Tag Archives: climate change

Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.





Review: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes EverythingI’m not going to lie: this book depressed the heck out of me. Not that I was expecting a super cheerful read, considering Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything deals with humanity’s response to the threat of climate change. I never thought it was going to be fun, but I did hope it would give me some grounds for optimism.

Unfortunately, I finished the book with an overwhelming feeling of despair. If Klein is correct that the only way to ward off imminent disaster is to rise up as empowered, nature-loving Earth-citizens and demand that oil and coal companies abandon their “extractivist” ways and leave all those fossil fuels in the ground because life is more important than money–well, friends, I’m pretty sure we’re all doomed. Klein consistently argues throughout This Changes Everything that everything has to change, that any attempt to address climate change must also introduce social justice across the board, by introducing a minimum wage, agricultural reform, housing for the less fortunate, etc.

I’ve spent most of the past decade in China, Thailand, India and now Myanmar (aka Burma). It would certainly be lovely if everyone everywhere got food, housing, education and empowerment but we are so far from that reality that it’s virtually impossible for me to even imagine it happening. Even the most purely altruistic efforts to help can lead to dismaying unintended consequences, as with the fine-mesh mosquito nets distributed in Zambia to villagers who promptly sew them together and use them to fish, destroying local ecosystems in the process.

So Star Trek-worthy social justice aside, what are some of the promising ideas and signs for optimism Klein puts forward? She celebrates the local activism of “Blockadia”: the towns and tribes who step forward to protest and delay efforts to open new mines or lay pipeline for fossil fuels; the German towns who take control of local utilities; the Native Americans who become “solar warriors” by installing solar panels to provide energy for their homes; the student groups who lead efforts to divest their universities’ endowments of all fossil fuel stocks; the scientists working on perennial crops that better conserve water, etc. These are laudable efforts but virtually invisible to the average person going about their day. (In the meantime, the current administration’s efforts to preserve Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are met with fury by state elected officials.)

That’s the real problem. It’s not that I disagree with Klein’s fundamental point that we in the developed world are consuming way, way beyond what is sustainable and in the process racing toward a changed climate that will ultimately destroy our way of life. But our daily lives provide little to no incentive to change our ways. Where is this grassroots movement to demand political action going to come from? Klein references comparisons to the abolitionists who demanded an end to slavery, a societal change with a vast economic impact. I just don’t see most people outraged about the use of coal and oil. Most people are just thrilled that gas is so cheap right now. This book is unlikely to change that reality.

I have also seen first-hand how immediate concerns override long term considerations. My hometown depends primarily on a refinery and a power plant for employment opportunities. My home state, Kentucky, has a long history of dependence and exploitation by “extractivist” coal companies. But what is the solution? How do you look past the need to be employed, feed your family, get to your job every day?

I don’t think taking on the entire capitalist worldview is likely to help find an answer. The larger conclusions drawn in this book actually tend to feed the crazy of the climate change deniers Klein describes in an early chapter. It is unlikely that a global grassroots movement will arise capable of successfully demanding we all reject fossil fuels. The geoengineers who plan to seed the sky with reflective particles sound scarier than climate change itself. And apparently no technological fix is likely to come along that will magically save us.

In the meantime, we churn along, driving from home to work to school, running the AC or the heat at full blast, not worrying about much beyond our own individual lives. What can anyone do to stop 7 billion individuals from making fatal, self-interested choices every day? That’s the very serious question I wish Klein had answered. Unfortunately, I think you’re more likely to find the answer in some fictional post-apocalyptic dystopia than in this book.

Genre: Environmental anti-capitalist nonfiction

Read it if: You would like to know more about all the groups who aren’t going to save us from climate change; you are naturally optimistic and not easily subject to existential despair; you are a climate change denier and want to say “See! See! They’re a bunch of commies!” when referring to environmentalists.

Skip it if: You are looking for a practical, descriptive account of the effects of climate change and current efforts to combat it; you prefer blissful ignorance to soul-crushing knowledge.

Movie-worthy: It already exists.


Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanPoor Professor Beard. A Nobel Prize winning physicist, his intellect is exceeded only by his appetite–for food, alcohol and women. Although he associates himself with efforts to find clean, renewable energy and save the Earth from the ravages of climate change, the truth is that Beard isn’t particularly worried about the Earth or its fate. As McEwan notes, he is a solipsist, uninterested in a future world in which he does not exist.

And anyway, “the past had shown him many times that the future would be its own solution.” After discovering his famous Beard-Einstein Conflation, the work that would earn him the Nobel, Michael Beard has found it remarkably easy to coast along on the prestige of that early triumph. It is sufficient to earn him a comfortable living attaching his name to various research centers and boards, and makes him attractive enough to woo and wed five consecutive women despite his portly stature and slovenly habits.

I expected this book to be weighty and solemn, but in fact it was sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, in the way that I also can’t resist laughing at people who crash in spectacular fashion while attempting ridiculous stunts on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s a combination of astonishment and appalled horror that compels the reader to plow onward as Beard makes a spectacle of himself. Maybe it’s possible to laugh because Beard is so completely lacking in self-awareness. Indignities and humiliations never penetrate his confidence and self-regard, any more than his doctor’s admonitions to exercise and stop eating so much have any impact on his weight.

Ian McEwan has succeeded in holding up a mirror to humanity, as we consume without a thought for the consequences, despite the fact that we all know the consequences will inevitably follow; unless maybe they won’t, right? Maybe the technology will race ahead of our appetites, maybe that ominous growth will go away if we ignore it, maybe the perfect answer will fall into our laps. Maybe the future will solve itself. Even a logical man like Dr. Beard finds himself succumbing to the temptations of magical thinking as he grows older. Beard’s failure to believe that other people are quite as real as he is, that their needs and desires are as strong as his own, that his choices result in actual consequences–that is the sustained illusion in which he lives. Eventually, of course, there will be a reckoning, for Michael Beard as for everyone else.

Genre: Literary fiction with a suprising element of farcical humor

Read it if: You aren’t afraid to face the realities of human nature, climate change and aging, but you’d appreciate the occasional laugh while you do it.

Skip it if: You really don’t want to know to what lengths a middle aged man will go to urinate in the Arctic.

Movie-worthy: The right director could probably make a hilarious movie out of this. Maybe the Coen brothers…