Monday, April 22, 2013

Five top books on growing up in the Anthropocene

"The essential idea behind [the term "Anthropocene"]," writes Caspar Henderson, author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, "is that the impact of humanity as a whole on the Earth system – notably through destruction of natural habitats and a rapid increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases – is now so great as to mark a new epoch in the history of life."

At The Browser, Henderson tagged five top books on growing up in the Anthropocene, including:
Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen.

Henderson: There are many good books for the general reader about the science, the politics, the economics and the psychology of climate change, and it is invidious to single out one or even a few. The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart, Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David McKay, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and Eaarth by Bill McKibben are among those worth attention. Greg Craven, a high school science teacher in the US, developed his excellent talks on YouTube into a book called What's the Worst that Can Happen?, and I'd also recommend that.

But if I had to recommend just one book it would be James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren because it is, simultaneously, a good introduction to the science, a first-hand account of what it's like to be on the receiving end of attempted sabotage by political operatives who know nothing about the science, and a very human call for action. The book is dedicated to his grandchildren, Sophie and Connor, for whose future he fears in a rapidly warming world.  It also contains a manifesto for  how to address the challenges which, whether or not one agrees with every detail, is as good as any of the necessarily brief outlines you can find in books of this kind.

Hansen, who has just announced that he is stepping down as Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is a distinguished climate scientist, but one of the things that really marks him out is his passionate commitment to making change happen. Hansen has been unusually outspoken among scientists for a long time. He first came to prominence in 1988, when he testified to the US Senate that he was “99% confident” that the Earth was warming because of human-made greenhouse gases.  He stood up to the administration of George W. Bush when it tried to censor him. And he's put himself on the line, being arrested for demonstrating against mountain top removal mining.  He has been a clear and authoritative voice against the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from the highly polluting Athabasca tar sands in Canada to US refineries.  It is precisely because he wants to commit himself full time to activism that he has stood down from his scientific work.

Hansen has been criticised for giving undue stress to the more extreme scenarios within the range of probability if we fail to drastically reduce emissions greenhouse gases. He fears an extinction event comparable to the “great dying” at the end of the Permian period 252 million years ago is a real risk. He's also criticised for being unrealistic in calling for emissions of greenhouse gases to be limited such that atmospheric concentrations do not exceed 350 parts per million – a goal adopted by the campaign group These criticisms are worth entertaining but in an unreasonable world, where the functional stupidity of our societies and governments with regard to climate and environment is greater even than the dysfunction embedded in regulation of financial systems before the crash of 2007, a little unreasonableness may be the most reasonable thing.  Hansen has earned the right to speak. We should listen.
Read about the other books Henderson tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue