage from overwhelming Lake Michigan. The canal, in effect, reverses the direction of the Chicago River, making it flow backwards, into the Illinois River and ultimately the Mississippi River basin. Six decades later — a year after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — and hundreds of miles away, in Arkansas, wildlife officials introduced Asian carp in an effort to use biological controls rather than chemicals to eradicate aquatic weeds in lakes across the region and limit algae yields in sewage treatment ponds.

The carp thrived and colonized the entire Mississippi watershed, threatening countless other native species. Now, a century after the channel’s construction, Chicago must electrify it, to shock the carp and keep them from swimming through it into Lake Michigan. Everything is connected and each new intervention to fix current problems seemingly creates a new set of unintended consequences that must be managed, which in turn create new problems.

Reviewed in this article
Crown ~ 2021
234 pp. ~ $28 (cloth)

It is a familiar trope. Efforts to control Nature always end badly. Nature is endlessly complex and our capacities to understand it are far more limited than arrogant engineers are capable of comprehending. Kolbert even revisits John McPhee’s somnambulant The Control of Nature, which documented, in excruciating detail, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Sisyphean efforts to keep the Mississippi from leaving its present course and flowing back into the Atchafalaya River, to its west, as it has regularly done every so often for millennia.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the eco-apocalypse. Kolbert departs from the well-trodden narration of those who have come before her, and indeed, from much of her earlier writing, recognizing that we can’t just stop. So entangled are we with so much of the natural world at virtually every level, from the global carbon cycle to the many species of plants and animals that have hitched a ride with us around the planet to the novel ecosystems that are all around us, that withdrawal is not an option. We broke the world, now we own it, and there is no alternative to actively managing the Frankensteined earth systems and ecosystems that we have unwittingly created.

That’s where the desert fish come in.

Across much of the desert Southwest, in the wide open spaces that to most of us appear largely empty of life, a new apex species has arrived on the scene over the last fifty years or so: the conservation biologist.

As much of creation has suffered, the conservation biologist has thrived. There is no reliable estimate of the growth of the total population, accounting for closely related species such as restoration ecologists and zoologists. But populations of conservation biologists, zoologists, ecologists and similar species have developed distinct evolutionary niches in virtually every state and local government, private university, state and community college, environmental NGO, and environmental consulting firm, all dedicated to cataloging, mapping, studying behaviors, managing habitats, mitigating development, artificially inseminating, and so on.

I had never heard of a desert pupfish until reading Kolbert’s book. But I learned that in the Death Valley region alone there were once at least eleven distinct species of pupfish, with one now extinct in the wild and the others barely hanging on. There is also something called a poolfish, of which there are also many different varieties, most also in trouble.

I could not begin to explain the difference between a pupfish and a poolfish. I wonder if Kolbert could either. But each represents a genetically distinct and tiny population that has evolved over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years, in seeps, sinkholes, pools, and caverns that well up from the aquifer that lies deep beneath the Mojave Desert. Each isolated water source seemingly has its own distinct population. I know this, and Elizabeth Kolbert knows this, because biologists tell us this.

I don’t know how much money the federal government spends to keep these various populations of pupfish and poolfish alive. But it seems like a lot. One population, the Devils Hole pupfish, not only has a team of biologists working to track, study, and feed it in the wild (that is, in Devils Hole, a tiny water-filled cave near Death Valley that is its only habitat), but a second population that lives in an artificial sinkhole, housed entirely in a nearby warehouse, where another team of biologists maintains its artificial environment. Another species, the Pahrump poolfish, has been trucked from one makeshift environment to another for decades, since someone introduced goldfish to its native pool in the middle of the twentieth century.

The effort to keep all these isolated populations of pupfish and poolfish extant in the world is, on the one hand, remarkable and heroic in the face of countless assaults, large and small — in addition to the goldfish, Kolbert catalogues water withdrawals from the aquifer, invasive crayfish, tourism, overabundant beetles, and drunken skinny-dippers.

It is also, basically, insane. To the untrained eye, they all look like minnows. Why do we care?

We know and care about pupfish, along with so many other unique expressions of our evolutionary inheritance, of course, because biologists and ecologists have catalogued them, and because journalists like Elizabeth Kolbert and John McPhee write about them, armies of environmental educators teach about them, documentarians produce movies and television shows about them, and conservation groups advocate for them. Nature well and truly has its own economy.

We care, in other words, because we have the luxury to do so. The conservation community has been riven for decades by debates between those who argue that we should conserve nature for utilitarian reasons (because we depend on so-called ecosystem services that are costly if not impossible to replicate artificially), those who argue that we should save nature for its intrinsic value, and those who argue that pupfish and other species have existence rights.

But saving desert pupfish from extinction serves no utilitarian purpose. And insofar as they have existence rights, it is because we have decided to grant them, not because pupfish and poolfish are demanding them.

