Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sitting In the Frying Pan, Preparing for the Fire

Note: The following is a review that I wrote as an assignment for a creative nonfiction class that I'm currently taking. This is the first draft. I may replace this posting in a couple of weeks, depending on how much I decide to revise it prior to submission of the final version for the class.

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

By Mark Hertsgaard.

(2011; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 339 pages; $25)

In the final chapter of this book, Hertsgaard describes the emotional reaction experienced by someone recognizing the magnitude of the global warming problem for the first time. He calls it the “oh, shit” moment, “when the pieces all fall into place, the full implications of the science at last become clear, and you are left staring in horror at the monstrous situation humanity has created for itself.” Having experienced my own such bitter epiphany a few years back, and having pushed my wife to hers (she has since forgiven me for doing so on our fourth wedding anniversary) this description resonates perfectly.

It also summarizes the first of two major purposes of this book: to impel the reader towards just such an “oh, shit” moment. And for a na├»ve reader with an open mind, the book should have no trouble in doing so. The authority of the sources, the meticulous attention paid to details and the carefully analytical manner employed by the author inspire confidence in the veracity of his conclusions; the contents of those conclusions inspire horror, outrage and grief by turns. Fortunately for the suicidally disposed, the doom and gloom is presented in easily digestible doses and is tempered with plenty of the second major purpose: to ignite hope in spite of the chaos – a hope, bolstered by science and real-world examples, that something worth doing can still be done.

Make no mistake: Hertsgaard does not, for one moment, gloss over the big ugly truths that global warming is here to stay and that the extremes of weather that we have seen over the past decade are only the early hints of the disasters in store. He clearly states that global warming is already locked in. Even if all emissions of greenhouse gases were to miraculously stop today, their levels have exceeded critical thresholds and processes have begun that will take decades to mature and possibly centuries (or longer) to reverse. Hertsgaard employs many helpful analogies throughout the book, one of which he uses to illustrate this irrevocability of climate change: “…imagine that our civilization is traveling in a train, heading downhill, picking up speed, and approaching a landscape obscured by storm clouds. We can hit the brakes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we must. But the train’s momentum ensures that it will be a long time before we actually come to a halt, and before we do, we will cross a great deal of unknown territory.”

This “unknown territory” is where the book spends much of its time. As Hertsgaard explores the various threats likely to be faced by the world of the next several decades, although each of them is a frustratingly complex Gordian knot of intersecting social, political, economic and physical powers, he roughly categorizes them into two categories: unavoidable and (potentially) manageable. The book’s mantra is “avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable” and responses to the threats are framed in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation denotes long range efforts to halt and reverse global warming before conditions on the planet become physically incompatible with life (avoiding the unmanageable), while adaptation refers to development and implementation of strategies and technologies that promote survival of environmental stresses to which we’re already committed (managing the unavoidable).

With this framework in mind, Hertsgaard embarks on a globe-trotting exploration of the science, history, politics and implications of global warming and climate change. Through a series of interviews and case studies in places as geographically disparate as Seattle, Beijing, Bangladesh, New Orleans, rural China, the Netherlands, Sacramento and Burkina Faso, he examines three epic classes of calamity that are expected to increase in both frequency and severity as a result of global warming induced climate change: flood, drought and famine. In each real-life situation studied, Hertsgaard describes how one of these problems has impacted a community, identifies its sources, introduces the people affected (often through representative individuals) and analyzes the responses.

Some of the stories are victorious, such as the burgeoning of crop yields and the restoration of water tables experienced by farmers of the African Sahel. By allowing native tree species to grow, unhindered alongside their crops, these farmers harness a powerful arboreal water-trapping capacity that is lost when the land is systematically cleared for farming. Other stories are of sad failures, missed opportunities, misguided attempts, tragic ineptitude or sheer pigheaded greed.

This last category is rampant in regions where the climate change deniers hold sway. These “idealogues” are vilified as a whole throughout the book, and while the majority are portrayed charitably as the misguided masses, several groups and individuals are singled out for special recognition as criminals against humanity’s future. Hertsgaard has no qualms about assigning blame where he sees it to be it due, and one might argue that this is, a weakness of the book. By painting the actions of various corporate players, media sources and political figures so starkly, he probably alienates many readers, and undermines his own credibility, in their eyes, by appearing to be excessively biased. However, he backs all of his claims with substantial evidence in the form of hard science, public records, policy documents and expert testimony. Besides, it doesn’t seem that Hertsgaard is out to make friends; he’s trying to recruit allies. The book has an agenda, no question, and that agenda is driven by the author’s passion, but it is also driven by rational arguments and undeniable facts.

