Oops, Our Bad

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The Chicago River used to be completely filthy. I mean, it’s not great now, but it used to be so much worse. The people of Chicago were doing disgusting things to it.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Essentially, using the river as a sewer and all of Chicago’s waste, human waste. And also, as the stockyards grew up in the city, all of the animal waste was dumped into the river, and it was said that the river was so thick with filth that a chicken could walk across it without getting her feet wet.

Roman Mars:
That’s Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the new book, “Under a White Sky.”

Elizabeth Kolbert:
What needs to be also understood is that the Chicago River, in its original incarnation, it flowed eastward into Lake Michigan, which was and still is Chicago’s sole source of drinking water.

Roman Mars:
So the fix this problem, the city of Chicago carried out a massive project. They reversed the river and sent the sewage water into the Mississippi.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
When this enormous construction project was completed, which was, it was one of the most enormous construction projects of its era, there was a facetious headline in the New York Times that said something like, “Water in the Chicago River resembles liquid again.”

Roman Mars:
By the way, if you want to know more about how it’s even possible to reverse a river, we did a whole story about it. Episode 86, it’s a good one. Anyway, the river reversal was a big success. Chicagoans had a reliable supply of clean drinking water, but like many large-scale human interventions, there were unintended consequences. The reversal meant two unconnected drainage systems, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, were suddenly linked up and that invasive species could move from one to the other.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi system became highly invaded water systems, especially the Great Lakes. There’s 180 known invasive species established in the Great Lakes. And the species of interest right now, as it was put to me by one engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, is Asian carp.

Roman Mars:
If Asian carp reach the Great Lakes, they could pretty much ruin everything. They would eat all of the endangered mollusks and even threaten the safety of human beings.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
One of the species has the very annoying habit, from a human perspective, of flinging itself out of the water when it’s disturbed. And what disturbs it, often, is a boat, a motor, the sound of a motor. And so, you get man v. fish, you get a lot of injuries. I met people whose eye sockets had been broken by Asian carp.

Roman Mars:
Faced with this epidemic of fish jumping out of the water and smacking people in the face, the Army Corps of Engineers were told, “Well, you have to fix this.” And they came up with a series of plans to stop the carp from migrating up the Chicago River, like zapping the river with UV radiation or putting in a big filtration system, or dumping nitrogen in the water to basically poison the fish. But what they eventually arrived at was the idea of setting up an electric barrier in the water.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
This underwater sort of U-shaped structure that has these nodes in it that just pulses a lot of voltage through there.

Roman Mars:
So just to recap, we dumped sewage into a river, then reversed its flow by connecting it to an entirely different river, and finally, we electrocuted the river. This is something humans do a lot. We meddle with nature. And years later, we discover that that creates a whole bunch of unintended consequences. And then, we have to meddle with nature all over again. These kinds of interventions are the subject of Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book. Today, we’re going to talk with Kolbert about all of the extreme lengths humans will go to try to undo our mistakes.

Roman Mars:
There’s so many examples of situations where people intervene to undo the consequences of previous interventions. But one that really caught me in your book is the introduction of cane toads in Australia. So let’s start right there. How did cane toads get to Australia?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
So cane toads are native to South America and Central America, and the very southernmost tip of Texas, actually. They were introduced all around the world, interestingly enough, into the Caribbean, into Hawaii, and into Australia, under the theory, and I don’t know where this theory came from, that they were going to eat the beetles or the beetle grubs that plague sugarcane crops. And so, they were introduced into a lot of sugar-producing areas. And they were introduced into Australia in the 1930s in the hope that they were going to do something about these pests in Northeast Australia, which is a big sugar cane growing region.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Now, I think right now, the consensus would be they did nothing. They did absolutely nothing for the sugar cane, but they were, like the Asian carp, highly successful invaders. They have basically no natural predators, they’re highly toxic. So anything that does try to eat them drops dead very quickly, which has been a huge problem for Australia’s native wildlife. But they continue to expand around Australia in coastal regions or a ring around Australia. They can’t survive very well in the center of Australia, which is simply too arid, but they’re very good at exploiting any source of water. And I myself saw this when I went looking for them one night. And wherever there was a little puddle from an air conditioner or whatever, there were cane toads.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And they’re particularly pernicious because they can eat anything, so they’re detrimental to everything below them on the food chain. And they’re so toxic, they’re detrimental to all the predators because when a predator tries to eat them, they kill them.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Yeah. And another thing that is important to add here is that Australia has no native toads. So toads are just a whole class of organisms that did not get to Australia, I suppose. Australia’s been quite isolated for quite a long time, evolutionarily.

Roman Mars:
There have been interventions, I don’t know, more homegrown-style interventions to deal with cane toads from the beginning. Can you talk about toad busters?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Yeah. So toad killing in Australia is a major pastime. People bash toads with golf clubs. They run them over in their lawnmowers. They organize toad-busting militias to go out and capture toads and they put them in the freezer, which eventually kills them, but supposedly painlessly. They’ve come up with sprays. They are constantly looking for ways to reduce their numbers. But when you’re talking about, I don’t even know if there’s an estimate of how many, hundreds of millions, it’s pretty hard to make a dent in them.

Roman Mars:
As cane toads make their way across the Australian coast, the government is considering more high-tech interventions to stop them. One of those measures is using CRISPR, which is a technique that allows scientists to make small tweaks to DNA.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
This particular project that I visited at this highly bio-secure facility outside of Melbourne, they were using CRISPR to produce toads that were less toxic. They had disabled the gene that creates an enzyme that makes this toxin so potent.

Roman Mars:
There are two good reasons to make cane toads less toxic. For one thing, they won’t kill their predators when they’re eaten. But also, the predators learn a valuable lesson, that cane toads taste bad and will make you sick. This has a lot of potential to mitigate the bad effects of cane toads. But for many people, it’s a bridge too far.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
You could potentially disrupt reproduction, so you could potentially have cane toads out there that could not reproduce. And if you manage to spread that trait, then you could potentially make a big dent in the cane toad population. But there’s a lot of steps along the way, and evolution being what it is, the question of whether you could do that is unclear.

Roman Mars:
So the difference between toad busting, or even electrifying carp in a river, and using CRISPR, it feels different. It might not be different. How does it feel to you? Do those things feel different to you?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Well, I think that there’s sort of this interesting continuum and somewhat slippery slope. And I think that people will look at one intervention and say, “Oh yeah, that made sense.” And the next one, “Oh, that made sense.” And then you go along and go, “Hmm, maybe I’m not so cool with that.” But I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s clearly interventions on one side and clearly interventions on another. They’re grayscale, I guess, basically. And where one draws the line is a very individual choice.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
But I think one of the points of the book is also to try to challenge a little bit, or maybe more than a little, where people do draw the line? Because gene editing is a technique, for example, that a lot of people find anathema. We just shouldn’t do it. Now, to be frank, we already do do it a lot, a lot, a lot. I guarantee you, you ate some genetically modified organism in the last few days. Gene-edited corn, gene-edited soy is ubiquitous in the U.S.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
But still, people might say, “Well, I don’t want anything out on the landscape.” Certain organisms may not be on the landscape. And I use the example of the American chestnut, which was devastated, destroyed basically, driven to the very edge of extinction by chestnut blight. Now, scientists in Syracuse, New York have developed a blight-resistant chestnut that’s a transgenic tree. And the choice is between this tree that has one little gene tweaked that allows it to be resistant to chestnut blight or no chestnuts. And that’s a tough choice, in my view.

Roman Mars:
We’ve been genetically modifying plants for 10,000 years. I mean, look, you’ve probably eaten transgenic corn, but you’ve also eaten regular corn, which is the result of agriculture, which is maybe the biggest human intervention that there is. This line between what is a natural intervention versus what is an unnatural intervention is really curious to me. What do you think about that?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right and it gets very much to this point that there’s a continuum, right? I don’t think there are too many people around in 2021 who say, “Plant breeding — we really shouldn’t be screwing around with that. That’s just a bridge too far.” It gets to that idea that what you’re used to, you’re used to it. You’re used to acres and acres and acres and a whole state’s worth of corn. And as you say, corn itself is a product of many, many hundreds or thousands of years of very careful breeding, but, well, it’s there. It’s always been there. Okay, I’m not appalled by that. Then, some people are appalled by GMO-corn. Although, as I say, it’s almost impossible to avoid in an American diet.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
My goal is not to convince anyone not to be appalled, but my goal is to challenge why are we appalled? Is it simply what we’re used to? There are big trade-offs that are being made, to a large extent unwittingly. And when you bring them to the level of consciousness, the questions become pretty complicated.

