The Truth about Our Climate Crisis
By Mark Lynas. Picador. 345 pp. Paperback, $14
ONE WITH NINEVEH
Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future
By Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich
Island Press. 447 pp. $27
I'll confess up front. It was fun watching New York turn into a Popsicle in the current box-office spectacular "The Day After Tomorrow." It was even more fun watching the fictional vice president, who looked a lot like the real vice president, offer his mea culpa for doubting the warnings about climate change. But frankly, the flash-frozen scenario, however entertaining, wasn't very believable. It takes Hollywood to turn a serious issue into a silly one. If anyone traded in his or her SUV on the day after "The Day After," it was more likely because of gas prices, not an overnight movie-induced conversion to fear of global freezing -- or frying. Hollywood had to trivialize the topic because the question is too terrifying to face head on. Is the American Way of Life -- cherished at home and aspired to and emulated by much of the rest of the world -- damaging the very planet that supports it, thereby putting at risk the health and welfare of, not simply the natural world, but our complex, advanced and global civilization and, indeed, perhaps the survival of humanity itself?
Merely asking it elicits strong emotions, raises hackles and opens cavernous political divisions. It does so because the question comes with powerful economic, philosophical, religious, psychological, political and, indeed, personal implications. An affirmative reply would leave no lifestyle or business decision unquestioned. That hallowed American right, the "pursuit of happiness -- which seems to be generally interpreted as blanket permission to have anything or to do anything one wants -- would be challenged head-on.
Yet as scientists around the globe record and measure the changes underway; as they observe cracking ice shelves, thawing permafrost, melting glaciers, rising tides, more violent storms and disappearing beaches; as they establish record levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the urge to communicate their findings becomes increasingly pressing. Journalistic "evenhandedness" distorts the real and worrisome picture by projecting a balance of opinion on the topic that does not actually exist. There is a pretty solid scientific consensus that the modern way of life -- industrialized, motorized, computerized and consumerized -- is having a significant impact on climate.
That impact is not predicted to be pleasant -- in fact, it promises to be very disruptive and very unpleasant. And sadly, not much is likely to be done about it before it is too late, possibly because it's already too late and because doing something about it is unpalatable for almost everyone.
That discouraging conclusion emerges from the reading of two serious, enthralling and very alarming books that would mightily attempt to have it otherwise. It was the intention of both to raise awareness of the issue and encourage radical shifts in behavior. Yet the underlying message of neither is especially hopeful.
In High Tide, Mark Lynas, who is part climate-change specialist, part environmentalist and part adventurer, takes us on a worldwide tour of vanishing glaciers and listing Alaskan houses built on once solid -- but now thawing -- tundra. To those in disbelief or denial, Lynas says simply, "Come with me -- see what I have seen." And so, with him we suffer through freakish sweltering summers in Europe, lean into hurricane winds and splash through rising tides on Tuvalu, a low-lying island nation in the Pacific Ocean that looks likely to disappear beneath the waves before too long.
Under dangerous conditions, Lynas climbs toward a glacier in Peru, holding in his hand a grubby photograph of the site that his father had taken 20 years previously, showing "an enormous fan of ice completely dominating the little iceberg strewn lake." He is stunned to find that the glacier has completely disappeared. It is unnerving to be reminded how heavily the agriculture of many countries relies upon the fresh water from melting glaciers, once replenished yearly by heavy snows that no longer fall in sufficient quantities.
Telling the story of climate change through his personal experience and those of ordinary individuals is strategically brilliant. While Lynas includes the requisite barrage of numbers and statistics and notes to support his examples, the real-life stories -- the human and emotional content -- are what make High Tide a compelling and powerful read, albeit profoundly depressing. Clearly the unpleasantness is upon us.
Anne and Paul Ehrlich are well-known and respected scientists who have, both individually and in partnership, been warning the world of trouble ahead for some 30 years. They have brought their accumulated knowledge and insights together once again, combining a number of issues each has previously pursued into a hefty tome of impending doom. It is the cautionary tale of a species too clever and successful for its own good, an urgent warning full of suggestions as to how things could be made better if individuals and businesses and nations cooperated.
The title, One with Nineveh, taken from "Recessional," Rudyard Kipling's 1897 poem about arrogance and pride bringing about the collapse of a seemingly invulnerable Mesopotamian civilization, is timely. The Ehrlichs point to a number of strong and apparently invincible civilizations that vanished or significantly declined because of environmental miscalculations, arrogance, denial or wishful thinking. The obvious inference is made. "The United States' inevitable hegemony, its moral correctness, and its nation-building ability, along with its urge to spread the religion of unconstrained capitalism, seem demonstrations of hubris to rival those of Nineveh's ancient kings," they write. (Both books are strongly political and heavily critical of the Bush administration's lack of participation in global efforts to address the problem.) The Ehrlichs' message is blunt: "While gaining its position of dominance over the natural world, Homo sapiens, especially in the past several decades, has achieved and exercised so much power over the planet's resources and rich panoply of life as to compromise the capacity of Earth to sustain the human enterprise, thus putting us on that collision course with nature that the world's scientists warned us about." The chief problems, they say, are population growth, over-consumption and the use of wasteful and damaging technologies -- particularly harmful when combined with a social and economic system that promotes high levels of consumption.
How can no-growth economic policies become the norm? they ask. Can industrialized societies get the benefits of technological innovations while reducing their inherent risks? How, in other words, can we have our cake and eat it too? The Ehrlichs think it just might be possible.
The Mesopotamians had time to avoid their fate but couldn't foresee the future. We have the information to see into the future, but is there the will to do anything about it; is change likely? Even the Ehrlichs, who consider and suggest alterations in virtually every impeding system or institution, from corporations to religion, seem daunted by the challenge. Controlling population and reducing consumption are the logical places to begin, but each has profound economic implications, not to mention questions of equity.
Denial is no longer an option. The deaths of 15,000 people during Europe's 2003 heat wave provided hard, dramatic evidence that climate change is already underway and will affect all of us, not only the unfortunate Pacific Islanders. Emerging infectious diseases, such as West Nile virus, are another important clue. As the water laps about the ankles of Tuvaluan officials, the Ehrlichs' call for yet another global environmental conference, and their suggestion that "critical action" would include "reintroducing population, consumption, and the distribution of power (equity) into public and political discourse as urgent issues," seem a bit lame.
And yet real alternatives seem unlikely in light of our affection for comfort, convenience and consumer goods and our dependence on economic policies that encourage destructive levels of harvesting, production and consumption.
The change-our-ways-or-else option is a difficult choice for everyone -- even for Mark Lynas and the Ehrlichs. All admit to traveling far more than they should. Lynas has abandoned his car but notes that the flights he took to write the book produced more than 15 tons of carbon dioxide. The Ehrlichs, it would seem, have been everywhere.
"Many people who work for environmental organizations travel enormous distances by plane every year -- each with similarly valid reasons for doing so as I felt I had," Lynas writes. "Speaking personally, the impact of these flights is so enormous that it wipes out all the other aspects of my relatively green life." Is it fair to ask the Inuit to give up snowmobiles and return to dog sleds or the Chinese to go back to bicycles when even the environmentalists won't give up their global gallivanting?
The message of both books is perfectly clear: The cost of doing something may be high; the cost of doing nothing is incalculable. But is our civilization any more likely than Nineveh to do something about it? Don't bet on it. T.S. Eliot's prediction that the world will end "not with a bang but a whimper" is looking more likely every day. *
Nicols Fox is the author, most recently, of "Against The Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives," due out in paperback this fall.