A reading list for the hottest summer (yet)

You know who doesn’t take a vacation?  Climate change

In fact, this hot, hot summer is setting heat records all over the globe: Alaska is sweltering in a cascade of record-smashing heat waves, as are parts of Europe, India…the list goes on.

Even my tiny mountain-top village in Vermont is experiencing historically unusual heat: after a soggy, cold, and late spring, June arrived with a blast of wet heat. We’ve seen numerous consecutive days in the 80°s and hit 90°F a couple of times.  This type of heat used to be reserved for late August up here, if at all. No longer.

Even this stunning Maine-vacation-sunset’s color palette screamed #HOT to my worried brain

What’s really terrifying is that it takes about 10 years for released carbon to begin having an impact on warming (up to 40 years for its full impact to be felt), which means that the carbon we’ve released in the past decade hasn’t even begun to impact temperatures.

And 22% of the total carbon released by humans industrial activity has been released since 2008.

Let me repeat that: 22% of the total carbon released by humans industrial activity has been released since 2008.

Which means it hasn’t even begun to impact things yet.

So I haven’t taken a vacation either

I mean, I’ve been away from my blog for the past few weeks. There was a little camping vacation in there, sandwiched between work gigs that have left me drained.

But I haven’t put it down: climate catastrophe.

I can’t. I wanted to. I want to. I wanted just a little break from the stress. But I couldn’t. I can’t.

Who wants to pick it back up again after putting it down? It’s too easy to go back to sleep, lulled by the rampant denial and status quo.

All I did was take a break from writing

This cartoon captures perfectly how I feel lately. Source: https://www.instagram.com/harrythegirl/

Instead, I’ve been reading. The Deep Adaptation paper, which I’ve cited a few times, is somewhat controversial. Dr. Bendell’s paper was rejected from publication in the journal he submitted it to, and there’s some debate as to why. (The only thing questionable about his paper is the timeline, I think.)

And any good researcher needs to consult multiple sources.

And every good citizen needs to be informed about the issues.

So without further ado, here’s my summer reading list for engaged citizens.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (2019)

This book opens with a sense of foreboding:

It’s worse, much worse than you think.

And it goes downhill from there. Wallace-Wells catalogs the impending catastrophes, from heat death to hunger, to drowning, wildfires, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse- to name just a few.  His research explores our current reality in the context of each of these disasters, then explains the trend each is on. And if each is not terrifying enough on its own (it is), he then explains that for each tableau of terror he’s just painted he’s hasn’t considered the compound effect- that is that none of these tragedies will occur in isolation, and put together the effects will be far worse.

Wallace-Wells then spends time exploring the psychology of our predicament of denial: how can our house be on fire and yet we are still sitting on the couch watching TV? Turns out there are some explanations for this also rooted in the science human psychology. Yet our awareness can be the path out.

No grand solutions are offered, but this book presents readers with an opportunity: a call to action. Can you accept the truth and take action? Action is the only choice we have that might lessen the self-inflicted blows that are coming.

Why you should read this book: Yes, I admit that horror* isn’t my favorite summer reading genre either, but I think we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about the impacts a climate-changed world will have on our – collective – lives. This book is terrifying. It really is much, much worse than we think. Yet perhaps by staring this truth in the eye we can rise and embrace the challenge and find ourselves ready to fight for our future. You know that mama-bear response that happens when our kids are threatened? Let that feeling rise to the surface as you read. Then tell everyone you know.

(Want a sneak preview?  This article may have prompted the full book, published in the July 2017 issue of New York magazine.)

Falter:  Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben (2019)

I admit that this is the first of McKibben’s books I’ve finished- I began reading Eaarth when I was pregnant with my youngest and the anxiety attacks it brought on led me to put it- and the issue of climate change entirely- down for the past 7 years. A move that I surely regret, now recognizing that we have a responsibility to stay informed, stay awake, and take action.

McKibben (who I am proud to call a neighbor, though I’ve only chatted with him a few times at Town Meeting) explores the premise that the ‘human game’ may soon be over. Using the ‘human game ‘ as a metaphor, McKibben considers first how climate change (covering much of the same ground explored by Wallace-Wells) is shrinking our game board, then brings our tinkering with genetic engineering and artificial intelligence (AI) into the picture, exploring how these forays may well compound our downfall. He makes a pretty compelling case as to how through these human quests we have set a trap for ourselves – though we’re not quite at checkmate. And one can’t help but ponder how these three issues may compound one another- but that is perhaps better left (hopefully) for dystopian fiction to explore.

How did we get here? McKibben’s history lesson sheds a bright and infuriating light on the systems of inequity and the neoliberal geopolitics- and the individual people – that have brought us here. There really are bad guys in this story, and it seems to be a true story of good versus evil. There is someone(s) to blame.

Yet knowing why and how (and who) got us here isn’t what will save us. What can save us is…well, us. And McKibben offers a few possible moves that could get us going in the right direction.

Why you should read this book: The history lesson alone is reason enough to read this book. Understanding how we got here is crucial to understanding how to dismantle the status quo. Climate change certainly isn’t the only threat to humanity.  And since everything is connected, knowing the other players in the game is prudent. But what I like best about this book is McKibben’s matter-of-fact call to grow-the-fuck-up (he’s much more gentle than that in his language). McKibben offers a few moves that might help us extend our game. He calls on us to mature, to become wise, and to save ourselves from our own behavior. Indeed, we are the only species on the planet who, as he puts it, are capable of not doing what we are capable of. So let’s not do these things that will surely kill us all, eh?

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

No summer reading list is complete without at least some fiction. So finally, I offer to you a gem of a book:  The Overstory. This Pulitzer Prize-winning tome is both mesmerizing and enchanting. Centered among the giants of time and stature (we know them as trees) this story starts in the roots – with discreet vignettes of several human characters – who later converge in a story of environmental activism and salvation. It’s a story about seeing:  seeing each other and the greater world we’re part of – from a place beyond ourselves.

I’ll admit this is no beach read- I need to read it at least once again to get a clear grasp on its straightforward messages (and likely several times after that to gather the nuances and subtleties). But its breathtaking beauty and heart(wood) pulled me in. And trees. My heart. (Anyone who knows me understands.) I spent most of its pages ensconced in a hammock strung between two trees at the waters’ edge. The perfect setting.

Why you should read this book: Awhile back I spoke of the need to cultivate a sense of joy and wonder with the natural world before asking children to save it, and this book will do the same for you, grownup. If you’ve ever felt the enchantment of a forest (or if you’ve ever wanted to) this tale will validate the aura and everyday magic of nature. And just for the love of trees, read it. It will be a little work, but so so worth it.

What’s on your (engaged-citizenship) reading list this summer?

*That’s a joke. This book is stone-cold non-fiction. We can only wish it was otherwise.

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