Roman Mars:
As we go up the scale of human interventions, climate change is pretty much the biggest way people have messed with nature. And it’s becoming clear that just reducing our CO2 emissions, won’t be enough to stop global warming, even if we get to net zero. So scientists are talking about a series of interventions called geoengineering, and they are pretty controversial since they involve messing with the chemistry of the atmosphere. One of these technologies is called carbon capture and storage.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
I mean, when you hear all of this talk now of going net zero in carbon emissions, what’s the net? Well, the net is, you’re still going to have certain amount of emissions and you’re going to have to counter that, balance that with negative emissions. So negative emissions are just sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere somehow, we can talk about how if you’d like, and storing it somehow.

Roman Mars:
You actually spent a lot of money on a carbon capture system, where you paid a company to offset your emissions in Europe. What happened there?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
So, yes, I still spend money. I pay a Swiss-based company every month a sum of money, and the idea is that they … actually, this machinery is in Iceland. They suck some CO2 emissions out of the air, they’re attributed to me. They suck out some CO2. Unfortunately, it’s only a small fraction of my actual emissions. And they do that in this machine that looks like a giant air conditioner. Then they pipe the CO2 very deep underground in Iceland, where all the rock is volcanic rock, under heat and pressure and with a lot of water, actually. There’s a chemical reaction, where the CO2 reacts with the rock and forms calcium carbonate. So it’s locked up there underground, presumably permanently. So that is one form of carbon dioxide removal.

Roman Mars:
And so, what are the pros and cons of this? I mean, does it really solve the problem? What do you think of it?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Well, the pros is you’re taking CO2 out of the air and you’re locking it up. So that is the obvious pro. The cons are the question of practicality at scale. How’s that? I mean, the whole project that I visited in Iceland, and they’re scaling it up, it’s supposed to be able to deal with 4,000 tons of CO2 a year, okay? Which might sound like a lot, but is ridiculously trivial compared to the 40 billion tons of CO2 that humans pour into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels every year.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
So when you think about that, and it takes energy to get my CO2 out of the atmosphere in Iceland. One of the reasons this project is located in Iceland … For all sorts of reasons, it’s located actually at a geothermal plant, which is making it, producing electricity, using the geothermal energy from the center of the earth.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
But, if you imagine doing this at huge scale, how are you getting that energy? And then, where are you putting this stuff? There’s room in the basalt of Iceland for a lot of CO2, but not for all of our CO2, so you have to locate these facilities in various places. You’d have to potentially start piping the CO2 around. I mean, carbon dioxide removal, using technology has to be, when you think about it, to make a difference on the scale of the energy infrastructure we have now. And that’s just huge. I don’t know if you want to call them downsides, but those are the obvious, very evident obstacles.

Roman Mars:
Another large-scale intervention like this that you wrote about is solar geoengineering, and that’s interventions that basically reflect the sun’s rays back into space, that would, in theory, cool the temperature of the earth. And the idea is that we slow down global warming this way. Obviously, it’s experimental, it’s untested. How would it work?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
There are all sorts of intermediate technologies here too. So there’s a technology referred to sometimes as marine cloud brightening, where we would manipulate clouds to make them whiter so they’d reflect more sunlight back to space. That, in theory, is possible, and in theory, could have a regional cooling effect. But the biggie, the big one that the book builds to is this idea that you could spray some kind of reflective substance particles into the stratosphere. These would bounce sunlight back to space before it hit the earth, so you’d really be getting less direct sunlight on planet Earth. And that would have a cooling effect.