The notion that we choose to protect nature for its intrinsic value perhaps gets closer to mark, in that it is ultimately an aesthetic commitment. One saves pupfish for the same reason one keeps Rembrandts and Picassos in the Louvre: Because we think they are beautiful, or at least because we think the idea of them is beautiful. Also, because we can.

But too often, even those who acknowledge the aesthetic imperative behind conservation attempt to naturalize it. The famed naturalist E. O. Wilson, for instance, attributes our desire to save nature to what he has dubbed “biophilia,” which rather conveniently asserts that the aesthetic preferences of conservationists are a universal feature of human psychology and not a product of human culture, values, and history, contingent to time, place, people, and context — and indeed, in the case of the desert pupfish, to the advanced technological society that enables us to know of them at all.

To read through the canon of eco-catastrophe is to immerse oneself in metaphor and analogy. Rachel Carson described an imaginary town where the birds had ceased to sing. Paul Ehrlich invoked an airplane that loses a single rivet, then another, and another, until, finally, it comes apart. Garret Hardin likened the earth to a lifeboat that could only hold so many passengers before being swamped.

These sorts of set pieces are used to connect the particular to the general, the local to the global, the past to the future, and the non-human to the human, and they are powerful precisely because they propose to reduce the infinitely complex and emergent relationship between human societies and the natural world to something more comprehensible to human experience and more recognizable in our lives.

The impulse is understandable. How does one convey the enormous transformations that are remaking the natural world to those of us trapped in our concrete, and now digitized, jungles? But it also frequently misleads. We forget that Carson’s bucolic village was only a fable, that neither earth systems nor ecosystems actually function like aircraft, that the earth is not a lifeboat, or for that matter, a spaceship.

Nor is the inclination toward simplified, mechanistic, and anthropomorphized representations of nature limited to the popular environmental literature. “Carrying capacity,” a term originally used to quantify the cargo space of seafaring ships, jumped first from the inanimate to the animate, as it was repurposed by game wardens to describe the capacity of rangeland to host game and livestock, then made the zoonotic leap from animals to humans, as it was appropriated by postwar environmental scientists to describe the earth’s capacity to host humans.

The “great chain of being,” a metaphysical idea that represented nature as static, harmonious, and equilibrating, was mapped onto ecosystem science in the twentieth century, and then onto the new field of earth system science in the twenty-first. These concepts then reappear in the popular literature, laundered through the environmental sciences, purged of their social origins and presented as objective representations of nature.

One of the enduring ironies of the eco-apocalyptic literature is that it continually chides us for our hubris in imagining that we might comprehend nature well enough, in all of its complexity and mystery, to master it while simultaneously serving up grossly simplified models of the relationship between humans and nature.

Kolbert is aware of this. Classically, environmental literature imagined that ecological problems were the result of humans having fallen out of balance with nature. Carson famously described the control of nature as “a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

Environmental writers today represent nature differently, arguing that we live now in the Anthropocene, the age of man, a new geophysical era in which the human influence is so pervasive that there is no separating the human world from the natural world. “What’s got to be managed,” Kolbert writes, “is not a nature that exists — or is imagined to exist — apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself — not so much the control of nature as the control of the control of nature.”

Australians introduced cane toads in the 1930s to control cane grubs, a pest that plagues sugarcane fields. It didn’t work, but the toad thrived. An earlier generation of writers would have seen this as a cautionary tale: an example of all that happens when humans imagine they have sufficient foresight to improve upon God’s creation.

Kolbert is after something else. Once the entire Australian continent has been overrun with cane toads, the old ecosystems are gone, even if many of the flora and fauna that composed them are still around. The invasive toads have created new ecosystems. There is no going back to the old ones.

For Kolbert, as for most of her contemporaries, nature is not bucolic, harmonious, or Edenic. It is hybrid all the way down, a fusion of human and non-human coevolution in which the two cannot possibly be disentangled. The choice, Kolbert argues, “is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be.”

But old habits still die hard. While the representations of nature are more nuanced, less reductive and more complicated, the tendency to generalize from the local to the global remains. So too does the impulse to catastrophize.

Under a White Sky begins with efforts to avoid “carpocalypse” and ends with a looming climate apocalypse. Even though the world won’t end if the carp take over Lake Michigan, and most Chicagoans, immersed in their urban lives, would likely never notice, carpocalypse prefigures apocalypse, as the book turns, in its final chapters, to efforts to manage the climate crisis.

The fact that we can’t seem to master the seemingly modest ecological challenge of keeping invasive carp out of Lake Michigan suggests, in Kolbert’s telling, that efforts to, say, remove carbon from the atmosphere or manage the heating of the earth with sulfur particles are likely to end, in the best case, with a profoundly diminished human future, and in the worst, in catastrophe — even as she suggests that we may not have a choice. “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control,” Kolbert writes. “First you reverse a river. Then you electrify it.”

