Thursday, January 12, 2006

Climate change

This past year I tried out a subscription to The New York Review of Books. I have not done a good job of reading each issue but am saving them to go through at some point.

However, the most recent issue has a cover article by Bill McKibben, "The Coming Meltdown," reviewing two books about global climate change, which I read straight through, twice.

McKibben couldn't state the issue more clearly:
Climate change somehow seems unable to emerge on the world stage for what it really is: the single biggest challenge facing the planet, the equal in every way to the nuclear threat that transfixed us during the past half-century and a threat we haven't even begun to deal with.
The first book reviewed, Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen, examines the work of Lonnie Thompson in ice fields and glaciers in tropical and semitropical regions. The amount of carbon dioxide trapped in ice can be measured and shows that
we have raised the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere far above what it has ever been during even the very long period one can study with ice cores. As such, a brand-new experiment is taking place, one that is out of control.
McKibben is not enthusiastic about the second book he reviews, Dancing at the Dead Sea, by Alanna Mitchell, but he does believe the author asks "an important question [...], 'Are humans a suicidal species?'" McKibben highlights a quote by G. W. Bush included in Mitchell's book regarding the Kyoto agreement on climate change that the U. S. has refused to sign:
I will explain as clearly as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy....That's my priority. I'm worried about the economy.
I am struck by the indictment in McKibben's analysis:
It's not as if Bush is alone in this thought. And it does seem to epitomize the danger that the satisfactions of consumer life and business success have become almost sacred while the physical world now turning to chaos before our eyes is taken for granted, and not seen as the reality that must be faced.
In a short essay, "Wilderness," in The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, happily back in print after the success of her recent novel, Gilead, Robinson also exhorts us to "face reality." She shows how the wilderness has become a dumping ground for toxic waste and then makes a point very close to Mitchell's question:
It has happened over and over again that promised land or holy land by one reckoning is wasteland by another, and we assert the sovereign privilege of destroying what we would go to any lengths to defend. [...] Humankind has no enemy but itself, and it is broken and starved and poisoned and harried very nearly to death. (pp. 248-49)
She points out that the weapons intended to destroy the enemy harmed those who made them and who lived in the wilderness areas they were tested in and where now the waste is kept.

Robinson then ties together the viability of human civilization and the environment.
Into any imaginable future, there must be people to maintain what we have made, for example, nuclear waste storage sites, and there must be human civilizations rich and sophisticated enough to know how this is done and to have the means to do it. [...]

Unless we can reestablish peace and order as values, and learn to see our own well-being in our neighbor's prosperity, we can do nothing at all for the rain forests and koala bears. [...]

What have we done for the whale if we lose the sea? If we lose the sea, how do we mend the atmosphere? What can we rescue out of this accelerating desperation to sell—forests and weapons, even children—and the profound deterioration of community this all indicates? (p. 253)

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