“One of the penalties of an ecological education,” the pioneer American conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
The isolation suffered by Leopold, who had observed the environmental and human catastrophe of the Dustbowl close up, is hardly the fate of Greta Thunberg, with her legions of admirers (not to mention detractors) worldwide. But today’s planetary wounds, of which she has spoken so eloquently, are on a scale that would have shaken even a man as environmentally aware as Leopold to the core.
So her new book is not for the faint-hearted. Even a reader well informed on the climate and biodiversity crises will find themselves more painfully aware of the nightmare into which we have been sleepwalking for decades, and from which we still show so little sign of awakening. You will drive your car, eat your sirloin, light your fire — or watch your neighbours do these things, if you’ve given them up — even less comfortably after reading it.
But Thunberg is adamant that we must not fall into the trap of believing that our individual actions as consumers are the critical factor in cutting emissions and restoring healthy ecosystems — unless you own a fossil fuel corporation, a cattle ranch or an airline. She insists repeatedly that the notion that we are somehow all responsible for climate collapse is just one more attempt by those who profit from the status quo to persuade us that they can keep on doing business as usual, if only we would all just make a few “green” adjustments to our personal lives. It is no accident that BP created and promoted the first personal carbon footprint calculator, while continuing to increase its own emissions.
Making changes as individuals really only matters, Thunberg argues, insofar as it sends signals to others that we understand that we truly are facing an urgent and unprecedented existential crisis, which should galvanise us like the Covid pandemic did. And these signals can start conversations, building up the critical mass in public opinion needed to make the radical economic, social and political changes that might give us half a chance of keeping our planet habitable.
Her book is an admirable and monumental effort to inform such conversations with good evidence. She has drawn together more than 80 short essays by scientists across many fields, as well as activist voices, to produce “a go-to source” for understanding the “closely interrelated climate, ecological and sustainability crises”.
Some of these essays are a little heavy on graphs, statistics and technical terms for general readers. But they are copiously interpolated by Thunberg’s lively commentaries, engaging and polemical, if often repetitious. They are proof, if further proof were needed, that she is a truly exceptional figure, fluent way beyond her years in grasping and communicating the complexity and connectedness of these crises. Not to mention an ethical sensibility that puts most of us to shame.
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman? One must hope so, given the threats the book so chillingly lays before us. But I fear — and I hate to write this — that her youthful optimism about our capacity to meet such daunting challenges may be sadly misplaced. Hope is a recurrent motif here but, with no convincing way forward presented, I lost hope more often than I found it.
Perhaps the single most distressing aspect of the climate crisis is that, long after the folly of burning fossil fuels became undeniable, we have continued to increase greenhouse gas emissions. We have dumped more carbon in the atmosphere since the first IPCC report in 1990 than in all previous history.
That is scary enough, but even climate scientists are shaken by how fast changes are now coming down the line. And we may already have passed tipping points that can trigger cascades of catastrophic, self-perpetuating, feedback loops. Ancient methane, once frozen under the Arctic Ocean, is already bubbling up into the atmosphere, thus accelerating the warming that released it in the first place. And so on.
When your bathtub is about to overflow, you don’t go looking for buckets or cover the floor with towels — you start by turning off the tap, as soon as you can— Greta Thunberg
The authors surgically exposé the subterfuges with which political and business leaders have tried to con us into believing their policies are making things better, when they are making them much worse. Several authors argue credibly that effective decarbonisation simply cannot be achieved by societies locked into the capitalist growth model. Our economic system is demonstrably driving climate change and environmental degradation across lethal boundaries. The authors are much less convincing, however, on presenting any viable alternative.
They are certainly effective at exposing the distorted carbon “accounting” that enables rich countries to outsource their emissions, along with their factories, to poor regions. They then bring back and consume their products without measuring the vast greenhouse gas increases this process entails. Meanwhile, giant industries such as aviation and shipping, along with most military emissions — not to mention those caused by actual wars — are still excluded from the climate treaties.
Several essays show that new technologies, like carbon capture and storage, have so far fallen chronically short of the significant benefits they are credited with in these treaties, leaving another gaping hole in the accounts, mortgaging our futures with wishful thinking.
“When your bathtub is about to overflow,” Thunberg writes, “you don’t go looking for buckets or cover the floor with towels — you start by turning off the tap, as soon as you can.”
But turning off the taps releasing greenhouse gases requires us to “literally remake our world”, as Olúfémi O Táíwò puts it.
And as Thunberg insists passionately, remaking the world should include redressing the vicious global inequities created by colonialism. These historical injustices result in those who have contributed least to the climate and biodiversity crises suffering most, as we can see from the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, and the drought-driven food crisis in North Africa. “We are all in the same storm,” she writes, “but we are definitely not in the same boat.”
Her analysis and vision is shared by many of her contributors, from Robin Wall Kimmerer to Amitav Ghosh and Naomi Klein. They write of a remade world which is both climate friendly and restored to equity by reparations from the Global North to the South. This is ethically impeccable and also, very probably, the only way our civilisations might survive.
But where this book disappoints is in its failure to create any credible roadmap to these enormously ambitious twin goals, beyond repeated and — with my apologies — squishy exhortations to “prioritise people and planet over profit and greed”. There are some relatively hard-edged exceptions, notably by David Wallace-Wells and Seth Klein, but even they cannot point to levers that might effect such revolutionary changes.
Thunberg, echoing an unconvincing essay by George Monbiot, seems to believe that “the media” bear the greatest responsibility for climate inertia, and that much better media coverage could change the game. Maybe so, but to achieve that you would have to remove the media barons who prop up the fossil fuel industry. She gives no indication of how that might be done.
She deserves great credit for building a remarkable international grassroots movement. But will its presence at the upcoming Cop27 climate conference in Egypt have any more impact than previously?
The book is curiously silent about the troubling fact that, even as the evidence on the climate, biodiversity and sustainability crises has mounted, demagogic leaders have swung much public opinion against both science-based and egalitarian policies.
Thunberg is right to say that the super-wealthy elites “stand in the way of our common wellbeing”. But our democracies seem utterly incapable of getting them off the road.
One can only hope that this book, by making these crises so powerfully manifest, will inspire us to think much harder and more creatively about how to do so, by any means necessary.
I admit I turned a little sniffily from this deeply serious book to Colm O’Regan’s take on the crisis. I thought I wasn’t in the mood for humour by the author of Bolloxology. I was so wrong. I needed it.
O’Regan’s highly personal narrative is driven by exuberant and irreverent comic energy. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done his homework on climate change and biodiversity loss, and he obviously cares passionately about them. While there are no graphs and very few statistics here, and his thought processes are like fireworks on acid, he communicates both the complexity of the crisis, and the wild contradictions in our responses to it, exceptionally well.
At the outset he modestly warns us: “if you read one book about fixing climate change, don’t make it this one.” I’m not so sure. As he also says, “it’s clear that how the message is delivered is as important as the message now”. His refreshingly original delivery is a real contribution to spreading what Thunberg rightly describes as “the biggest story in the world”.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (Chicago, 2015)
Recommended further reading
Any small selection from the vast literature on the climate crisis is bound to be idiosyncratic, but these two books offer essential perspectives:
The Uninhabitable Planet (Allen Lane, 2019) by David Wallace-Wells has been dismissed as “alarmist”, but the author points out that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was similarly dismissed, yet proved both accurate and highly influential on policy. Moreover, his insistence that the crisis is happening here and now, and moving very fast, has been borne out in the short time since he published it. The scenarios he so vividly describes for increasing degrees of warming are certainly terrifying, but he reminds us repeatedly that “we have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all”. But not for much longer. And do we have the political will to use them?
Climate Justice (Bloomsbury, 2018) is Mary Robinson’s moving account of the courageous and resourceful people she has met on the front line of climate change. It’s a gentler book than many on these issues, and reflects the author’s indefatigable if sorely tried optimism, while leaving no doubt as to gravity, and gross injustice, of the impacts on the poorest of the poor.