Under a White Sky

The Nature of the Future

Elizabeth Kolbert

288 pages April 2021 Proofs in English Current Affairs

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction returns to humanity’s transformative impact on the environment, now asking: After doing so much damage, can we change nature, this time to save it?

From her coverage in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert has become one of our most important writers on the environment. Now she investigates the immense challenges humanity faces as we scramble to reverse, in a matter of decades, the effects we’ve had on the atmosphere, the oceans, the world’s forests and rivers–on the very topography of the globe.

In her trademark persuasive and darkly comic prose, Kolbert introduces myriad innovations that offer ways to avert disaster–or may produce new disasters, ones that haven’t been and perhaps cannot be anticipated. We encounter the scientists attempting to save the Devil’s Hole pupfish, the rarest fish species in the world, who occupy a single pool in a limestone cavern in the middle of the Mojave; engineers who are turning carbon emissions to stone; resilient “super coral” created via assisted evolution to survive a hotter globe; and researchers who are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to scatter sunlight back to space, changing the sky from blue to white.

One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. Paradoxically, the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation.


“Heralded by everyone from Barack Obama to Al Gore, Kolbert’s urgent, deeply researched text asks if our ingenuity can outrun our hubris.” —Esquire

“[Kolbert’s] style of immersive journalism (which involves being hit by a jumping carp, observing coral sex, and watching as millennia-old ice is pulled from the ice sheets of Greenland) makes apparent the challenges of “the whole-earth transformation” currently underway. This investigation of global change is brilliantly executed and urgently necessary.”— PW, Starred Review

“Excellent… Important, necessary, urgent and phenomenally interesting… Kolbert has a phenomenal ability to communicate complex scientific information…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.”     —Helen Macdonald, New York Times Book Review

“A master elucidator, Kolbert is gratifyingly direct as she assesses our predicament between a rock and a hard place, creating a clarion and invaluable ‘book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.’”—Booklist (Starred Review)

“[Elizabeth Kolbert is] the premier chronicler of humanity’s thoughtless destruction of our habitat.” —The Washington Post

“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.” —NPR

“[Kolbert’s] narrative voice is steady and restrained — the better, it sometimes seems, to allow an unadorned reality to show through, its contours unimpeded by frantic alarmism or baroque turns of phrase” —The New York Times

“Every paragraph of Kolbert’s books has a mountain of reading and reporting behind it… Urgent, absolutely necessary reading as a portrait of our devastated planet.” —Kirkus (Starred Review)

“To be a well-informed citizen of Planet Earth, you need to read Elizabeth Kolbert… It’s a tribute to Kolbert’s skills as a storyteller that she transforms the quest to deal with the climate crisis into a darkly comic tale of human hubris and imagination that could either end in flames or in a new vision of Paradise.” —Rolling Stone, conversation with Jeff Goodell

“Kolbert’s book is a meticulously researched and deftly crafted work of journalism that explores some of the biggest challenges of our age.” —The Guardian

“This intimate natural history is both a sober assessment of the ecosystems we have harmed and an exciting description of some of the discoveries that could help undo that damage.” —Scientific American