LOSING EARTH: A Recent History, by Nathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 206 pp. $25.
We are a culture awash in superhero and apocalyptic stories, even as the actual seas rise, the deserts surge, the storms intensify and the forests burn.
Nathaniel Rich has trafficked in such fictional scenarios, particularly his 2013 novel “Odds Against Tomorrow,” and in the facts. He splashed down last August to occupy the entire New York Times Sunday Magazine with a searing, sober 30,000-word report, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”
It is now expanded into a crisp, absorbing but still slim book “Losing Earth: A Recent History.” In either format, it is essential reading.
“The Red Cross estimates that already more refugees flee the environmental crises than violent conflict,” Rich writes. “Starvation, drought, the inundation of the coasts, and the smothering expansion of deserts will force hundreds of millions of people to run for their lives.”
We failed, he argues, to solve this problem when we could: “For in the decade that ran between 1979 and 1989, we had an excellent chance. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since.”
The book samples the surprisingly early and frank consensus that our fossil-fuel habit was altering the atmosphere, ocean and land into a planet that “would soon cease to resemble itself.”
To carry this story, Rich identifies two protagonists: Rafe Pomerance, an energetic lobbyist for Friends of the Earth with zero scientific training, and James Hansen, a mild-mannered climatologist. Hansen was 38 in 1979; Pomerance was 32. (Intriguingly, both men resemble Rich’s fictional Mitchell Zukor, a brilliant disaster forecaster who anchors “Odds Against Tomorrow” as a future Manhattan floods.)
Back in the real world, circa 1980, Pomerance flew to a gathering of two dozen experts on Florida’s Gulf Coast to suggest climate change legislation. One Stanford engineer framed it as an economic question: How much do we value the future?
Rich recounts the discussion: “We have less time than we realize, said an MIT nuclear engineer named David Rose, who studied how civilizations responded to large technical crises. 'People leave their problems until the eleventh hour, the fifty-ninth minute,’ he said. ‘And then: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’”
In this telling, Jesus’s Aramaic lamentation, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” pairs nicely with the general human impulse to put our heads in the sand.
Of course, as Rich reports it, ExxonMobil was working the fog-machine on the other side of the street: “The dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the unrestrained efforts of the fossil fuel industry, compounded by the ingratiating abetment of the Republican Party, to suppress scientific fact, confuse the public, and bribe politicians.”
A big assist came from John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, who scuttled that aforementioned best chance: the 1989 International Planet Protection Convention in the Netherlands.
A decade earlier, when the Gulf Coast gathering broke apart around quarrelsome semantics, Pomerance determined the planet “needed a hero. He just had to find one.” Enter Hansen.
Some critics have dinged Rich for this comic-book approach, embedded in a savior trope beloved of American white male elites. And he seems to have responded in his afterword, writing that “there will eventually emerge a vigorous, populist campaign” to combat the eco-villains.
But it feels wrongheaded to be distracted from the story by its structure. This is no science book; there are no charts, let alone equations. This is a well-told tale that grapples with Aristotle’s fundamental insight that humans are political animals — and asks whether we can finally, collectively, rouse ourselves to act.