I am happily reading away at my Christmas books, and two of them are very readable and are concerned with the environment, and the technology and products that harm it. More details are in the recommended books section of this blog.
One is Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and focuses on the species extinctions now underway due to human activities. As you perhaps know, there is presently a movement to declare the end of the Holocene (wholly recent) epoch, which began some 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age, and declare that we are in a new epoch (the leading proposed name seems to be the Anthropocene), due to the fact that we humans are causing changes that will clearly show up in the fossil records of the future. One of most disturbing signs that will be visible is the damage we are causing to other living species. Five major extinctions of species have occurred in the past due to catastrophic events in the Earth’s environment. Now we seem to be entering a sixth, but guess what, this one seems to be caused by one of the species — us. And the extinction not only is decreasing the wonderful variety of life, but is bound to cause us problems, since we have evolved in the context of it.
The author of the other one, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, is Naomi Klein. She is a Canadian woman who describes herself as an activist, a socialist, and a feminist. Her first book, No Logo, was a blast at large, international, companies that acquire such a strong brand through marketing that they can sell people products they don’t really need. The second, The Shock Doctrine, attacked unregulated capitalism, the Chicago School of Economics, and the tendency of the U.S. to support people attempting to enforce pure capitalism through political power or force (Pinochet). Her latest argues for fighting climate change as an activity to not only preserve our cultures, but to help us create more humane and supportive societies.
Kolbert is a staff writer at New Yorker magazine, and Klein is an award winning journalist, and a syndicated columnist, and I can’t help but think that such backgrounds are good training for the production of readable prose. Neither of these books is a shallow rant. Kolbert’s book has over 30 pages of notes at the end, and Klein’s almost 60, (in small print, yet). I have two more reasons for liking Klein. The first is that a few years ago she was rated 11th in a major poll run to choose the world’s top 100 intellectuals—and she never finished college. The second is that her books are a breath of fresh air to me, since I have spent most of my life living in Silicon Valley, and teaching at Stanford —both becoming more and more fond of unbridled capitalism, which certainly has resulted in wealth, but to me a certain loss in the quality of life in the area.
Kolbert’s book is a story of what is occurring. Klein’s is a call to arms. She obviously has little faith in either business or government willingness or ability to do anything about climate change in the rapidly shrinking time between now and when we fail to meet the present goals She believes that the force to do something about it must come through active protests of large numbers of people who oppose the lack of action on this issue in order to achieve the widespread awareness of the problems that will be caused by atmospheric change, and to accomplish the radical changes necessary to re-balance our lives with the resources we have. And I think she makes good arguments for some of the benefits of such changes.
Climate change can be ameliorated by a life style that minimizes the pollutants that drive it. My worry is that among the many things that we have not evolved to do well, is solving problems with long time scales (hundreds of years) and great complexity. We have a tendency to ignore slowly developing bad news, especially if the bad effects will occur after our deaths, and to try for simple answers in situations where there are none that will please every one (health care). So we try to ignore, deny, or side step the problems. As an example, we now we hear more and more about geo-engineering. Dumping more pollutants into the atmosphere to decrease solar radiation to the planetary surface? Give me a break!
I recommend the books. They probably won’t change your basic beliefs concerning things such as the amount of effort we should put into trying to minimize climate change, but they are full of interesting information and should cause more thinking on the topic. And if you think we should focus more clearly on the problem, you will like them a lot.