To say that we are ever more entangled with nature is actually to say that the things and places that we call “nature” are ever more entangled with us. Ecosystems modified by introduced cane toads over the last century had already been modified by introduced rabbits over the century prior. Those ecosystems, in turn, had been serially modified by prior inhabitants over tens of thousands of years, starting with the continent’s Aboriginal population, who arrived 50,000 years ago and, many scientists believe, promptly hunted the continent’s large mammals to extinction.

All over the planet, so much of what we call Nature — forests, grasslands, ecosystems, even the climate — is, to one degree or another, an imprint of two hundred thousand years of human activity on the planet. To look at the rainforest, no less than the landfill, is to see our long history of agency upon the planet reflected back at us. There is no pre-human baseline to which nature can be returned.

Discussions of the Anthropocene in the popular environmental discourse mostly represent it as a relatively recent era, dating roughly to the Industrial Revolution and marking a break from the Holocene, the geological period that began around twelve thousand years ago, when the last ice age ended, allowing for the rise of agriculture and complex human civilizations. In these contexts, the Anthropocene is mostly summoned to evoke the danger that, as the ethicist Clive Hamilton puts it, “the life-support systems of the Earth are being damaged in ways that threaten our survival.”

But the scholarly discussion is far more complicated. Efforts to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene have proposed any number of social, historical, or physical markers of the new geophysical age: the Industrial Revolution, the Columbian Exchange, the detonation of the first atomic weapons, or the proliferation of plastics.

Other scholars advocate for an early Anthropocene, noting that human transformations of the biosphere at planetary scale date at least to the early Holocene, when the burning of forests to clear land for agriculture gradually increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Some even speculate that the warming of the atmosphere due to human activities may have prevented the Little Ice Age, which began around 500 years ago and ended during the Industrial Revolution, from tipping the planet into a full-blown Ice Age.

Still others go even further back, noting that early humans, in the Pleistocene era preceding the Holocene, hunted mammoths and other megafauna into extinction and burned forests across continents to create better hunting grounds. In this view, if we are indeed living in the Anthropocene, it has emerged in parallel with, or even predates, the Holocene.

What is far less contestable is that the last several centuries have seen a great acceleration of human impacts upon the planet. Just over the last two centuries, the human population has grown from roughly a billion people to almost eight billion. We have altered both the carbon and nitrogen cycles, moving enormous amounts of carbon from the Earth’s crust into the atmosphere and huge quantities of nitrogen from the atmosphere into terrestrial environments.

But debates about whether the modern period marks a new geophysical era or just an acceleration of what came before also obscure important continuities in the long evolution of human relations with the natural world.

As human social and technological powers have grown, we have become less dependent on unmodified natural systems and more dependent on artificial technological creations to materially support human populations. We have shifted from harnessing the power of humans and animals to that of biomass and fossil fuels, and now the wind, the sun, and the atom. And we have evolved from hunting wild animals and foraging for edible plants to raising crops and domesticated livestock, which we have learned to produce with ever greater resource and labor efficiency. Today, we are even developing technologies to produce plant-based and cultured meats.

These trends, marking the gradual shift away from unmodified natural systems to artificial human systems, began prior to the Agricultural Revolution and extend to the present. What we have been up to is not so much controlling nature, which suggests a god’s-eye view, as at once adapting to the many environments that humans now occupy across the planet and modifying those environments in countless, mostly incremental ways.

As with so much of the environmental literature, past and present, Under a White Sky focuses almost exclusively on all that goes wrong when we attempt to control nature, even as it acknowledges that we often have no choice. What is almost entirely absent from the story is all that goes right, or any recognition that, at least for humans, the new problems are almost always better ones to have than the old ones.

The invasion of Lake Michigan by Asian carp would indeed be an ecological tragedy. But most Chicagoans would probably choose that over open sewers running through their streets. At the global scale, climate change can seem terrifying to affluent Western populations. But it is easy to forget that a billion or so people globally still live in deep agrarian poverty, meet virtually all their energy needs by collecting wood and dung, and spend their days hauling water and firewood and scrabbling to grow enough food off the land to feed themselves.

In the Western imagination, a future of climate-fueled resource wars, famines, and mass migrations seems truly apocalyptic. It also roughly describes the human condition throughout most of our time on the planet.

To recognize this is not to suggest that we live in the best of all possible worlds. We still have choices to make. Those choices will produce futures that may be better or worse than alternative futures we might have chosen. And they will almost certainly create new problems, mostly better than the old problems, but problems nonetheless.

