Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Climate Crisis Generations

Publication of this study by the University of Hawaii has prompted me to add some more or less recent book reviews to the collection of pieces here on the climate crisis.  This study, using existing data and models, attempts to figure out when the permanent change in the world's climate will happen: that is, when the coldest years will begin being hotter than the hottest years of the past.

Their conclusion is that for most of the world it will be by the mid-21st century.  The first tropical countries to pass the tipping point may do so in 2020 to 2025--just seven years from the date of the study.  North American cities like New York and Washington will pass it in 2047.

These estimates (with a plus or minus 5 year range of error) are predicated on carbon pollution continuing as projected--the "business as usual" scenario.  But their second scenario, positing reduction in carbon pollution, doesn't offer an "out," or even much of a postponement for this tipping point.  The 2047 date becomes 2069.

This study just came out, and so far there's a remarkable lack of response, especially from climate activists.  They may be as shocked at the nearness of the change as anyone else.  It's very hard to take in, to admit into consciousness.  But there it is.

That the world now inevitably will shift into a hotter climate has been admitted for a few years now, and these books that I have reviewed in this period are really about this.  So I present them in order of their publication, to suggest how this story is evolving.  I begin with the first one I read that  acknowledged this new context, and in some ways it remains for me the most eloquent: David Orr's Down to the Wire.

These aren't the only books on the topic I've reviewed, either for the North Coast Journal or only on Books in Heat.  Here are links to some of those:

Sixty Days and Counting
Books on the 35th anniversary of Earth Day in 2005
Conservation Refugees
Earth Day Classics (occasion of 40th anniversary of Earth Day in 2010)
Climate Refugees
Atlas of the Oceans
The Fate of Greenland
The Man Who Planted Trees
Small, Gritty & Green; Earthmasters; Birthright; The Incidental Steward

Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
 By David W. Orr
Oxford University Press, 2009.

 Because environmental studies professor David Orr’s book is gracefully written, with a lucid and comprehensive vision, it is easy to read. But because of its subject and its messages, it is very difficult to read. For all of those reasons, it is important that everyone reads it, because it is about your future, which is likely to be very different from the present.

 Orr begins with a view of the future that close observers of climate change are increasingly coming to, and it’s a real difference from just a few years ago. Despite current denialist noise and other snowjobs, it’s not a question of “if” anymore. It’s how fast, how bad and how long.

 For those playing catch-up: Even Al Gore’s expositions of the massive evidence, for example, were accompanied by suggestions on how to “solve” the Climate Crisis. For awhile there was a popular impression that changing light bulbs would do it. Though it’s true that a shocking amount of of carbon could be kept out of the atmosphere with some simple efficiencies, that wasn’t going to change what had already been set in motion.

Some experts (like Mark Hertsgaard) cautioned that because of a 30 year or so time lag from cause (greenhouse gas pollution) to effects, the crisis was already underway, and we need to prepare for some consequences.

 After more climate data was collected and evaluated, books by respected figures like Martin Rees and James Lovelock in the UK that foresaw more cataclysmic consequences were taken seriously but still seemed extreme. Then came observations of Arctic sea melts in 2007 that were far sooner and far more advanced than climate scientists had predicted.

 “Instead of the long, slow problem many had imagined climate change to be, we seemed to be staring at a dynamic system bent on flipping into some new state,” writes Bill McKibben.

 More urgent warnings followed, by the chief U.S. climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, among others. So the dire situation that Orr outlines is becoming more generally accepted: Continued greenhouse gas pollution will result in an unrecognizably hot planet for hundreds of thousands of years, shorn of the life we know.

 “But a sober reading of the science of climate change indicates something else: we have already set in motion forces and trends that threaten the stability of the biosphere in a few decades and that will persist far longer.” This is the growing consensus: severe and long-lasting effects are already in the cards. They may well be so overwhelming and persistent that they will absorb most of our attention and resources.

Orr discusses some of the variables, and I’ve seen recent comments by climate scientists suggesting a time frame of from ten to thirty years before the cascade of multiple and interacting crises become painfully apparent.

Orr writes: “Climate change, like the threat of nuclear annihilation, puts all that humanity has struggled to achieve—our cultures, art, music, literatures, cities, institutions, customs, religions, and history, as well as our posterity—at risk.”

 “Climate change, in other words, is not so much a problem to be fixed but rather a steadily worsening condition with which we must contend for a long time.”

 Orr looks at issues of governance and attitude as well as more specific ideas for getting through the coming climate collapse, and what elements of human civilization and human beings will help that process, while suggesting that the survival of these qualities—from inventiveness to compassion and community--are reasons for the human adventure to continue.

 For instance, we will need to understand and put into practice the home truth that the global economy is a subset of the biosphere. In this period of fear, anger and stress, personally and nationally, we will need to learn and employ the skills of peace, or we will lose what chance we have to survive. “The long emergency ahead will be the ultimate challenge to our political creativity, acumen, skill, wisdom and foresight,” Orr writes.

Though he doesn’t dwell on the worst implications—like deaths in the millions or worse—he realizes that such crises in the past led to war, tyrannous gangs, barbarism and the haunting ignorance that characterizes a Dark Age. In a coda, he even suggests the added difficulty of keeping a cool head in a hot world, when the heat itself is bending and breaking the world we assume and depend on.

 He titles one late chapter "Hope at the End of Our Tether," which is a pretty direct reference to H.G. Well's last book, Mind At the End of Its Tether, in which he found humanity fated to fail because it was too late to save itself. (The expression, by the way, means to have exhausted one's options, like an animal tethered, unable to go farther than the rope will allow. It goes back to the 16th century, but became an expression with this meaning early in the 19th. Like a lot of cultural metaphors from agriculture, it's pretty much lost its referent, except of course for dog-walkers.)

Orr ends this chapter with this paragraph: "At the end of our tether we must imagine the unimaginable: a world rid of nuclear weapons and a world powered by sunlight, safe from the possibility of catastrophic climate change. Utopia? Hardly. But those are the only realistic options we have."

 That's a powerful, present-tense restatement of how far we've stretched our possibilities. In 1960 and especially in his 1961 Inaugural, President Kennedy noted that humanity now had the power to abolish poverty, and also to abolish human life. Humanity could choose utopia, or it could choose oblivion. But as Buckminster Fuller and others soon suggested, the power of nuclear weapons etc. really meant that either we choose Utopia or we get Oblivion. It's an either/or.

 Orr stretches the tether even tighter, by noting that resource problems and catastrophes from the Climate Crisis make nuclear war more likely and therefore more dangerous. So we don't have much of a choice--though as Orr notes, even if we save ourselves from our two principal scourges, without losing civilization in the process, we still won't wind up with Utopia, the perfect society. That at least forestalls the objection that he's asking for perfection, which is by definition impossible. He's just saying the just about impossible is just about essential.

 “There is no historical precedent, however, for what we must do if we are to endure,” he warns. And though he admits “I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future,” he opts for hope—but of a particular kind: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds.” He quotes Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope as “an orientation of the heart” and “ability to work for something because it is good.” Orr believes the only thing that will save us is “people behaving heroically.”

 Orr begins his book by noting that UK scientist Martin Ree’s 2003 book (Our Final Hour) which suggests that humankind has about a 1 in 2 chance of surviving the 21st century, was almost entirely ignored. Orr’s book has been out since last spring, I believe, and has also been pretty much ignored.

 In one sense it’s not surprising: even if the science is admitted, the message is so apocalyptic that it cries out for a grief response, starting with denial and anger, and maybe moving up to bargaining (i.e. technological fixes that few believe will change the immediate future, even if they work.) I had a tough time with this book myself, and only copious amounts of high-quality chocolate and some sleepless nights got me as far as this review.

 But while this is one of the first books about how to contend with the coming “long emergency,” (and this phrase devised by Jim Kunstler looks like it will stick) it won’t be the last. For instance, Bill McKibben’s new book to be published in April, bears the subtitle: “Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” Maybe it's groupthink, but I don't think so: these sentiments are becoming pretty common among those closely observing climate and climate science. If we keep hearing this, and evidence piles up (and we have the wit to understand it--for instance, that the northeastern snows this month support global heating theories, they don't contradict them), sooner or later we’ll move through depression to acceptance, and then maybe we’ll get to work salvaging a civilization.

Meanwhile, we ought to be grateful for writers like Orr who are preparing us for this future, as well as the scientists and scholars who are bringing their skills to bear on these topics, regardless of the terrified barbarians at the gates.

 And this future doesn’t include continuing global failure to cut greenhouse gases, which makes the farther future even bleaker. “I also write with the assumption that we will succeed in reducing atmospheric CO2 below the level that would cause runaway climate change,” Orr adds, “otherwise, there is no point in writing anything other than an elegy or funeral dirge.”

