New Books for the Climate Crisis Bookshelf

Short reviews for some interesting books about climate change.

Book collection
Books on Climate.

Screen Capture of Apple Books/ Lloyd Alter 

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Soon to be "The 1.5 Degree Diaries," from New Society Publishers.

One of the great benefits of trying to write a book in the middle of a pandemic is that I have lots of time that I formerly wasted on Twitter, now available for research and reading. I had been meaning to do full book reviews for many of these, but find that I am reading differently than I do for reviews, and I do not believe that I would be giving them a fair shake. But there is interesting stuff in all of them.

Peter Kalmus: "Being the Change"

Being the Change
Being the Change. New Society Publishers 

I am not alone in believing that personal actions matter; climate scientist Peter Kalmus does too, and with a lot more authority when it comes to the science of the climate crisis. He is not interested in guilting and shaming anyone, and thinks it is counterproductive. He calls instead for action, both individual and collective.

"It’s time to move on to a more mature advocacy focused on developing a vastly deeper response to the predicament we face, beyond recycling and shopping for “green” cars and carbon offsets. Let’s instead learn how to live in alignment with the biosphere, both as individuals and as a collective. This practice demands that we change our everyday lives, how we think about ourselves and our place on this planet."

Kalmus really does walk the walk, being a vegetarian, composting, cyclist who drives a veggie-powered car when he rarely drives, and never flies, even though he acknowledges that it might be hurting his career. He's thoughtful, passionate, and personal. And, he believes, as I do, that his actions make a difference.

"Finally, I believe personal reduction does help, indirectly, by shifting the culture. I’ve had countless discussions about the changes I’ve made, and I’ve seen many people around me begin to make similar changes in their own lives. By changing ourselves, we help others envision change. We gradually shift cultural norms."

"Being the Change" from New Society Publishers, who write: "The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better."

Eric Holthaus: "The Future Earth"

The Future Earth
The Future Earth. Harper One 

Eric Holthaus is a bit more doom and gloom, and has no time for the kind of things Peter Kalmus or I are trying to do, even though he does admit later that he has turned vegetarian and is planting out his back yard.

"The biggest climate lie is that individual action is the only answer—that’s a recipe for burnout and continued disaster. Individual action is only useful when it helps bend society toward radical change. And the only way to create lasting change is to work toward a future in which everyone matters."

He has a great quote that sums it up: "Trying to decide between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is like choosing between The Hunger Games and Mad Max." But he has a simple plan:

  • We must articulate a shared, hopeful vision of the future.
  • We must tear down the current system.
  • We must begin building a new world that works for everyone.

Part II of the book is composed of letters from the future, looking back on how we saved the world. I rolled my eyes a bit at this vision from 2030-2038:

"In the United States, we realized that we preferred spending time with one another rather than maintaining our stuff, so the default lifestyle of a single-family home in a car-based neighborhood started to become obsolete. Voting in a million city council and regional planning meetings around the country, people agreed to rezone their neighborhoods. Duplexes and triplexes became the new default dream, with more and more people living next door to friends and family instead of across town or across the country. Massive investments in public transit and bike infrastructure made travel cheap, safe, and efficient. Small businesses and corner stores once again flourished."

You only have to look at the pickup truck parade in Portland, or at some of the fights taking place over zoning and transportation right now, or the so-called "war on the suburbs" in the American election, or how it takes 10 years to get bike lanes approved and twenty to build public transit, to question such fantasies. But it is still worth reading with its call for systemic change.

"Coal miners are not the enemy. Your cousin who flies business class isn’t the enemy. Your neighbor who eats meat is not the enemy. The enemy is the system we’re all embedded in—the same system that’s been the engine of extractive, colonial, genocidal exploitation of the only planet we all have."