The metaphorical leap from electrifying rivers and introducing cane toads to removing carbon and blocking the sun is problematic on both sides of the metaphor. Unlike the tinkered ecosystems that worry Kolbert, most of our socio-technological systems work just fine. The lights come on, the toilets flush, the shelves at the supermarket remain stocked. They create problems, sometimes suffering, often environmental destruction, but those problems are solvable, not existential.

The chapters about carbon removal and geoengineering, meanwhile, skip right over the proximate and prosaic to catastrophe. But in fact, climate change is not a zero-sum sort of problem, where we either solve it or we don’t. Rather, we are addressing it presently in the same way that we address most other problems, incrementally and partially, without the benefit of the god’s-eye view of the problem and without recourse to sweeping or global measures to avert calamity. The book’s final passage evokes “an unprecedented world, where silver carp glisten under a white sky.” This line, and the book’s title, refer to the dubious claim that sulfur particles in the upper atmosphere would turn the sky white.

There are no humans in the picture. It’s not clear whether there are any left, nor, if there are, what they might think of it, what new worlds they might have created, whether they think it beautiful or desecrated. Kolbert’s convictions, though, are clear. The world our progeny will inherit will be a diminished one.

From its origins in the postwar years, the environmental jeremiad has evolved from prophecy to testament. Rachel Carson acknowledged from the outset of Silent Spring that her fictional town existed in the future. Starting in the late sixties, Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome forecast famines and resource scarcity that would occur in the final decades of the twentieth century. In today’s eco-apocalyptic literature, by contrast, catastrophe has already arrived. We are overrun with carp and poisonous toads while the seas rise and the ice sheets collapse. It is, as Al Gore memorably claimed in An Inconvenient Truth, “like a nature walk through the Book of Revelation.”

Except, again, that the humans still seem to be doing just fine. Life expectancy continues to rise and poverty continues to fall. Recent research suggests that even in the midst of what many environmentalists insist is a climate emergency, deaths from weather-related natural disasters have fallen precipitously, most dramatically in poor countries.

Even as our assaults continue, in many places nature is coming back. As continuing innovation has reduced the amount of land many regions need to grow food, forests are returning across the United States, Europe, and much of Asia and Latin America. The pupfish may be in trouble, but deer, coyotes, mountain lions, and countless other generalist species are thriving.

To observe these things is not to make light of the plight of the pupfish or the Great Barrier Reef. Nor is it to suggest that we should not attempt to slow global warming. But it is to ask: What is nature for? What do we need from it and what do we owe it?

I’m inclined to think that human societies will survive a world with three or four degrees of warming and without coral reefs or pupfish. Perhaps they will even thrive. But I also think the future is likely to be a better place if we keep warming under two degrees; if future humans are able to experience the Great Barrier Reef in some semblance of its present glory, which some scientists now believe will only be possible by genetically modifying coral to survive the warming oceans; if they are still able to marvel at the miracle that there is a tiny fish that has spent millions of years evolving to survive in one small sinkhole in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

I’m glad that people are working to design gigantic machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and thinking about how to modify the upper atmosphere to block out the sun in the event that climate change turns out to be a “break in case of emergency” catastrophe. But I am doubtful that we will use either technology in these ways.

A future in which human societies decide to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere at vast scales in order to return the Earth’s climate to some predetermined cooler state strikes me as a future in which human societies have adapted reasonably well to climate change anyway. By contrast, a world that has failed to get its act together to mitigate climate change strikes me as one unlikely to get its act together to block the sun. Geoengineering is a temporary solution, after all, and the world would still need to do the thing it had needed to do all along, which is cut emissions to zero.

But I also think it conceivable that we might deploy these technologies not because we must but because we can. Many of the worst-case climate scenarios that have dominated the popular imagination already appear increasingly implausible. Global carbon emissions likely peaked in 2019, before the Covid pandemic, and the most likely scenarios suggest warming of less than three degrees Celsius by the end of the century, as opposed to the four or five degrees many have feared.

Prosperous and evolved human societies in the latter half of this century might choose to remove carbon from the atmosphere not to avoid catastrophe but simply to produce a more pleasant climate, one better able to sustain the extraordinary biodiversity that our species coevolved with, even if we don’t depend upon it for our survival. If this scenario seems implausible, let me introduce you to the desert pupfish. A society willing to spend millions to save minnows in the desert strikes me as the sort of place that might someday spend trillions to moderate the climate, just because it can.

Ted Nordhaus, “Why We Can’t Leave Nature Alone,” The New Atlantis, Number 64, Spring 2021, pp. 99–108.
Header image: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife scientific technician Chris Golden inserts a tule chinook salmon into a vacuum-powered transport system in Washougal, Wash., designed by Whooshh to move the fish to a waiting truck and then to a hatchery on the upper Washougal River. (AP Photo/The Columbian, Steven Lane)

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