Climate Action Literature
LITERARY REFERENCES FOR GLOBAL MELTDOWN, from Errol Morris
I’m I take my cue from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Theologians.” Borges was very much concerned with how best to embrace the end of the world. He cites a sect called the Histrioni:
Many Histrioni professed ascetism; some mutilated themselves, like Origen [autocastration]; others lived underground, in the sewers; others put out their own eyes… From mortification and severity, they sometimes graduated to crime; certain communities tolerated theft; others, homicide; others, sodomy, incest, and bestiality. All were blasphemous; they cursed not only the Christian God, but even the arcane deities of their own pantheon.
Some Histrioni believed that the world would end when the number of its possibilities was exhausted: “since there can be no repetitions, the righteous are duty-bound to eliminate (commit) the most abominable acts so those acts will not sully the future and so that the coming of the kingdom of Jesus may be hastened.”
Yes, that’s right, the Histrioni abandoned themselves to a wild debauch to hasten the advent of the rapture. Is that what’s going on here? Burn the Amazon, pollute the atmosphere, acidify the oceans… Bring it on? Maybe that’s the most that we can hope for. But, like Admiral Horatio Horntower, we can still pretend none of it is happening. As they say, the Nile is not just a river in Egypt.
There are various popular versions of self-deception and self-delusion. The chocolate brownie will be good for my weight program; torpor will improve my muscle tone. But my favorite of all is that life on the planet will survive mankind. Here are some books that offer mostly despair, some solutions, and occasional, very occasional possibility of hope.
Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
An awe for human ingenuity and civic excellence mixes with total despair in the face of our current climate crisis. McKibben wrote the first book for a wide audience on climate change (The End of Nature, 1989) and founded a group in 2008, 350.org, that grew into the first planetwide climate campaign. He illustrates the beauty of our planet, the love and devotion that people put into preserving it, and the greed and shortsightedness of those committed to its continued despoliation. He dissects complicated problems and offers feasible solutions. He paints one of the grimmest pictures of all, not shying away from either the extinction of all life on earth as we know it or some science fiction transhumanist dystopia. But McKibben believes it’s not too late for us to save our species and the planet; he just thinks it’s much more likely that we won’t.
Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: A Recent History
A triumph of I-told-you-so literature. Environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance is our guide through a decade of inaction in the face of overwhelming evidence of human-induced climate change, 1979–1989. A damning, appalling chronicle of human vice, inanition, and stupidity. In the afterword to the book, the author’s takeaway: “We can realize that all this talk about the fate of Earth has nothing to do with the planet’s tolerance for higher temperatures and everything to do with our species’ tolerance for self-delusion.”
Bina Venkataraman, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age
In the 1850s Samuel Smiles published Self-Help, a primer on how to improve yourself, a book that spawned an industry. But what good is self-help when the entire planet is being ravaged and even destroyed by ourselves? How can we help ourselves to save the planet on which we live. Bina Venkatamaran has written a noble and important book. Given our self-interests, in many instances, our inherent selfishness, here is a book about self-help for the planet. As it turns out, it doesn’t take much. The presence of some thought. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote, “The affairs of men being most uncertain, let us reason now with the worst that may befall.” But this is not an apocalyptic book, rather it is a hopeful one. Stories of people who have made a difference and an awareness of how things can be made better. I have always admired Bina Venkatamaran for her optimism, but this book clearly allows all of us to better understand what it is based on. How do we incentivize good behavior? How do we effect change? How do we make the world a better place? She is the good parent that this planet so desperately needs.
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
A cheery tour of the apocalypse. Wallace-Wells’s book grew out of a 2017 New York Magazine article — the most read in the magazine’s history. Its basic premise: “[N]o matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” Wallace-Wells was criticized for being an alarmist. His response: “when it comes to the challenge of climate change, public complacency is a far, far bigger problem than widespread fatalism — that many, many more people are not scared enough than are already ‘too scared.’ In fact, I don’t even understand what ‘too scared’ would mean. The science says climate change threatens nearly every aspect of human life on this planet, and that inaction will hasten the problems. In that context, I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterization. We should be alarmed.”