"The Future Earth" from Harper Collins

John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker: "Empty Planet"

Empty Planet
Empty Planet.  Mclelland and Stewart

This book isn't strictly about climate, but is about an issue that affects it: population. Whenever we write a post about climate, readers complain that population is the problem, when around the world, nations are all turning into Japan with declining populations. The authors have a positive view of the outcome:

"Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people. She won’t have trouble finding a job, but she may struggle to make ends meet, as taxes to pay for health care and pensions for all those seniors eat into her salary. There won’t be as many schools, because there won’t be as many children."

They do worry about the USA and how "nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment plagues the republic today as it has so often in the past."

"Will it deprive itself of the software engineer in Shanghai who has the Next Big Thing in his head and is willing to share it with a venture capitalist in California? A United States walled off from the world will suffer an unhappy fate, and it will deserve that fate."

But the math is clear: fewer people means less consumption and reduced emissions, so this is a story to watch.

"Empty Planet" from Signal/McClelland & Stewart / Penguin Random House

Alastair McIntosh: "Riders on the Storm"

Riders on the Storm
Riders on the Storm. Birlinn General 

An interesting new book published in August, 2020, with a long excerpt published in RealClimate that whetted my appetite for it. The first section is the usual explanation of the sources of the climate crisis, but the middle section is a fascinating look at the two extremes of denialism and alarmism. Entertaining and well-written; the author's take on deniers:

"I have had many run-ins with those who might loosely and to varying degrees be described as climate change deniers. Most of these have been on social media or face to face at meetings and debating panels. Invariably, in my experience, they have been white, male and middle class, and I usually get the impression, unwilling to consider any restraint upon their lifestyles. This often comes with a narcissistic presumption of entitlement that, if challenged, hints at a brooding anger; a resentment that, I cannot help but ponder, might have more to do with early childhood issues than with any real debate about the science."

And he does a good take on the causes of our problems.

"Let me say it again: we’ve only built a world of nearly 8 billion people living the way many of us do because of the brittle hyper-efficiency of a just-in-time economy, powered by energy-dense fossil fuels. That’s what makes cheap oil the life blood of the economy of globalisation. Climate change is not just symptomatic, an itch caused by an irritant. Climate change is systemic. Its drivers run through nearly every aspect of our lives."

"Riders on the Storm" from Birlinn Ltd

Jason Hickel: "Less is More"

Less is More
Less Is More. William Heinneman

Here is another brand new book from the UK that will no doubt elicit a strong reaction when it hits North America, with its short explanation of everything that is wrong in the world:

"Fossil fuel companies, and the politicians they have bought, bear significant responsibility for our predicament. But this alone doesn’t explain our failure to act. There’s something else – something deeper. Our addiction to fossil fuels, and the antics of the fossil fuel industry, is really just a symptom of a prior problem. What’s ultimately at stake is the economic system that has come to dominate more or less the entire planet over the past few centuries: capitalism."

Hickel notes that as long as we have an economy that runs on growth (which the capitalist system does) then we will never solve the climate problem, because we have to constantly keep making things, and eating things, leading to more deforestation, extraction, depletion, and extinction.

"So we’re trapped. Growth is a structural imperative – an iron law. And it has ironclad ideological support: politicians on the left and right may bicker about how to distribute the yields of growth, but when it comes to the pursuit of growth itself they are united. There is no daylight between them. Growthism, as we might call it, stands as one of the most hegemonic ideologies in modern history. Nobody stops to question it."

The history lesson about the growth of capitalism is very interesting reading, going back to the Black Death, then enclosures, then colonialism. One learns about David Hume's theory of scarcity, where "the proponents of capitalism themselves believed it was necessary to impoverish people in order to generate growth." People work harder and longer when they are poor, and cost less, too. One can also see why municipal water systems and public water fountains have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where we are losing trust in them: "For instance, if you enclose an abundant resource like water and establish a monopoly over it, you can charge people to access it and therefore increase your private riches."

However, the most important point Hickel makes is to connect our fossil fuel economy directly back to colonization, slavery, and the enclosures.

