Under A White Sky: Failed Interventions

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky might owe its creation, in part, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a seminal book on ecological crisis, but Kolbert is highly aware of this uncomfortable inheritance. In the early pages of Under a White Sky, Kolbert discusses an unfortunate consequence of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the most influential environmental books ever written. Kolbert presents the example as a warning both to us, and to herself as an environmental writer. Interventions made upon any natural system have consequences, and the consequences may not always be good. 

Writers are often called upon to offer solutions, whether they are writing about life, romance, or environmental collapse. But when it comes to complex systems like the environment, or other similarly complex systems, like, say other people, or falling in and out of love, writers are wise to pause before dealing out advice or solutions. (While I focus on writers in this essay, I think this line of thinking can extend to anyone considering offering solutions to any big problem, whether it’s writing a letter to the editor about your solution to the climate crisis, or perhaps pausing before giving a friend life advice—the full picture evades even the most well-informed and well-meaning interventionist.)

In Silent Spring, Carson suggested that one alternative to pesticides could be the use of “one biological agent against another.” Not long after, Arkansas introduced Asian carp into its waters to keep water weeds in check. That choice, combined with the decision to dig a canal in Chicago, has led to the proliferation of invasive carp in American rivers and the risk that carp from the American south might someday make their way into the Great Lakes, devastating their ecosystems. 

The lesson is a stark one. Writers who offer solutions about how to solve the climate crisis should do so with care. But this lesson goes far deeper than policymaking. As a reader I often turn to books for advice. Which reader has not? Writers, either overtly or subtlety, offer advice for living through their work. Sometimes the advice is direct, like in Carson’s Silent Spring, and sometimes the advice is more subtle. 

Condé Nast Traveler reported that there was a 50% increase in the number of people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after Cheryl Strayed’s excellent memoir, Wild came out. While the Pacific Crest Trail Association claims that the book has had the positive impact of helping hikers better prepare for the rigors of the trail, the trail association also reported that it had to expand its campgrounds to accommodate the crowds. It isn’t clear what impact the added influx of feet and garbage will have on previously pristine natural spaces. The trail may change your life, but you will most certainly change the trail with your presence. 

In Louisiana, the intervention of levees has caused another problem. 

Kolbert explains, “Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land.” By building levees to prevent flooding, we have also prevented the water from depositing the very sediment that forms the land. “Thanks to the intervention of the engineers, there had been no spillover, no havoc, and hence no land-building. The future of southern Louisiana had instead washed out to sea.” 

Natural interventions can have unintentional consequences, but I’m also learning that personal interventions come with similar risks. 

A few weeks ago, the levees in my life broke. A relationship ended horribly.

Today, I feel like I’m standing on the roof of a house, watching the debris float by. 

I shut my mouth because he scared me, and then, he and I stood on increasingly shrinking land, until there was nothing left.

When we protect someone from the consequences of their actions, we build an artificial levee, but without the “spillover” of cause and effect, there can be no growth. When we protect people from their own havoc, the havoc emerges in other ways, often on our front porch. 

Levees are also boundaries, and for too long, I had none. 

At age 37, I’m learning how to set them. I’m trying to reclaim lost land. 

A White Sky Enso. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
A White Sky Enso. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

We make interventions because something has been broken, something needs repair. The problem with interventions is that ultimately, they don’t work, not the way we think they do. The truth is this: we can’t do anything.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the scientists who want to put diamond particles in the sky to cool the earth. There are obviously many concerns with the idea of sending reflective particles into the atmosphere, one among them being that the sky will turn from blue to white. But even if the particles are sent into the air, they’ll work or fail because nature allows it, not because we did it.

The same is true for interventions with people. The family gathers in a room, words are spoken, boundaries are drawn. But even after all this, a person changes because they choose to change, not because everyone else does, and certainly not because someone tells them to.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s exploration of natural interventions in Under a White Sky got me thinking more about the human ones. The A&E television show Intervention is a voyeuristic reality show about families and loved ones who have decided to stage an intervention to stop a loved one’s drug abuse. In episode one of season 11, we are shown beautiful shots of the suburbs, where well-manicured lawns and fancy Home Depot doors provide a façade of normalcy that cloaks unspeakable pain. On one such lawn we meet Christina, a vibrant 21-year old woman who loves her dog, has a “kind heart,” and happens to smoke meth. The camera pans out as Christina does flips in her yard. Later the camera zooms in on a bruise the size of a spatula on her mother’s arm. When Christina takes a hit, she loses her shit.

When asked why she can’t stop doing the drugs, she says “they’re the only thing that gives me hope.” When the intervention takes place, Christina fights it, kicking and screaming. She needs one more hit. Just one more, to make the flight to the rehab center bearable. Police are called in. Christina huddles in her room, bent over, praying for anything but this.