 How hard it is to read and then write these words, because it’s real now: very probably, the world we’ve known is ending, and humanity faces its greatest challenge, including the dual tasks of living in this harsher world while still doing what is necessary not to make things worse. Ending greenhouse gas pollution is still necessary, but it alone is no longer enough. We enter the age of consequences.

Eaarth Day Books 2010 (Eaarth, Gaia in Turmoil)

Besides the deafening silence today versus the two million shouting voices forty years ago, this Earth Day has some significant differences from the first. For example, there is 40% less sea ice in the world, and much of what remains is melting. There are 8.5 million square miles more that must deal with a tropical climate; half of Australia and much of the American Southwest are in permanent drought. River water has shrunk by a volume equivalent to the Mississippi. Glaciers worldwide are shrinking, and some are virtually gone.

 There are tens of thousands--probably hundreds of thousands--fewer species of life. There are fewer edible fish in the sea, and life there is dying out fast. There is less water in many places on land, and partly as a consequence the world produces 40 million fewer tons of wheat, corn and barley per year. There are more storms, more heat waves, more diseases in more lifeforms, more forest fires and other destruction, not only in the U.S. but in the Amazon. "We're seeing the end of some forests as we know them," says a U.S. forester.

 At the foot of a melting glacier in northern Tibet, a young man from a small village there was asked to explain the reason for the change. His answer was neither ethereal or complicated. "Global warming," he said. "Too many factories." A simple and much more than an inconvenient truth.

 The Climate Crisis is not some vision of the future--it's been with us these forty years, it's gotten worse, and now it's having effects that only the self-blinded and deluded can deny. But still...we can stop it, right? We may be able to prevent the very worst--runaway climate change in the far future, although what governments around the world are so far willing to do won't be enough. In any case, for the foreseeable future, it's only going to get worse. And then at the very least it is going to stay that way, for thousands of years.

 That was the message of David Orr's book, Down to the Wire, last year. This year it is no longer a new message-- not among climate scientists and those who follow their work. It is the starting point for Bill McKibben's new book. We no longer live on the same planet as existed on the first Earth Day. He gives the planet we will be living on from now on a new name: Eaarth. So in a sense, this is the first Eaarth Day.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben
Times Books, 2010

 McKibben's book uses only about a quarter of its pages to describe the current situation and trend lines, and another quarter to explain the inadequacy of the proposed responses to the Climate Crisis, and the extreme unlikelihood that large-scale changes in policy, energy generation etc. can be made in time to head off very major changes in how human life on this planet is to be lived. "And if our societies start to tank, we'll be in worse shape than those who came before. For one thing, our crisis is global, so there's no place to flee. For another, most of us don't know how to do very much--in your standard collapse scenario, it's nice to know how to grow wheat."

 McKibben comes right up against the logical conclusions, the doomsday scenarios of nuclear wars over oil and water, mass migrations, a dieback of half or 3/4 or more of humanity, leading to the day-to-day life for the survivors imagined for us in a host of grim movies, from Mad Max to The Road.

Instead he backs off, partly because (I imagine) it's as David Orr wrote--if this is indeed the future, there's not much point in writing a book about it. Instead, McKibben writes: "The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility--that we might choose instead to try to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline." [Emphasis is his.]

 So the second half of the book is about how to do that. It emphasizes local and small-scale solutions--living "lightly, carefully, gracefully." Locally generated clean power, focus on maintenance instead of growth, no more consumer culture or the world it represents. Except for the Internet. Because local utopias are likely to get stifling without contact. "Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I'd keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else."

 McKibben makes his case for all this being well within the possible, sometimes persuasively ( although I'm dubious about the Internet surviving.) He notes that part of the problem is that "We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale." He offers his "candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future." They are: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust.

 Good words, and useful for the kind of society he foresees. McKibben made a choice in both the language and content of this book: not much philosophy or generalizing, a lot of practical specifics and common sense. But I doubt that this vocabulary is going to be enough. For one thing, there are some slightly higher-order words that will be very important, like courage, compassion, attention, dedication, fairness.

 But even beyond that, people need a larger vision, to guide and inspire them. And if it's going to really work, it has to be the right vision. There were good words and visions at the first Earth Day, that helped inspire the effort leading to most of the environmental progress that was institutionalized in the first decade of the environmental movement, and has continued on that momentum. But mostly, environmentalists have been terrible at vision, and especially at "good words."