Roman Mars:
Obviously, we haven’t tried this on a large scale as humans, but there is a natural analog to this with volcanoes spilling ash into the atmosphere.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Yeah. Well, it’s not actually the ash that has this impact. It’s the sulfur dioxide from volcanoes that gets injected up into the stratosphere, floats around, forms these tiny, little, what are called aerosols. They’re essentially little droplets that are highly reflective, why you get such beautiful sunsets after a big eruption.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
And people have measured, after Mount Pinatubo in the nineties, climate scientists were very interested in this effect. What effect would this have? And they measured it pretty precisely, and it definitely led to a temporary drop in average global temperatures as a result of this effect. And this has been understood for quite a while, that volcanoes have this impact. And so, the idea behind solar geoengineering is, could we mimic that? And people are also exploring different materials. People have even floated the idea of using diamond dust. There are all sorts of ideas out there.

Roman Mars:
For a long time, environmentalists have seen geoengineering as a total non-starter because the argument is, it’s a long shot if it would work at all, and it’s a distraction from the real work of reducing carbon emissions. What do you think of that criticism?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Well, that’s a big concern, this question of, if you dangle in front of people some way that we might be able to counteract climate change without actually reducing our emissions, are you just going to encourage people to behave badly? And I think that’s a big worry, and I think it’s a legitimate worry. On the other hand, we are behaving badly, and so, the counterargument is, even at the point that we do stop emitting CO2, we haven’t gotten back the climate of the past. We have simply stopped putting more heating into the system. It’ll take probably a few to several decades, on some level, century-scale to really reach a new equilibrium.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
But, you’re going to continue to melt the ice caps. You’re going to continue to see sea-level rise, that oceans are going to continue to warm. So the counterargument is, well, you may find yourself in such a terrible situation that you’re going to want some way of counteracting some of that warming because the alternatives are so awful. And I think that both of those are very legitimate arguments.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. The other part of this that’s interesting is the word geo. I mean, it is a global thing. And when you’re talking about cane toads in Australia, it’s at least limited to Australia. Who gets to decide who pours stuff into the stratosphere?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
It’s very difficult to think through, because we’re not very good at global governments, witness what’s happened with climate change. And people have pointed out that a potentially frightening thing about geoengineering is it could be done, in theory, by one country or even, once again, in theory, by one very, very rich person.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
I don’t personally, once again, this is one woman’s opinion, I don’t find that a very compelling argument because this is not something you do in secret. This is something that you are flying lots and lots of flights in the stratosphere. We certainly know how to shoot down planes from the stratosphere if we don’t want them there. And so, I think that a bunch of very powerful nations could do it collectively, but I don’t think one country is going to be able to go rogue here. But the question of how you decide and who gets to decide, I don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t think anyone has a good answer for that. The obvious body, I guess, would be the UN, but what have we really been able to agree on as a world, since the UN was founded, on some level?

Roman Mars:
The UN is only as powerful as we say it is. That’s the thing. Yeah. So there are a lot of risks and reasons to not do this kind of thing, but there’s an argument that to mitigate the impact of climate change, we need some form of geoengineering because we’ve already just emitted so much carbon. Did your opinion on geoengineering change at all when you were writing this book?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
I certainly think that the book expresses a lot of trepidation that we’d even be considering this. I think I described it in one interview as respectful horror. But I did find the arguments of people working on it, who are very, very smart scientists, really, really smart and a lot more immersed in the science of the atmosphere than I am, certainly, the argument that, look, there’s a lot of talk now about fixing the climate or reversing climate change. That’s not possible. The only possibility here is carbon dioxide removal. That’s still very slow. That’s not going to have an impact fast. We don’t have a lot of weapons in our quiver for doing anything about climate change fast. I found that conversation to be more fraught, I suppose, than I expected going in. That doesn’t mean that I exactly changed my view on it, but I have to say that some compelling arguments can be made.

Roman Mars:
After the break, more with Elizabeth Kolbert.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
When you think about our interventions and the counter interventions, it’s pretty easy to consider all of those interventions as unmitigated disasters, but it’s kind of a selection bias because there are lots of interventions that people like an awful lot, like doggies, for example, because dogs only exist because humans intervened and domesticated wolves.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Absolutely. And I put that, exactly what you’re saying, to David Keith, who’s really one of the chief scientists. He’s probably spent more time thinking about geoengineering than anyone else on earth, a professor of, I think applied physics at Harvard. And he said, “Yes, you’re showing your biases.” It’s impossible to do that calculation of how many of these interventions, we would consider good or bad, starting with agriculture, as you say, domesticating corn and wheat and rice. Was that a bad choice? Some people would say, “Yes,” Jared Diamond has called agriculture, the worst mistake in human history, but here we are. And there is no going back from that. We’re not getting rid of agriculture, that’s for damn sure. We can regret a lot of choices that have made over the last 10,000 years or longer even, but we can’t turn around now with almost 8 billion people on the planet. That’s just not really an option.

