Monday, May 03, 2010

The End of the Long Summer

It’s time for each of us to have a talk with our inner economist. If humanity is to survive the hardships that lie ahead due to climate change, we’ve got to abandon the now universal, but originally Western, ethos of economic growth. That onward-and-upward, more-is-better paean to the accumulation of individual wealth and to the idea of Earth-as-tool has led us blindly into a very tight spot. If we don’t abandon those notions and change the way our societies operate, we may face utter collapse.

So argues veteran environmental journalist Dianne Dumanoski in The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth. The book skillfully weaves evidence from climatology, biology, history, anthropology, economics, and other fields to dispel any feel-good misconceptions about global warming, explain its causes, and try to prepare us for what’s ahead.

If you were picturing a gradual climb in Earth’s temperatures potentially making northern areas more hospitable, think again. “Volatile” is the key word here.

Before the last 12,000 years of nearly unprecedented climate stability—the period known as “the long summer” that allowed complex civilizations to develop—chaotic climate swings were the norm. Climate varied more from decade to decade than it has in the past 12,000 years. Picture an ice age developing in the span of a lifetime, or even a decade—this scenario may confront us, depending on how the Earth reacts to our toxic influences.

The Earth’s volatility is a key point, Dumanoski stresses. Science does not (and cannot) predict all, and she says that in the century ahead, we need to prepare for swift, wild surprises. “Nature is not like a mechanical escalator but like a leaping dragon,” she writes. We’ve got to prepare for the worst even as we try to stop our ­ongoing damage to the Earth.

The End of the Long Summer helps readers get the big picture and think globally, but it is less clear on how we should act locally. The idea that we must redirect Western civilization is daunting, so Dumanoski suggests strategies drawn from human history of surviving past climate crises.

The End of the Long Summer gives us another in a string of much-needed wake-up calls. While it may be hard to imagine humanity responding as Dumanoski very convincingly says we should, she emphasizes that we have the capacity to surprise ourselves. “The only certain thing about the coming century is its immense uncertainty,” she writes. It’s time to embrace that uncertainty and start preparing for climate change as best we can.
From Sherry Boschert's review in Yes! Powerful Ideas, Practical Actions
To read the full review click here.

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