Earth Day this year makes me a little cynical about the state of the planet. It seems like there is a new big story every month about how bad our current trajectory is, how it could destroy us all, and how urgent we need to make changes – and quickly – to avoid annihilation. But of course, disinformation, economic inequality, and government ineffectiveness plague the US and the world. The people hardest hit by climate change are the least responsible, and those most responsible have no incentive to change their behavior. Why should you when this system works pretty well for you.
Does your stomach hurt all the time? Because mine does.
Two new books – Under the Sky We Make by Kimberly Nicholas and Overheated by Kate Aronoff – offer an antidote to climate anihilism. They delve into the tangled roots of the current environmental crisis, but also explain the global change necessary to move into a carbon-free future. “It heats up, it is us, we are safe,” writes Nicholas. “It’s bad. But we can fix it.”
It can be doable to fix, but it will be difficult. Nicholas published a widespread report on personal carbon consumption in 2017, which found that living without a car or meat, one fewer child, and fewer transatlantic flights had the greatest impact. Under the Sky We Make builds on this report to show how individual actions can scale and make a difference. If enough people like me – a highly mobile American – stop flying so much, it can have far-reaching effects on the transportation system, for example. Nicholas spends the first 50 pages of the book describing how we don’t live within the confines of physics, chemistry, and biology, and why we have to. Their thesis is that we need to change our thinking from an “exploitation mindset” to a “regeneration mindset” – in other words, use resources so quickly that they can replace themselves and focus on renewable energy and food sources . This shift would lead humanity to consume within their global capabilities and would require the personal carbon footprint of all humans to be only 2.5 tons per year by 2030. In America the average is 16 tons per year, which is why it is vital for us to research and reduce our personal use.
(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)
Nicholas clearly explains the science of this reduction and how we can get there, but the best parts of the book come when she delves into her personal story, like witnessing worsening fires in Sonoma, California, where she grew up. She convincingly describes the feeling of pressure not to be an alarming climatologist – despite being very alarmed – because scientists are taught to be dispassionate. She also writes lyrically about the emotional toll climate change has taken on her and she creates space for sadness and fear, noting how those feelings can motivate you to act. For example, if you’re pissed that energy companies lied to you, this can be a powerful catalyst in switching your heating sources. We cannot be overwhelmed and write off personal actions, concludes Nicholas, because that is part of what leads to systemic change. You are connected. We cannot rely on one thing or the other.
In the final part of the book, she examines the logistics of change and the hypocrisy of the international government’s inaction on climate. For example, of all the countries that have signed the Paris Agreement, only Gambia has a plan to actually achieve its CO2 reduction targets. Among these countries, per capita emissions tell a great story about where the most significant reductions can and should be made. Wealthy people in affluent countries have to do most of the work, both because we make personal choices that use significant carbon – Nicholas made me think about my overland flights to see my family – and because we are all part of obsolete carbon dependent systems.
We find ourselves in this dire straits partly because fossil fuels, as Aronoff writes in “Overheated”, have ingrained modern society. We are consuming too much carbon and we have to make various personal choices to reduce it. However, it is very difficult to do so because of the evolution of the world based on carbon consumption.
Aronoff gives an extensive overview of how capitalism and unrestrained growth work have destroyed the environment. She describes how US politicians have tried unsuccessfully since the Reagan years to use markets to solve climate change. how a lack of regulation and neoliberal economics have merged in a point where the rules protecting businesses are much stricter than the rules protecting the planet; and why this is a spiraling ecological and social catastrophe. “What drives a profit margin and what makes a good company usually do not overlap,” she writes.
(Photo: Courtesy Bold Type Books)
Overheated covers an ambitious amount of history, but the most interesting parts deal with how we can do better in the future. I kept working out key facts about why we weren’t implementing solutions on the scale required. For example, economists have found that carbon prices should be at least $ 125 per tonne to accurately reflect the social and environmental costs of carbon pollution. In California it is currently $ 1 per ton. in the northeast it’s $ 3.
This is a book right now, especially given the new infrastructure plan that President Biden unveiled late last month. Many of the solutions Aronoff outlines in her vision for a better future are inspired by the success of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the potential of the Green New Deal, a comprehensive policy plan proposed by a group of progressive Democrats in Congress. In the midst of a pandemic, Aronoff ponders how a crisis can bring about positive, large-scale change and paradigm shifts. In the 1930s, despair led to action. The New Deal made big society-wide decisions about what was valuable and funded those plans – and not just infrastructure projects like dams and roads, but also plans related to music and literature and so many things that make life good.
Aronoff says the Green New Deal can do that too. Not only can it create lucrative, useful jobs, but it can also incorporate socially and emotionally valuable programs and professions that are currently underfunded, such as journalism and public art.
Overheated is a lot drier than Under the Sky We Make, so I was surprised I ended up feeling emotional when Aronoff asked the question she’s been working towards all along: Why do we value money so much when things which we really find meaningful, how human connection and being outside are fundamentally free? It outlines a vision of a society in which we prioritize these things instead. “I want this,” I wrote in the margin, underlining it hard.
Taken together, the two books show how serious civic and personal changes can be used to create a future worth living in. I still worry that nothing will change, or at least not quickly enough. But as Nicholas says, cynicism is a form of denial. Hope means you can move forward, and reading both works I came across some real ways to make a difference instead of swirling in fear.
Buy under the sky We’re making buying overheated
Main photo: Noah Berger / AP