EditorialGreat Books for a Planet in Trouble
So the polar icecaps are melting at an alarming rate, Mount Kilimanjaro will be denuded of all its snow in twenty years, and a trash vortex twice the size of Texas swirls out in the Pacific between Hawaii and California, grinding up plastic waste into confetti-like bits wreaking ecological disaster on the great biological chain of being. It’s true. I know it is. It’s there in the pictures on the Internet, photos of the great African mountain then and the mountain as it is now. Photographic evidence shows ten-story-tall chunks of frozen goodness calving off the edge of the polar cap ice shelf into the sea. Well-documented reports from National Geographic scientists describe the watery graveyard of our plasticized folly, now officially designated the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.
And to imagine I could save myself by avoiding mercury-laced swordfish and tuna. Oh, for it to be as simple as avoiding sushi—which I don’t care for much anyway.
I’ll admit it: I’m cognitively in agreement with the environmental alarmists. But then why am I so lukewarm about subjects such as global warming?
Part of the reason I don’t get worked up into an emotional frenzy about these matters is that you don’t have to convince me the planet is in trouble. I find surreal and slightly funny the statistical exchanges about whether there is such a thing as global warming, or whether it’s all a hoax foisted on us by pointy-headed meteorologists who don’t write for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Whatever the fallout from Climategate (it would be a shame, wouldn’t it, if ecoscientists have been cooking the books on the temperature readings in the last couple of years), the temperature readings that have been consistently recorded in the last 150 years tell a story: in that timespan, we know that the last ten years have registered among the warmest fifteen on record. Even the deniers admit there’s been some warming—they just insist it cannot be definitively traced to human activity in particular. You can count on the self-assured skeptic to roll out that hackneyed but convenient argument of David Hume’s that says causality cannot be proved, it can only be inferred. Or, as the Center for Individual Freedom tells us, 55 million years ago the area around the North Pole averaged more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, proof—in case you hadn’t figured it out—that balmy temperatures up in the Arctic preceded the internal combustion engine. (Ergo: Gentlemen, you may now start up your Ford-150 man trucks without fear, and maintain your mastery of the universe!)
No, whatever the causes—and I’m willing to grant the inherent oscillating cycles of nature, regardless of destructive human activity—it seems that something is seriously awry. Are we ignoring our most basic ability to read the signs? Lost and disoriented Antarctic penguins are washing up on the shores of Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. Navy is scrambling to prepare plans that deal with a radically different Arctic scenario, one in which several great powers try to dominate a region where the vaunted Northwest Passage will morph from myth to reality, a shipping lane free of ice. Meanwhile, we learn that of the 260 million tons of plastic produced annually in the world, 10 percent ends up in the ocean. Furthermore, the chemical breakdown of these myriad containers occurs much more rapidly than previously thought. What kinds of new chemicals leach through the food chain? Bisphenol A interferes with animals’ reproductive systems. Styrene monomer, the people at National Geographic tell us, is a suspected carcinogen. If the United Kingdom’s Marine Conservation Society is to be believed, more than a million seabirds and a hundred thousand mammals and sea turtles every year die from eating or getting tangled up in plastic. If this is progress, it seems like a high price to pay.
But in spite of the scary talk, psychologically I have a hard time getting worked up into a lather. This is perhaps a result of the wrong kind of reading indulged in since about fourth grade. I have a predisposition to enjoy narratives of a dystopian kind. I love the postapocalytic genre, in which the earth has been ravaged and the remaining human inhabitants have to figure out how to survive. I like this stuff, whether it’s science fiction classics such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Terminator films or the dark vision of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Perhaps all this imaginative trafficking in disaster blunts the spirit or at least dulls the spirit of activism.