Archive for the ‘Jacques Cousteau’ Tag

Book Review: Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

This is an extraordinary book. It is not quite what I was expecting. And like all good books, I completed it with lots of questions, dilemmas and fears. When the UK voted to leave the EU, the BBC commissioned a number of public thinkers to provide commentaries. John Gray wrote that the populism that we are now experiencing is the norm. The period of liberal democracy, he argued, was always a blip and would not be sustained.

The same, it seems, is true of climate change. Whilst I had read before that ice bores from Greenland reveal that the climate that we have traditionally regarded as normal, is not. The present era – which is soon to change dramatically – is also a blip. It has been long enough to create human civilisation which, ironically, has also been long enough for civilisation to destroy the equilibrium that gave rise to civilisation.

This book charts a particular human history. It is a technological history in which human beings have clever solutions to all the world’s problems. Clever, but not clever enough. For every clever “solution” there is an unintended consequence. Many of these solutions spring from human beings introducing alien species into local environments with the consequential loss of biodiversity.

Take silver carp, for example. The opening chapter describes the extraordinary measures taken to prevent these fish from entering the great lakes in the USA. There are huge electric barriers that repel the fish optimised to their size so that other fish are less electrocuted. Then there is the extraordinary case of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, all 93 of them. The whole world population lives in this flooded hole in the Nevada Desert – the biggest hole on the planet. At first read, one thinks that the Devil’s Hole is some top secret geological site, but not so. It has a Wikipedia entry and a viewing platform. Humans managed to introduce a beetle into the water. The beetle took a fancy to the eggs of the fish. As these fish produce a single egg, reproduction was heading negative. All sorts of interventions have been made to protect what is left of the species, including hand removal of the beetles when the eggs are sat on an exposed ledge.

Jacques Coutseau, 1971

The book also explores the world of coral. This had an effect on me that I remembered in my childhood watching an Australian TV series called “Barrier Reef”. I went looking for it on youtube. Of course it was there. I watched the first episode and discovered that the whole plot of the show revolved around attempts to exploit the reef and its natural resources (minerals, oil, etc.). This, of course, passed me by as a child, I was just mesmerised by the reef and fish. Whilst this show is not cited in the book, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” is. Another favourite of my childhood. Post-childhood I’d revised my view of Cousteau and viewed him almost as a Megalomaniac cod scientist given airtime. But actually, he was a polymath and had a significant impact on a generation of children sharing his extraordinary adventures onboard The Calypso. Though clearly not enough.

The early chapters in the book were simply taking us to an endpoint – geoengineering. The white sky relates to how the sky will look when – eventually – “powers” intervene to cool the planet by throwing into the stratosphere particles of some – as yet – undetermined mineral or compound (diamond is favoured). As one scientist tells the author:

People have to get their heads away from thinking about whether they like solar geoengineering or not, whether they think it it should be done or not. They have to understand that we don’t get to decide. The United States doesn’t get to decide. You’re a world leader and there’s a technology that could take the pain and suffering away. You’ve got to be really tempted. I’m not saying they’ll do it tomorrow. I feel like we might have 30 years. The highest priority for scientists is to figure out all of the different ways this could go wrong.

Quote from Dan Schrag, Director of Harvard University Center for the Environment

So, we have a perfect storm. Populism and climate catastrophe. My generation was far too worried about nuclear weapons and insufficiently so about geoengineering. It’s political.

Pictures – Jacques Cousteau: Peters, Hans / Anefo. – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/abe56934-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84