Summer Reading 2020

Summer Reading 2020
George Butler, Extinction Rebellion, November 2019

So, once again I have looked around to see what books various sources are suggesting for reading this summer, and to see if anyone has noticed that we’re in a climate emergency. And as usual, I start with The Financial Times, since it’s the newspaper I still read most regularly. And once again, the answer seems to be “apparently not.” Just like last year, I’m disappointed to see. It’s a very good list of fiction, history, what have you, and I have no doubt that many, indeed most, of these books are worth a look. Which makes it all the most mystifying that none of these reviewers gives any awareness of the global catastrophe currently unfolding in slow, but increasingly accelerating, motion. Even people who one would think know better–the estimable Martin Wolf–manages to generate a list of undoubtedly worthy books on a range of important economic subjects–but somehow climate escapes his view. This may be because, as he noted, he is only reviewing books that publishers send to him–which says something about publishers, I suspect. The thing is, Wolf has written eloquently and earnestly on the climate crisis and the need to act–so he does know we’re in trouble.

What is somewhat surprising here is that the FT has actually become pretty good in its climate coverage. Leslie Hook does an excellent job of covering a range of topics, and the Special Reports on subjects like the energy transition are useful, indeed necessary. And at the same time that we seen lists Martin Wolf’s economics books recommendations (along with other topics) we also see several quite alarming articles, including the disaster that is currently occurring in Siberia. In fact, on my internet page these two articles were virtually next to each other the other day. So maybe it’s just that editors aren’t keeping each other apprised of developments, or something. You would assume that people who write for, and edit, the FT also read it.

I don’t mean to single out the FT–it’s easily the UK’s best newspaper, and has, as I indicated, excellent climate coverage. If we wander over to The Economist, we find a similar issue–editors not reading each other’s stuff, and some mysterious divergences of theoretical assumptions. So a couple of weeks ago we had a special report on how the world food distribution system is working just fine that somehow manages to contain not one single mention of the environmental and climate costs that this system generates. At the same time, over the past several months The Economist has also had some significant (and also very good) climate coverage. At some point, these things converge. Maybe they just haven’t noticed yet.

Sometimes it’s a bit hard to tell– The Guardian’s list is pretty similar, although Sarah Moss does mention Mark O’Connell’s Notes from the Apocalypse, although the scope here is well beyond the climate emergency. Nonetheless, The Guardian is clearly in escapist mode–its two discussions are titled “Books to help you escape lockdown,” and “Fifty books to transport you this summer.” It’s actually a bit of a surprise that O’Connell’s book makes it to these lists, since it’s basically interviews with a range of people preparing for the end of civilization. So it’s a climate book, in a way. But for most Guardian readers and editors, escapism seems to be the dominant theme. Well, transporting you is all well and good–but that shouldn’t be the only reason to read. Some books should scare the hell out of you, and I’m not talking Stephen King.

So this isn’t just beach reading. Well, actually, in the case of The New York Times Summer Reading list, it is–it’s entirely a fiction list. Not a non-fiction title in sight. Other such lists are intended to be a list of generally serious books, across a range of categories, and many of them look interesting. Not the NYT. It’s just that…well, you know. We do have this climate catastrophe unfolding, with ten years to deal with it. I know books about sport are important, as are YA novels, as are cookbooks–especially cookbooks. But still, a little more attention, please–there’s lots of serious stuff going on, people really are writing about it in books, and many of these are quite valuable–the list I suggested last year still serves, and can be easily updated (see below).

So what accounts for this willful blindness? None of these people, in all likelihood, are global warming deniers. They probably all support action, even in some cases aggressive action, to deal with adaptation and mitigation risks. They’re probably even not unhappy if that increases their tax bill–it’s for a good and necessary cause. But there is no sense of the need for fast action, no sense of urgency. It’s just another item on the agenda. Even though the 2050 date that everyone carries around in their heads seems to be moving to 2030–but, you know, that’s still a decade away. And the next set of elections will let us start fixing all this. It won’t, of course, considering the weak set of policies being proposed by Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US. But it’s a good myth we can tell ourselves.

I think we really need to think in terms of that increasingly over-used term, privilege. Yes, it’s over-used, but it fits. No one producing or consuming these reading lists lives a half a mile downwind from a petrochemical plant, put it that way. The world keeps moving from season to season, and there’s all that business of living stuff, and getting the kids ready for college. So the willful blindness reflected in these lists has to reflect a pretty sizable amount of economic privilege, or else they don’t think it’s an emergency, and worthy of note. It’s hard to tell. But I’m betting it’s the former.