With the switch from the soft-sounding and not even accurate "greenhouse effect" to the vaguely pleasant sounding "global warming" and "climate change," the response to global heating has especially suffered. As for the titanic struggle ahead between those who want to use resources to stop the cause of global heating to those who insist we can only afford to fix the effects, what environmentalists offer us is the mind-numbing choice of mitigation versus adaptation. Which more or less guarantees that a sensible discussion of these issues won't occur in enough time to have clear policies before the panic and politics combine to drive the situation out of control.

 But in the past thirty years there is one word, one concept and one vision that has the proven power to move human souls: Gaia. The sense of our planet as a living organism, prefigured in myth and science, proposed as a hypothesis by James Lovelock and refined by him and others into a real scientific theory, it has also proven to be an inspiration and a possible focus.

Gaia in Turmoil
edited by Eileen Crist & H. Bruce Rinker
MIT Press 2010

 The breadth and depth of what Gaia can mean for the future is brilliantly suggested in the new compendium of essays, (with an introduction, by the way, by Bill McKibben.) This volume includes various views of the science (including its relationship to systems theory and cybernetics),the historical resonance of the ideas, the applications to policy and how people relate to their planet in their moment-to-moment lives.

There are trenchant essays on Gaia and evolution, forest systems, water, biodiversity, and on its relationship to ethics, education and governance. Particularly striking are the essays by Martin Ogle on Gaia as model and metaphor, and David Abram on Gaia and the transformation of personal experience of the everyday world.

 I don't think I am exaggerating when I suggest that an entire curriculum could be built around this book, producing a very valuable education for the future. Together with McKibben and Orr--and one other book , A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)--I place this at the top of my indispensable Eaarth Day books. Solnit's book explores responses to recent disasters to pose the key questions "Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life-and-death questions." This is another component of how we realistically face this tougher future.

 Another useful anthology, with an emphasis on social questions regarding future environment, is Human Footprints on the Global Environment: Threats to Sustainability (MIT), edited by E. Rosa, A. Diekmann, T. Dietz and C.C. Jaeger. This volume may be of interest primarily to scholars, professionals and policymakers, but it does indicate the seriousness and sophistication of a growing multi-disciplinary approach to larger scale issues of the onrushing future.

 A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature by James William Gibson (Holt), on the other hand, is a marvelous synthesis for the general reader as well as specialists looking for a broader and deeper view. Not as squishy as the title might indicate, it narrates pertinent history and it's a good introduction to classic authors and important if more obscure books that combine the practical with the necessary spiritual dimensions of approaching our relationship to the natural world.

Though these relationships faded in our current built environment, a hotter climate and all that it brings will force humanity to once again confront the power of nature. When humans were closer to nature by necessity--when humanity developed by means of its relationship with the rest of nature--the spiritual dimension was very important. It likely will be again.

 Other useful approaches can be found in Living Through the End of Nature by Paul Wapner (MIT) and Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order by Thomas Princen (MIT.) Wapner looks at the attempts to master nature through the history of civilization, and proposes practical ways to redress some sort of necessary balance. Princen grapples with the persistent basic issues of economy and ecology, at best using direct language to untangle them. Though that effort isn't always successful, there's enough merit to add it to the Eaarth Day reading list.

Preparing for Climate Change

Preparing for Climate Change
by Michael Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider
 Boston Review/MIT Press 2010

 As a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for more than 20 years, and a lead author of one of the UN climate reports, Stephen Schneider was known for his ability to explain the intricacies and the meaning of important and complex issues, especially the Climate Crisis. As such, he was the go-to guy for a lot of journalists over the years, including me. His sudden death this past summer was a blow to both science and journalism, as well as his students at Stanford.

This book, written with another Stanford climate scientist, may be his last statement on the issue that he recognized as the most important of his time, and ours. It is a short book—just 100 pages-- but it is a substantial contribution. It moves from the most succinct explanation of “The Scientific Consensus” that I’ve read (covering the physics and chemistry, observations and modeling) to chapters on “Impacts,” “Understanding Risk,” and then to the new ground of “Preparing for Climate Change.”

 It is these last chapters that this book reflects realizations that are beginning to become the new scientific consensus: that climate change is not just likely in the future, it is happening now, and it will happen to some serious extent no matter what is done to stop it from becoming even worse in the farther future.

 The authors make a brief but sophisticated argument for acting on both fronts: to stop future heating by controlling emissions, but also (and equally) to prepare for inevitable consequences, including complex and multiple emergencies when the readiness will be all.