"A single barrel of crude oil can perform about 1700kWh of work. That’s equivalent to 4.5 years of human labour. From the perspective of capital, tapping into underground oceans of oil was like colonising the Americas all over again, or a second Atlantic slave trade – a bonanza of appropriation. But it also supercharged the process of appropriation itself. Fossil fuels are used to power giant drills for deeper mining, trawlers for deep-sea fishing, tractors and combines for more intensive farming, chainsaws for faster logging, plus ships and trucks and aeroplanes to move all of these materials around the world at staggering speeds. Thanks to technology, the process of appropriation has become exponentially faster and more expansive."

Hickel doesn't think technology will save us as long as we have continued growth.

"None of this is to say we shouldn’t pursue a rapid transition to renewable energy. We absolutely must, and urgently. But if we want the transition to be technically feasible, ecologically coherent and socially just, we need to disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that we can carry on growing aggregate energy demand at existing rates. We must take a different approach."

The different approach is degrowth, and a call to Eat the Rich.

"The richest 1% emit thirty times more than the poorest 50% of the human population.23 Why? It’s not only because they consume more stuff than everybody else, but also because the stuff they consume is more energy-intensive: huge houses, big cars, private jets, frequent flights, long-distance holidays, luxury imports, and so on."

He then proposes a number of steps such as ending planned obsolescence, cutting advertising, shifting from ownership to usership, ending food waste, scaling down ecologically destructive industries, and keeping us all employed by radically reducing working hours, and building a new economy based on degrowth.

"Again, degrowth is not about reducing GDP. It is about reducing the material and energy throughout the economy to bring it back into balance with the living world, while distributing income and resources more fairly, liberating people from needless work, and investing in the public goods that people need to thrive."

It all sounds lovely, and it's a very informative and entertaining read that will be written off as a commie rant if it ever makes it to North America, but I got something out of every page.

"Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World" from Penguin Random House

Vaclav Smil: "Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities"

Growth.  MIT Press

As I noted in my review of his last book, reading Smil is a slog. His books are long, dense, and really if I want to learn about growth today, why do I have to read 300 pages about microorganisms? Even Bill Gates, who loves Smil, says "I should warn you. Although Growth is a brilliant synthesis of everything we can learn from patterns of growth in the natural and human-made world, it’s not for everyone. Long sections read like a textbook or engineering manual. "

It took me six months to get through this book, but when you finally do, your brain explodes. So many ideas, so many connections, so many insights that are so relevant to the discussion of how we got to where we are, and how we get out of this mess.

So we learn (this is just one little nugget) that our food is now grown as much with natural gas as it is with sunlight, with "two out of every five people alive (and every second person in China) is now adequately fed thanks to the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia." And that the result is that we are able to eat more meat: "Larger harvests have also made it possible to divert more crops into animal feed (about 35% globally, 50–60% in affluent countries) and resulted in rising consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products." But for me, the most important line in the book is actually a quote from an economist:

"'The essential truth missing from economic education is that energy is the stuff of the universe, that all matter is also a form of energy, and that the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services.' Ayres showed convincingly that since the onset of the industrial revolution economic growth has been driven largely by declining energy costs resulting from the discovery and extensive exploitation of relatively inexpensive and highly energy-dense fossil fuels."

Smil doesn't end on a positive note, doesn't think technology will save us, or that we will decouple our economy from fossil fuels any time soon.

"There is no possibility of reconciling the preservation of a well-functioning biosphere with the standard economic mantra that is akin to positing a perpetuum mobile machine as it does not conceive any problems of sustainability in relation to resources or excessive stress on the environment."

It is a depressing ending to this series of mini-reviews, but the fact remains that Smil is by far the most convincing, the most erudite, the most difficult, but his two giant doorstops, Energy and Growth, are the most important books I have read in years, and I look at everything through these lenses.

"Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities" from MIT Press