This is what we need to get past. The FT, for example, has gotten very good indeed in its climate coverage, better than any other UK newspaper aside from The Guardian. But there are limits to what even the FT can do when they still publish the execrable How To Spend It supplement. It’s more the readers–they should be demanding more political action, and they should be demanding better news information on the state of various environmental and climate catastrophes around the world. Yes, we’re hearing about Siberia today–and we heard a lot about Australia earlier this year. White people countries, though. We actually don’t hear nearly as much about the Inuit forced to abandon their settlements as we do about starving polar bears. Amazon and African wildfires look set to be even worse this year than they were last year–in the case of the Amazon, deforestation will almost certainly be a partial cause. The list goes on. Who even knows that there have been equally serious wildfires in Africa? Or is familiar with the many hundreds of millions of people facing water unavailability because of accelerating glacial evaporation in the Himalayas? In spite of lots of pearl-clutching, palm oil deforestation continues unabated. Water issues in part of India are becoming more significant, and more obvious.

So what sort of reading list should one recommend to the weary, the uncertain, the folks who think that perhaps they should be doing a bit more, but just aren’t sure of how to go about it? Well, there are the titles we suggested a year ago, which can be found here. This holds up pretty well as a list, actually. In addition, there have been some new ones over the course of the year and some others I should have added last year. So in no particular order:

Nathaniel Rich–The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change–originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine, Rich’s book is a depressing chronicle of missed opportunities, establishment politics, and greed. It really is the case that in 1979 we knew all we needed to about the scope of the problem and what we needed to do to address it. We let that opportunity slip away, and have been paying the price ever since. There’s a whole lot that’s wrong today that can be laid at Ronald Reagan’s feet, and those of his true believers–this is perhaps the most consequential.

Bill McKibben–Oil and Honey, and The Global Warming Reader. McKibben is responsible for some of the best climate writing around, and The End of Nature (2003) is a justifiable classic. McKibben is also partially responsible for popularizing the stranded asset issue in the broader mainstream media. These two books are a bit different, though. Oil and Honey (2013) is about McKibben’s journey to activism, which included being arrested at The White House for protesting the Keystone pipeline. The Global Warming Reader (2012, so it doesn’t include most work from the past decade) looks to be a pretty good compendium of major writings and research on global warming–this is the sort of book you that will you give you some of the information you need to shut up that noisy relative who thinks it’s all still a hoax.

Extinction Rebellion–This is Not a Drill–An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. A short and pretty brutal summary of what is about to happen, and why we need to be in the streets. Also some handy advice on how to be an activist. Lots of good, very focussed articles by a variety of knowledgable people, that captures the sense of urgency that should be characterizing the overall climate movement, but which often seems strangely absent.

Ann Pettifor–The Case for the New Green Deal. This would be the UK version of the GND, but it’s similar enough to the US version to be worth noting. There are enough differences in the legal systems of the two countries, and of the apparatus for making public policy, to explain most of these differences. The general problems that people want to solve are pretty similar. Pettifor has a pretty sold set of recommendations on what the next steps should be. Boris Johnson’s laughably unrealistic infrastructure ambitions could have used some help from Pettifor. I wonder what it’s like to live in a country where the national government understands anything about climate?

Jonathan Porritt–Hope in Hell: A Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency. Recently published, and undoubtedly worth a look. Porritt is the co-founder of Forum for the Future, one of the UK’s major sustainability outfits, and was for a time the head of Friends of the Earth in the UK. Knowldgable and, like the ER manual , focused on near term strategies–what can be achieved in the near term that will actually make a difference. Porritt, also like the ER manual, understands the urgency of all this better than most. A thoughtful, balanced book.

Mark O’Connell–Notes from an Apocalypse. A problematic book–great fun, but about an appalling topic–preparing for the end of civilization, or “preppers.” The end result is a mix of the insane and the mundane, as well as an analysis of the desire that many apparently have to see it all collapse. Yes, there are the folks who worry about the catastrophic impacts of climate change, who at least make sense. But it turns out that there is so much more, and O’Connell does a good job of letting you know what that is. The End of the World has been with us for some time, it turns out. O’Connell actually likes many of these people, or at least understands where they’re coming from, which makes this book more pleasurable to read than you might expect.

And, for something that is a bit above and beyond, there’s Barry Lopez’s Horizon–an extended meditation on the impacts of climate change on areas where Lopez has spent time earlier in his careen as a naturalist. Lopez is a legendary writer in the US, but significantly less so outside of it, including here in the UK, an error that needs to be rectified.

And for all that I ignored fiction in last year’s list, Richard Power’s Overstory, while not specifically about climate, is a wonderful paean to trees and forests. And if I’m allowed to sneak in some science fiction, Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for the World is Forest is one of the best novellas you’re ever likely to read.

Happy reading!



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