 This is a trenchant summary for policymakers and others that derives much of its power from being so concise. But to have wider impact, it may require less of the envirospeak abstractions that have unfortunately muddied the meaning of the Climate Crisis in public perception. For example, the authors adopt the terms current in scientific and environmental bureaucracies of “ mitigation” and “adaptation”—words so vague, bloodless and at times misleading that they inspire only mental numbness.

 What the authors mean is that we must deal with both the causes of the Climate Crisis (“mitigation”) and the effects (“adaptation.”) As simple as that seems, it may well become the center of a major political argument in decades to come. But if we’re to get a handle on it now, we need to be a lot clearer in what we say and how we say it.

 Still, this book both summarizes important facts and discussions (like risk assessment, which Greg Craven writes about so well in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?) as well as signaling the terms of future debates, like how to decide what to do to deal with climate change consequences. It is also a fitting memorial to the brave and persistent work of Stephen Schneider.

The Great Disruption

The Great Disruption
 by Paul Gilding
 Bloomsbury Press, 2011 

 Our first truly human evolutionary test was whether we could anticipate the future catastrophe we were blindly causing, and act effectively in time to prevent it. Well, we flunked that one.

Like other recent books on the climate crisis, this one asserts that the global catastrophe is unstoppable. Gilding, an Australian former human rights and environmental activist as well as a businessman and corporate advisor, is forthright on the irrefutable factors besides the climate crisis that are converging: unsustainable population and economic growth outrunning and crashing resources. He says straight out what others have avoided for years: “I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

 Yet the buzz about this book is that it’s optimistic. Gilding asserts that there will come a point, perhaps an event, when the crisis will be really obvious, and humanity will respond in its characteristic “slow but not stupid, late but dramatic” way, as for example when the West geared up to defeat Hitler.

 There will be what he calls the Great Awakening: “an exciting and ultimately positive transformation, with great innovation and change in technology, business and economic models alongside a parallel shift in human development. It could well be, in a nonbiological sense, a move to a higher state of evolution and consciousness.” (Presumably that’s if you’re not one of the lost billions.) It’s humanity’s second evolutionary test—and if we blow this one, it’s pretty much over for civilization.

And this transformation could begin in this decade. At least half the book is devoted to Gilding’s ideas of what must be done over the next 40 years to create a sustainable no-growth economy and the values that go with it--ideas tested so far in his speeches and peer-reviewed papers, but now available for wider scrutiny and participation.

Though he uses big labels and inspirational generalities, he’s practical and subtle on the process and on as many details as he musters. Gilding acknowledges the emotional impact of a future of earthquake-like disruptions, and a transition that “will shake us to the core, forcing a substantial rearrangement of human values, political systems, and our physical lives.” This has happened before, but perhaps never so intentionally. He writes that “Grieving is an appropriate response” for the world we’ve destroyed and the resulting pain, “but sustained despair is not.” Any chance for civilization surviving depends on “active, engaged and strategic hope.”

Hope is not a response but a commitment. Optimism is “the most important and political choice an individual can make.” This hope must be enacted partly by working to define the plans necessary to meet this crisis, so when society demands them, they’ll be ready. That makes this a book to keep.

 It takes awhile to absorb its information and the emotions it evokes. But there’s getting to be a consensus that the catastrophe “that will shake us to the core” is coming. It’s time to choose this way to be human, face the grief and think hard about the future.

 Combining a brief sketch of the depth and extent of catastrophe with a brief sketch of a program to get through it and make things better seems a proper enterprise, but it makes for a very weird book. The implications of living through the death of millions--as we're seeing right now in the climate-related starvation in the Horn of Africa--as well as the chaos, the fear, uncertainty (is this intractable recession the beginning of the permanent economic growth collapse?) and denial--seem to need more than a simple acknowledgement they are coming.

 A moment's reflection makes the rest of the book seem like whistling in the dark, and the occasional inspirational self-help book tone doesn't help. That's not to say that his program isn't a useful one, or that it won't work. It just makes for a schizoid reading experience. Also, its subtitle is so silly I can't even bring myself to use it. But all of that just has to be acknowledged--then the content of the book worked with and absorbed.

I'm With the Bears

I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet
 Edited by Mark Martin
 Verso 2011

 As noted in Bill McKibben’s introduction, this collection of 10 stories arrives in the growing shadow of the Climate Crisis. But these are not stories primarily about the Climate Crisis, and only a few mention specific manifestations. Instead they are meant to illuminate (as McKibben says), “not to push us in some particular direction.” Still, sales of this book benefit, McKibben’s advocacy organization dedicated to reducing the still-climbing output of greenhouse gases.

