What does the title of your new environmental writing ‘Under A White Sky’ mean?
It refers to this idea that one way to counteract climate change is by shooting reflective particles into the stratosphere which would reflect sunlight back into space in order to lower warming on Earth – this is termed solar geoengineering. One of the possible side effects of this intervention would be to change the tint of the sky.
You’ve studied many interventions aiming to reverse ecological damage – can you share some findings?
All of these ideas are promising and perilous – one of the most cutting edge is gene editing, which has been developed to an astonishing level to alter organisms at the most fundamental point. That could be used to create corals that can withstand warmer temperatures by transferring heat tolerance genes from one organism to the other – but should we do this? I examine the potential and dangers of such interventions.
You refer to ‘the control of the control of nature’ as the mindset underpinning ecological mitigations – can you tell us more?
Due to our sophisticated technological societies, we don’t retreat now. We don’t say, ‘That’s a bad idea, so let’s stop doing that.’ We know how damaging carbon emissions are. But we still pump out vast amounts. Then we get committed to find technological solutions to the problems we’re creating each day – we’re unwilling to simply control our own behaviour. Instead, we grasp for new technology to save us from the old technology.
What prevents us from developing a new mindset is complicated because we have commitments to almost eight billion people worldwide. Consider nitrogen fertilisers. These have changed the world profoundly by changing the nitrogen cycle – their run-off reaches the oceans, creates dead zones and destroys ecosystems. Yet, about three and a half billion people are alive today due to the food supplied by synthetic fertilisers. So, saying, ‘Let’s not use them from now’ isn’t realistic. Part of the problem is our reluctance to change. Part of it is the difficulty of doing so in a world where many people depend on these ways of doing things.
What mindset is needed now?
We should be mindful that our production and consumption are having permanent impacts on Earth, on other species and on our descendants. We should apply the precautionary principle – don’t do it unless it has minimal impacts and needs little human intervention. But I observe our interventions are only growing more and more profound.
You’ve researched species facing extinction – have you seen interventions trying to restore these?
The pupfish, called the rarest fish in the world, lives in a single pool in the Mojave Desert. This pool is connected to an underground aquifer. They began pumping water out of the aquifer in the 1960s. The fish never recovered. Its numbers plunged to about 38 – it was then decided they needed a back-up population. So, a replica was created nearby. Now, there is one population of pupfish that lives in the natural canyon pool and one population that lives in a fake canyon a mile away. That’s a good metaphor for the world we’re creating. Humans made the conditions for the pupfish’s extinction – now, humans keep it alive.
A red fox in the abandoned habitat of radiation-impacted Chernobyl shows nature’s power to rejuvenate. (Picture: IStock)
Will conservationists play a central role in the Anthropocene?
Yes. I’m filled with admiration for the dedication of conservation biologists worldwide – their efforts to prevent species from going extinct is a neverending battle because we are always creating new dangers for them. As threats to species multiply and climate change propels a vast migration, forcing species to move, seeking areas where they can stay within their climate tolerance, conservationists find their work incredibly intensified.
Do environmental damage and the pandemic mirror each other?
Absolutely. The pandemic fits into this world where there are ‘coupled human and natural systems’ (CHANS). Covid-19 is a product of the way we deal with the natural world. If it’s natural in origin, someone interacted with an infected animal and brought this virus into a populated area – then, with our highly mobile way of living, the virus went global. Our social behaviour intensified this. We have pandemic playbooks where you shut things down fast and get a virus under control – but we didn’t do that. We let it rage out of limits. Again, science developed amazing vaccination technologies to save us from our own conduct. But this isn’t equally distributed around the world.
We hear of species considered extinct suddenly being discovered in remote lands – is this important?
Such stories, of Lazarus species, thought extinct, being rediscovered, highlight how resilient nature is. If we left things alone, they’d rebound very quickly. In Chernobyl, people can’t live in radiation-impacted areas now, but wildlife has returned abundantly. All species existing alongside us human beings have survived massive challenges. Survival, as Darwin taught us, is tough – nature isn’t just gentle and maternal. It’s also red in tooth and claw. So, species that survived are very tough creatures. The hopeful message is, if we reduce our ecological impacts, many species will bounce back. But whether we will reduce our environmental impacts or intensify them is the question of the 21st century.