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 naïve 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.