The foundation of Hertsgaard’s passion is divulged early in the book and is revisited frequently throughout. He has a young daughter, Chiara, and it is for her that he writes. She and all of her generation are destined to inherit a planet that is already broken and is poised on the brink destruction. In keeping with this consciousness of the grim fate that has been meted out to Earth’s children is Hertsgaard’s use of yet another overarching theme: fairy tales. Invoking imagery of dragons, heroes, epic battles and games of wit he eloquently illustrates both the staggering magnitude of the ordeal before us and the height of the stakes that leave us only two options: a committed, concerted response or annihilation. Although he never claims the role, through the love, dedication and perseverance that he manifests in the creation of this book, Hertsgaard himself emerges as a kind of fairy-tale hero. The man who knows from the start that his quest is impossible and that he lacks the strength and power to accomplish it alone, but who is willing to die trying… and who clings ever so desperately to the hope that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t alone – that enough likeminded would-be heroes will join him, and that together they will avert some of the chaos and misery in store.


  1. Thank you for this! Reading your review makes me want to read the book. I'm especially interested in the detailed case studies that you mention. It will be very important in the coming years to have concrete models and lessons that local activists can use as the basis for their own efforts. Both in terms of learning from failures and emulating successes.

    Especially at the local level. To me it seems that a lot of academic literature on policy responses to climate change focuses on the very big picture. It's easy to find articles about federal cap-and-trade schemes or proposals for post-Kyoto global accords. I think action at the local level will be much more relevant and important, mostly because it has a much better chance of actually being implemented.

    I think a lot of the blogs and magazines related to energy descent have come to exactly this conclusion. A quick look through Energy Bulletin, it seems to me, offers a lot of reports of promising action at the local level, while the stories of UN negotiations or the dithering of the US Congress make me want to disembowel myself.

    Additional note. I can tell that you had to write your review for an academic audience. You are forced to spend time defending Hertzgaard's assignment of blame, and as I read that portion of your review I could almost hear the pompous grad students in some bullshit seminar reacting to Hertzgaard's stark assignment of blame with sniffing, condescending dismissal of his "bias." Too many academics react with visceral distaste to any strong, assertive expression of normative views along with the data. They automatically distrust strong ethical and normative stances, expressed with vigorous emotion. I think the assumption is that taking a normative stand somehow corrupts the integrity of data and logic.

    This is bullshit it and it makes me want to poke my eyeballs out. I think, in retrospect, it is a very large reason why I left my PhD program in history 16 years ago. I wish more academics would accept that one can strongly advocate for a specific partisan cause or normative view in a way that remains intellectually honest and methodologically rigorous.

    If they did, we wouldn't get the spectacle of the false equivalency accusations that so many academics (and mainstream journalists) are prone to make. A faculty member in my university department constantly asserts that Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow are mirror images of each other, both distorting information or making it up as they preach to a choir full of fanatics. This is absolutely insane. Rachel Maddow has an "agenda," yes, in the same way that Hertzgaard does in your review. But it doesn't take a fucking genius to see that she uses actual facts and recognizable logic in a way that Glenn Beck does not. Just watch one of her fucking reports. But no. I would bet one thousand dollars, to be paid in an advance on my over-extended credit card, that my intrepid faculty member colleague has never watched 30 seconds of any report by Rachel Maddow, ever. He knows only that she speaks openly for the left. Therefore she has an "agenda." Therefore she presents bad information. Therefore, she can be dismissed.

    I'm glad I'm going into an academic field -- law -- that is perfectly comfortable mixing advocacy with inquiry. Whatever its other flaws may be, the practice of law at least tries to acknowledge partisanship as a reality of human life, which must be faced even as we strive for impartiality. It doesn't hide behind limp-dick academic platitudes about objectivity that have no basis in reality.

  2. Just submitted the final version yesterday. Beefed it up and slapped the deniers a little harder this time around. Can't post it here yet, as it may get published in Northwest Science & Technology (in which case I'll post a link to it here), but it'll be a couple of weeks before I find out.

  3. Woo hoo!! Fingers crossed that it gets published. Keep us updated...