 The book starts with T.C. Boyle’s account of an environmental action in Oregon, and the complex emotional lives of participants. Lydia Millet’s story, “Zoogoing” concerns a man’s response to animals and the animal in himself. It’s not as potent as Michael Ventura’s novel, The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God, but it does illuminate. Kim Stanley Robinson contributes a chapter from one of his Climate Crisis trilogy novels (though it’s about a hike in the Sierras.) In Robinson and Millet, characters contemplate the already visible implications of the destruction of the natural world as we know it, which the Climate Crisis may well complete.

 Nathaniel Rich contributes a fantasy that illuminates the inadequate smallness of our scientific approach to nature. Then there are several post-apocalyptic stories—a disturbingly popular genre. Helen Simpson and Toby Litt provide their variations on the breakdown of society. David Mitchell’s “The Siphoners” that combines futuristic horror with a teaching folk tale is more like traditional apocalyptic stories, which tended to be cautionary tales, saying basically that if we let this or that aspect of our society or technology play out to its logical conclusion, this catastrophe will result. There’s conspicuously little of that here.

 Wu Ming’s story depicts persistent human and cultural qualities in post-apocalyptic circumstances, while Paolo Bacigalupi suggests a culture of survival in an ongoing ecological catastrophe that the previous stories imply. When I saw Margaret Atwood’s name as a contributor, I immediately anticipated her contribution might be “The Bad News” from her most recent story collection. It’s the best story that subtly illuminates our current condition that I’ve read since Charles Baxter’s “Through the Safety Net” in the 1980s, only then it was nuclear war while today it is the slower specter of the Climate Crisis. But Atwood is instead represented by a shorter 2009 piece, “Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet,” a trenchant elegy for Earth, and fatal human hubris.

   I don't know where the title comes from but it reminds me of Paul Shepard, the patron saint in many ways of future ecological thought. These stories speculate on a variety of fates for the Earth. We could use more stories that explore how to best navigate the major and painful changes that probably are ahead.  This provocative collection is a start, and it’s for a very good cause.


HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years On Earth
 by Mark Hertsgaard
 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011

 In 2005 environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard began hearing some deeply unsettling news, primarily from scientists in Europe: climate disruption was no longer something that might happen in the future. It was already happening, and it would continue getting worse for at least the next 25 years, even if carbon emissions were suddenly slashed to nothing. (In the book, Hertsgaard dates this insight to an October 2005 meeting with David King, science adviser to the British government. But he's heard similar analysis before, and wrote about it in the San Francisco Chronicle that February--an essay which affected me deeply at the time, and led me on my own researches.)

 Of course, if emissions of greenhouse gases aren’t stopped, the future beyond 2020 gets even worse. But in 2005 American activists didn’t want to talk about dealing with the effects that were surely going to happen, even if they accepted this science. Al Gore and others thought this would distract from the efforts to control emissions so ultimate catastrophe could be avoided.

 In the last few years, when it became apparent that climate change was happening with unexpected speed, American activists (including Gore) began to accept that the world would need to deal with the effects (floods, storms, heatwaves, drought, disease, sea-level rise, etc.) now and in the near future, and they would need to simultaneously address the causes of global heating (emissions), to save the farther future.

 Unfortunately, they adopted the confusing technocratic terms of “adaptation” (dealing with effects) and “mitigation” (the causes.) Hertsgaard had (to my mind) done a better job in that 2005 essay referring to "protection" and "prevention," but in this book he's deferred to the now conventional nomenclature of adaptation and mitigation. He does pass on what is apparently a practical mantra for those involved in planning along both tracks: "Avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable."

 Hertsgaard’s book distinguishes itself partly by dealing with what’s needed and what’s being done along both tracks. A lot is being done at the city, state and regional levels in the U.S, including in California. He reports on Seattle, Chicago (where the city government has a climate plan and an office of climate change) and New York, as well as internationally in China, Africa, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

 He finds public officials both talking the talk and walking the walk, like Kings County Washington county executive Ron Sims, who convened a conference in 2005 called "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be: Planning for Climate Disruption." Sims combines vision, perseverance, practicality, humor and straight talk, always asking "the climate question" for any county plan.