The scene made me sick to my stomach: the palpable pain of the bargaining, the panic of losing your lifeline. Compulsive behavior may take on many objects of its desire: food, drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships. When a person suddenly loses the object of abuse, there’s panic. 

“Heavenly Hurt—it gives us/ We can find no scar,/But internal difference/Where the Meanings are” wrote Emily Dickinson. 

A theme runs through many of the interventions. There’s always an enabler, always someone who wants to fix the problem but who also knowingly or unknowingly makes the problem worse. Half of the intervention is to help the person who is abusing, but the second half of the intervention is to help the enabler. In another episode a mother who smoked heroin with her daughter is confronted with the truth in front of her family. She walks out of the room, unable to face it.

And yet, when we protect someone in our lives from consequences, we deprive them of lessons they may need. Consequences can have value. Distortions of thought and action can proliferate like invasive species, when unchecked. Ill-formed thoughts lead to bad choices, which lead to bad actions. Transformation doesn’t come cheap. Someone can’t do it for you. The truth is the only salve. The only way out is through it.

You set the carp free thinking you’ll take out the weeds, but you end up taking out your whole ecosystem. You build levees against everything and find yourself sinking faster into the sea. Sometimes you need to face the fact that you fucked it up. But most importantly, you must stop doing the damage. But I stop here at a precipice. Am I giving advice? And if I am, what will be the consequence of your taking it?

Humans are a species obsessed with transformation. There’s the $11 billion self-improvement industry with its glittery promises of transcendence and self-discovery. We transform our environment. We want to transform each other, to “drive our husbands wild in bed” to “lure in the one.” At the end of the day, the only thing we can transform is ourselves, the only things we can change are our own thoughts.

And yet. Our actions have consequences. Unintended and intended. 

The whole ice sheet in Greenland is melting. And then there’s the pupfish Elizabeth Kolbert describes in Under a White Sky. The wild ones need regular feedings from scientists just to survive in their natural environment, and the ones in captivity need to have the water temperature constantly monitored to ensure that they don’t die.

Kolbert writes, “People have, by now, directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on earth—some twenty-seven million square miles—and indirectly half of what remains.” 

Tonight, I am heartbroken over so many things. I think about diverted rivers, drained wetlands, uprooted bones, and coral reefs turning the color of necrosis and mud. The oceans warm. Dirty water from the suburbs spills into the sea. The Navy’s Red Hill Fuel Storage Tanks have leaked into O’ahu’s groundwater. We are told that the whole water table hasn’t been contaminated, but who knows. I buy bottled water these days just in case. 

Closer to home there’s been talk of expanding the beach in Waikiki. Sea level rise has threatened and compromised the sea wall near the Sheraton hotel. Though it has been acknowledged that retreat from the coast is inevitable, city planners are still considering writing a blank check to build groins along the coastline. Parts of the coral reef will be buried by sand as a result of the groin construction. This might preserve the hotel and current coastline for 50 years at most. Retreat is ultimately the only option.

Kolbert writes about a similar situation in New Orleans in Under a White Sky, “Retreat might make geophysical sense, but politically it was a nonstarter.” 

Retreat is painful and people avoid pain. Whether it’s literal retreat from the sea, or retreating from a relationship, humans are a species that thrives and dies in avoidance.

We deny reality, fail to face the truth. 

We love nature, but we also love our lives, with our cars, our airplanes, our electricity, food, fast fashion.

I was in love, in love with what I wanted to be and didn’t see what was. I didn’t see that retreat was my only option.

Kolbert writes about how the best-intentions can lead to a cascading series of errors that make a problem even worse in Under a White Sky. When we intervene with nature to solve one problem, we may unwittingly cause exponentially more. 

The same may also be true when we intervene with people. The heart is its own ecosystem, mysterious, and interconnected in ways known only to its owner. 

I know only this. This planet on its own, without our intervention, offers us everything we could ever need. If we left it alone, and stopped causing damage, I believe it could heal. It was the same between me and my partner. I didn’t want anything else. I had everything I ever wanted with him, but that life was not everything he wanted, and my presence enabled some awful things.

If you leave a road alone long enough, weeds grow through the cracks. Nature heals the damage we do.

They use electricity to shock and kill the carp these days, and the carp die by the thousands, but city planners won’t close down the canal that diverts the water, giving the carp a potential path to the Great Lakes. They keep building more and more levees in New Orleans, but no one wants to face the fact that the only solution may be retreat. Our most well-intentioned ideas turn to shit. We forget that fertilizer, before it is fertilizer, is just a bunch of crap. 

I’ve been full of shit for too long. I’ve stopped intervening. 

Nature will take care of itself. 

I will take care of myself.  

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is a writer, surfer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.