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What Can We Do Next To Change Nature — In Order To Save It?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Chicago River today resembles just about any other river in that it looks like water. This was not always the case. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her new book "Under A White Sky," in the 1800s, the Chicago River was choked with human waste, cow manure, sheep dung and rotting animal guts from stockyards.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: And it was said that the Chicago River was so thick with filth that a chicken could walk across it without getting her feet wet.

KELLY: All that filth flowed into Lake Michigan, which was a problem because the city also drinks from Lake Michigan. Typhoid and cholera outbreaks were common.

KOLBERT: So in the early years of the 20th century, it was decided to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. That was a tremendous construction project, one of the biggest of its time. And it was successful. The river's flow was reversed. The river - the Chicago River now flows away from Lake Michigan into the - basically into the Mississippi drainage basin.

KELLY: But in the city's pursuit to control nature and to solve Chicago's drinking water issue, its engineers inadvertently created another problem - an invasive species problem.

KOLBERT: That is the great question at the heart of the book. I am looking at these variety of cases in which one form of intervention - a pretty major intervention in the natural world - has caused, you know, problems that we're now trying to ameliorate with a new form of intervention. And our record on this, I think, as the book makes pretty clear, you know, is not so great.

KELLY: I asked Kolbert to describe this new invasive species problem created by reversing the Chicago River and what a new generation of scientists and engineers are doing about it.

KOLBERT: One of the unintended consequences of this huge construction project was connecting the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi Basin. And so now species that used to be - live in separate aquatic realms can cross from one to the other. And this in the - over the course of the 20th century became a big problem as more and more invasive species invaded both basins. And so what was decided to do in response to that much more recently was to electrify a part of this canal that now connects these two great basins.

So I took a trip down the Chicago River down this canal to a part of the river where there are huge signs warning you, do not, you know, jump in the water. You will get electrocuted. And I think I say, you know, first, you reverse a river. Then you electrify it. And that is sort of, I think, a very vivid example of this phenomenon that I'm talking about.

KELLY: And is it working? Is it achieving the goal, electrifying the river?

KOLBERT: (Laughter) Well, it was set up. This barrier - these electric barriers were originally set up to try to keep a fish called a round goby from crossing from one basin to the other. By the time the barriers were completed, the round goby had already crossed over. Now the main creature, I guess you'd say, that they're trying to keep on one side of the barriers - and this is on the Mississippi side of the barriers - is Asian carp. Asian carp is often thought of as one species. It's actually several species. But so far, I think there is not a great - there are not - if there are any, there are not a great number of Asian carp in the Great Lakes. Is that because of the barrier or because of something else? No one can really say.

KELLY: You also introduce us to biologists who are trying to preserve what may be the world's rarest fish. Take us to Nevada, and tell me about the pupfish of Devils Hole.

KOLBERT: So Devils Hole is a really wonderful place. It's a canyon in the middle of the Mojave, and at the bottom of this canyon is a pool. It has a pretty small surface area, but it's very, very deep. It connects to this huge underground aquifer. It's at least 500 feet deep. No one has gotten to the bottom of it and lived to tell the tale at least. And it is home to what is probably the world's rarest fish, the Devils Hole pupfish, which is a small fish. It's about an inch long, very beautiful, sort of iridescent blue.

And over the years, people started pumping water out of this aquifer, and the level of the pool started to fall. And that has caused tremendous problems for the fish ever since. And people have been trying really quite desperately - have tried many, many different techniques to try to keep the Devils Hole pupfish alive. And the latest chapter in this involved creating an entire replica of Devils Hole about a mile away - so a replica of the pool in this cavern. It does not go down 500 feet, but in just about every other way is it closely - it mimics this cavern as closely as possible down to, you know, contours of the fake rocks.

KELLY: Which - I suppose, as a non-scientist, I have to ask, why? What would be the great loss to humanity if the pupfish of Devils Hole were no more?

KOLBERT: Well, I quote a biologist named Phil Pister, who was instrumental in saving the Devils Hole pupfish and other very, very endangered fish. And people would always ask him, you know, when he was devoting his life to this task, what good are pupfish? And his response, which I think bears repeating, was always, what good are you?

KELLY: (Laughter).

KOLBERT: And I think that the value...

KELLY: Yeah.

KOLBERT: You know, a species could be looked at as an answer to the question of, how do you survive on planet Earth? And so every species, it seems to me, once again, has an intrinsic value. I should also point out that the Devils Hole pupfish was one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act. And the Endangered Species Act - once you get listed, it demands what's called a recovery plan. So that's sort of the proximate reason for why these efforts are being made. But I think the more profound reason is because we shouldn't go around sort of burning down the library of life.

KELLY: Your last book, Elizabeth Kolbert, won the Pulitzer Prize, which I mention to underscore that you have a big platform, a whole lot of people who will be paying attention to what you write. What is your hope for the impact of this new book?

KOLBERT: Well, the book is about sort of looking at a pattern that I see about the ways that we respond to these huge ecological problems that we are in the process of creating, have created. And the book is, you know, pretty open-ended about what we should do about this. I don't, you know, have prescriptions for how to solve all these problems. But I do want to draw attention to the way we have - the way we seem to be going about approaching these problems. And if we decide that, you know, we don't want to do that, then we better change course.

KELLY: Elizabeth Kolbert, thank you.

KOLBERT: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: She's a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the new book "Under A White Sky: The Nature Of The Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF EMIL'S "STATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.