 Though a pioneer, Sims was not the only such official Hertsgaard found. New York climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer described the various possibilities for Manhattan and how to respond, while believing that "we have a duty to the future" and to the past. New York's efforts to anticipate their needs in dealing with flooding effects are especially eerie, after Hurricane Sandy enacted some of their fears. (The book's research seemed to have been completed in 2010.)

 For all that's being done, the tasks along both tracks are still immense. Looking at what's required in dealing with both causes and effects simultaneously, Hertsgaard writes a sentence that I've written myself: "...I have come to see the climate crisis as a major evolutionary test for our civilization and perhaps our species."

 The other distinguishing element of this book's approach is a very practical and personal framework: Hertsgaard is trying to figure out what the world is going to be like for his very young daughter back in San Francisco. That’s also part of the impact of understanding that the climate change future has begun. It was his first thought in 2005, he writes: “Chiara will have to live through this.”

 Hertsgaard travels, reports and describes, compares and evaluates with informed objectivity, but Chiara is never far from his thoughts. He realizes that stories—from myths and fairytales to comic book heroes—can tell her important things in addition to what science says. Just for its comprehensive and clear information and how it is presented, this is the book I'd recommend as a starting point on the subject.

 Because of the reporting on what is being done it's also more heartening than many, at least for the near future. Not everyone is in as much denial as the oppositional and the popular media suggest. That only makes the final chapters more powerful, when he shows how little time there is to save the farther future. Yet even there he finds practical possibilities.

 Even with a book as solid as this one, reading about the climate future is not easy. It requires emotional work just to allow into consciousness this onrushing future dominated by climate change. But of course it's necessary to confront it anyway, especially now. Hertsgaard ends with a letter for his daughter to read in 2020, when much more will be known about the farther future, depending on what gets done in the next seven years. Chiara will be fifteen.

Plato's Revenge

Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology
 By William Ophuls
 MIT Press 2011

 If a stream of recent books are correct (including those by David Orr, Bill McKibben and Paul Gilding), much of this century is going to be significantly and catastrophically different from today, due primarily to energy and ecological limits amplified by the Climate Crisis. These books all made strong cases for what is likely to change, but less impressive suggestions on how to think constructively in the coming context.

 Now there’s another generation of books that take a deeper and more comprehensive look, however preliminary, at what might constitute a way forward in the inevitable cultural shift. Two very impressive ones have been published almost simultaneously by MIT Press. This is a brief review of the first, by political scientist and veteran author William Ophuls.

 He starts with the stark if now familiar premise:“Modern civilization lives on depleting energy and borrowed time. Its day of reckoning approaches.” So we need a new ideal that “makes a virtue out of the necessity of living within our ecological means.” In this very blunt book-length essay, Ophuls puts the emphasis on the word “virtue.” Our failures can’t be remedied by “smarter management, better technology, and stricter regulation” because they are supported by “a catastrophic moral failure that demands a radical shift in consciousness.”

 “Ecological scarcity is not a problem that can be solved within the old framework but a predicament or dilemma that can be resolved only by a new way of thinking.” But Ophuls does not develop a new futuristic system replete with its own jargon. He critiques the failures of our simplistic cultural context, and returns to forgotten sources for conceptual tools that might equip us to deal with the onslaught of rigorous change, in the currently ignored classics of western civilization. Yet this isn’t a scholarly rehash either: it uses these ideas together with current ecological understanding to inform decisions on how we should live and organize ourselves, and cope with a future of immense challenge.

 His chapters examine “law and virtue,” ecology, physics, individual and cultural psychology, and politics in the larger sense of how societies are organized. Plato, Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Jung and other ancient, modern and contemporary thinkers are consulted. But he proposes neither an intellectual new order nor a return to some bookish Golden Age. He argues for adherence to better interpretations of natural law, and for a balance found in Thoreau: “The civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage” who forgoes superfluities for “a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”

 To me there is something very encouraging about his general approach. It says that even in the intensity of the coming confusion, we have the tools to think and feel our way out of it. Ophuls bravely and succinctly offers his synthesis, which at the very least is a well-constructed springboard to fruitful debate and further thought.

Indra's Net and the Midas Touch

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World
 By Leslie Paul Thiele 
The MIT Press 2011

 Why do we glorify the “Midas Touch” and forget the rest of the story? That everything King Midas touched turned to lifeless gold, including his daughter?