Roman Mars:
Something about the psychology that I found really fascinating is particularly when you were talking about New Orleans. So New Orleans, it’s a place, but by all accounts, at least in terms of hydrology, shouldn’t exist. It struggled from the beginning. It remains a struggle, both to keep it dry enough to live on and surprisingly, keeping it wet enough to be a port, which was new information to me. But it’s clear that we will always pile intervention upon intervention to keep New Orleans going. Is this just who we are?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Well, I think that New Orleans is a great example of this phenomenon. It’s at a perfect location where the Mississippi hits the Gulf. It was a swamp when the French strategically decided to settle in 1718. And prior to that, people have lived in the area and Native Americans had been living in the Mississippi Delta for thousands of years, but they didn’t insist on staying in a place that was going to get flooded during flood season.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Once you start being a sedentary species that builds cities and has tremendous infrastructure, you’re invested in that infrastructure. And that what’s happening in New Orleans right now, more and more humongous interventions. I mean just, even just what was built after Katrina, just massive, massive waterworks is a very striking example. And New Orleans situation is extremely precarious because of the nature of the Delta, which is sinking, and sea level, which is rising. So relative sea level is a tremendous problem.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
But that being said, every major coastal city in the world is going to be playing out some version of this. To what extent are we going to be willing to move? And to what extent are we going to try to eek out every possible decade from places that are going to be threatened, increasingly threatened by sea-level rise. We have already locked in substantial sea-level rise. No one can tell you exactly how much, the longer we continue to emit CO2, the more sea-level rise we’re getting, that’s just a very clear relationship. But you just go through the list, every coastal city is going to be grappling with this over the next, the rest of the century.

Roman Mars:
We’re locked into an intervention cycle forever, because of our lifestyle choices and our priorities. Have we gotten more precise? Have we learned something?

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Yes. I think we’ve gotten a lot more knowledgeable. I do think, for example, if someone decided to build a new city on deltaic soils, someone would raise their hand and say, “Wait a sec, this is a problem.” But that raises a lot of new problems, right? So there are going to be all these interventions proposed for all these big cities. For example, they’re already looking at New York. How are you going to protect New York? There are lots of massive possibilities. People are going to raise a lot of objections to them, as well they should, about what they’re going to do to the ecosystem, the New York harbor, how they’re going to displace water from one place to another, et cetera, et cetera. Meanwhile, sea levels are rising. So I’m not saying that massive interventions are the way to go.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
It’s quite possible that we need to take a lot of smaller steps, which are much more difficult to coordinate than a big, massive problem. But those also even, even those run into resistance. So we’re in a pretty complicated time and situation where a lot of our values are going to come into conflict, both in terms of wanting even neighborhoods or cities or whatever to have a certain self-determining quality, but also not being able to agree on what intervention we need. Meanwhile, the water is creeping up. So I don’t know how that’s going to play out. I think it would be fascinating, if it weren’t so scary.

Roman Mars:
Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Elizabeth Kolbert:
Oh, well thank you.

Roman Mars:
Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book is “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.”

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Music and sound mix by our director of sound, Sean Reale. Our senior producer is Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Christopher Johnson, Abby Madan, Katie Mingle, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7. KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is scattered across the continent, but we’ll always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listeners supported 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. And you can find out all about our interventions in the world of podcasting at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Host Roman Mars spoke with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.

This episode was edited by Chris Berube.

  1. Cliff O.

    Have always enjoyed Elizabeth Kolbert’s writings, and appreciate this podcast illuminating very, very important issues. Besides her new book, I also recommend “In Control of Nature” by fellow New Yorker writer John McPhee. It has a special pride of place in my bookshelf, along with other books very meaningful to me. Sadly, we seem to keep making the same mistakes. Thankfully, we have science and design journalists keeping us well informed. Let’s hope things we get smarter.

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