 Leslie Paul Thiele points out that this is a cautionary tale about unintended consequences, which pretty much characterize what we’ve done to our society and our planet. With many painful examples, Thiele describes how unintended consequences of clear-eyed altruism as well as stupefied greed have characterized our era, because we treat the world like a machine that needs a technological fix or two.

A more realistic metaphor is Indra’s Net, a figure of interdependence and interpenetration from Eastern religions which ecology and systems theory confirm. With William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge  this is a notable attempt to think through the climate crisis future. “Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary” Thiele writes, so like Ophuls he covers a lot of ground and many important authors, in chapters on ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, physics and metaphysics. He also mines western classics and other wisdom traditions (just as Ophuls also mentions the Indra’s Net metaphor.)

 But Thiele brings a younger point of view, and a very disciplined, trenchant and elegant style as well as wide-ranging scholarship. There are no wasted words in his sentences, and no wasted sentences in this book. He goes beyond the usual questions and conclusions to tougher applications and more subtle synthesis.

He integrates fresh concepts from the front lines, such as safe-to-fail experimentation, cascade effects, resilience, ecosophic awareness. But he also finds new relevance in dismissed principles, like courage, respect and gratitude, and the determinative roles of imagination and story. Sustainability requires a new understanding of soul.

 My favorite guiding quote on thinking about the future is from H.G. Wells: “The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis.” This book is the best exemplar of such a synthesis I’ve encountered in awhile. The individual ideas may not be shockingly new, but the logic of the connections is revelatory.

 Theil ranges from Sophocles to systems theory and the remarkable knowledge of squirrels. An entire curriculum could profitably be based on this book—a curriculum to save the future. But even by itself, this book is a handbook of conceptual tools for making a better future. Or for reading about the future that could be. I may question some of his assertions, but at least he’s providing sturdy transport for the journey.

 One message in both Thiele and Ophuls is that individuals and small groups can make ultimately large differences. “Hope is our greatest resource in these troubling times,” he writes. “But the hope we claim and cultivate must come from decidedly new ways of thinking and acting.”

America the Possible

America The Possible: Manifesto For A New Economy
 by James Gustave Speth
 Yale University Press 2012

 James Speth is a veteran environmentalist, and this is the latest book by an environmental veteran about how Americans can successfully address a future dominated by climate change. But his subtitle is not deceptive: he identifies the economy as the crucial element.

 The book is divided into four parts: what’s wrong now, a vision for a better future, what changes are required to get there, and how to build a political force to make those changes. The future he’s writing about is not far off— 40 or 50 years. The climate change he’s assuming is caused by the greenhouse gases that have already been spewed into the atmosphere, plus what’s added as we reduce to 40% of 1990 levels at mid-century. If greenhouse pollution is not reduced and acceleration becomes uncontrollable, or there’s unforeseen abrupt climate change, then the farther future looks more like slow motion nuclear war.

 Balancing “realism and hopefulness,” Speth is nevertheless convinced (and he is hardly alone in this) that addressing even the climate change that’s pretty definitely coming will require major political and economic transformation. He identifies precedents and experiments that show promise, but he believes that only an aroused citizenry can create the pressure necessary for fundamental change. (Once called the “ultimate insider,” Speth now returns to Washington as a protestor.)

 The good news is that changes needed to cope with the climate crisis--different economic values, restructured institutions (including corporations), etc.-- are both needed anyway for other reasons (including oil depletion), and are likely to make for a better country and a better world. Such transformations may seem impossible, but they’ve happened before.

 Speth’s prose is lean and non-academic. This book is clearly organized and well sourced. For covering so much ground it is amazingly short: under 200 pages of double-spaced print, with another 36 pages of notes. So apart from coping with possible emotional shock, it is readable and re-readable.

 On first reading, I’d identify two particular virtues. One is a specific point: Speth recognizes that an economically stronger middle class is essential to its ability to cope with what’s coming, including higher prices for just about everything.

 The general virtue is that he shows how interrelated the problems are, and how comprehensive the change must be. He doesn’t dance around this, and his knowledge is itself reassuring. The ideas he discusses aren’t usually original, but how they might work together is what’s important. Such conundrums as a steady state economy have been studied in more detail than the last time I checked into the subject. That's another reassurance: a lot of work in each separate area is being done. It just takes putting them together and acting.

 Some of those previous books (Down to the Wire, Eaarth, etc.) also suggested this. But Speth is perhaps both more concrete and succinct, folding everything into a comprehensive vision. But that very level of analysis, as well as the extent of the tasks, can be overwhelming.