Book Review: Global Weirdness, Climate Central

Alas, it is the time of year again where I must read a depressing environment book to remind myself of the true state of the earth. Not that I needed much in the way of reminders this year, because it has been 60 degrees for about half of the past month in New York City and apparently it snowed in parts of Southern California today. But I digress.

In my continual effort to become an autodidact of climate change, I bought “Global Weirdness / Climate Central,” a compendium of short entries on the various components of the climate that interact to make up the current state of the world. Since I am no science human, I need to spend a significant chunk of time reading climate books for laypeople to inundate my brain with the basic information so later I can go and read more science heavy books. This is also what I do with economics by listening to Marketplace every day and hoping that eventually the words and concepts seep into my brain via osmosis.

The modus operandi of Global Weirdness was “to lay out the current state of knowledge about climate change,” which it does in sixty digestible 3-5 page polemics, based on reports from scientists and journalists at Climate Central. Even reading each chapter heading would give you a small climate change primer – but the entries are generally so coherently explained that even those of us whose brains are least acclimated to science words (aka, myself) can easily grasp the concepts. It delves into deeper science when necessary, but I never felt like I was lost in the jargon or that I was missing out by not having significant prior knowledge.

As the writers explained many different manifestations of climate change – melting ice in the arctic, the proliferation of clouds, changes in vegetation, ocean acidification, they connected the specific effects of these disparate elements to the larger trends that will dictate the future changes to the planet.

One theme that emerges is that humans, plants, animals, and certainly the earth itself, could theoretically survive many permutations of the climate, but we have acclimated very particularly to the way we live now – what with building giant infrastructures and reproducing millions of spawn every year. In other words, we were at the optimal circumstances, we adapted to them, and it's not that it's impossible to change, but what with the billions of humans and the structures they inhabit it'll be quite a difficult task, and will probably involve a not-desirable amount of death and destruction. As the book puts it -

“It's one thing for a small band of people to pack up camp and move a couple hundred miles to a better location if the climate changes. It's a very different thing to try and move a city like Cairo or New York or Shanghai because the sea level is rising. It' svery different to relocate the farms of the Midwestern United States up to Canada – along with the highways and railroads and power lines that serve them – because it's become to hot and dry to grow grain.”

The book utilizes well thought out and, thankfully, simple metaphors to help us through the basics of what is happening to the earth - in one of the most often repeated examples, they describe the amount of excess CO2 in the atmosphere like a bathtub with a slow drain - in the past 200 years we've really let the faucet go to town in dumping out CO2 into the atmosphere, but the drain isn't getting any larger. So the natural processes that we've always relied on to keep the earth at a livable equilibrium can't keep up with the water (CO2) gushing out into the atmosphere (the bathtub.) If I feel comfortable paraphrasing a scientific analogy, I think it's safe to say that the authors did their job. 

The team of writers behind Global Weirdness manage to avoid the doomsday speak that is pervasive in much of the literature and print about climate change, despite the fact that most of the information they communicate is relatively doom-ish. This is a powerful choice, because it doesn't let the reader negate the information for being over apocalyptic, but still communicates the dire circumstances in ways that are difficult to deny. (Although deny them idiots will, as evidenced by how few people seem to believe that the world will be drastically altered within our lifetimes.)

The book serves as a useful primer on pretty much any topic within the realm of climate change that one could delve into, and because of that it doesn't dive particularly deep into any one area. That worked for me, because it gave enough information to help me choose which topics to do more research on, and the necessary information to not be lost in a more in depth work. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who gives a shit about the environment but doesn't know where to start with how to turn giving a shit into actual action and knowledge. 

Consumers, Climate Change, and Does it Make it Better that I Bought it Local?

As anyone who has spoken to me in the last month or every pays attention to my social media preference knows, Becca Schuh read a really depressing environment book this month.

Now to the casual observer, it might seem like I didn't know climate change was a thing until I read said book, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. This is, obviously, false. To not generally know about climate change in this day and age probably means you're either a climate change denier or have been living in a hut in the woods, which is actually probably a great place to live considering the upcoming disasters.

But it is definitely true to say that I did not at all realize the crazy extent to which climate change has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen throughout our lifetimes due to the nature of carbon emissions, which is that they take literally years to affect the environment. AKA, similarly to what happened when AIDS became a thing, we are all idiots because we have all the information we need but are not doing anything to stop a giant catastrophe.

However, I will get back to that when I am famous and people will actually listen to me. Not that it did AIDS any good when Elton fucking John wrote an entire book about how we have all the tools to solve it but aren't because of the man, but a girl can dream.

Sparing you the technical jargon (which I'm sure most of you are more fluent in than I am, don't get me wrong,) one of the largest things we would have to change to actually do anything about the environment (aside from The Big One, overthrowing the man) is to drastically reduce the ways in which we consume. Which is to say, we'd have to consume a whole lot less.

Sounds easy in theory. Eat less! Eat out less! Buy less things! Drive less! Buy local! Especially when you're your average local buying liberal, these things don't seem that hard to manifest. I already walk to work, and if dear old Desmond kicks the bucket (we actually can't talk about that though I might cry) I probably won't have to get a new car for quite a while, if ever. Even though I love food, I already pretty much snack for all my meals and when I eat out I save everything to create four meals out of one. I still buy a lot of things, but I do a good 80% of my shopping at local stores, except for things that can't be found locally like carriers for the ladies, aka the stupid giant bras I have to special order online.

These are all the things I told myself.

But then I came back to my regular vantage point: waitress at restaurant where the platters of food are the size of my torso, as a man once pointed out to me by literally touching my stomach. Person who likes new underwear and for the bookcase to be delivered to my door so I don't have to borrow someone's car to get it from the store. Person to whom a great day constitutes a trip (by car, no less) to the used bookstore and the local boutique and alas, the mall because they don't sell restaurant shoes at the bougie shoe shop in North Park. Person who is an academic with a brain who realizes, that despite all her efforts to the contrary, consumption is a habit, and consumption is consumption, no matter how it manifests.

Obviously, we have to consume on some level. And it's definitely true that the large scale shifts that Klein suggest in This Changes Everything could be brought on and helped if everyone, especially the rich and powerful white men, shifted their consumption from investing in oil companies to investing in local economies.

These things were on my mind as I walked to the coffee shop today. And then I got distracted because my shitty headphones fell out of my ears once again, and I thought to myself, I'm making money now, I can buy myself a nice pair of headphones. And then I stopped at the adorable Hillcrest newsstand shop that actually carries both art magazines and literary magazines, dying breeds that I treasure, and picked up one of each. I was thirsty slash hungover so I also got, alas, a bottled water. I told myself that I'd reuse this one and also invest my newfound capital in a nice water bottle that I won't lose the second I bring it to the gym. I should probably also invest in a nice pair of sunglasses while I'm at it, I thought to myself.

I got to the coffee shop, and got a coffee that I would end up only drinking half of because I know now that too much caffeine produces similar anxiety to having to speak to the same human for several weeks, which, those who have been around me recently know, is a lot. I also got a sandwich, which again, I only ate half of, reasoning that this was okay because eating when you aren't hungry is bad and my health is more important than eating the whole sandwich out of obligation, and I'll take the damn sandwich home and eat it for a snack later.

What I mean to say by all this is, of course, is that it's complicated.

I've never been that attached to money, but now I have some of it. And the thing that happens to people who aren't attached to money is that they want to spend it. In fact, people who don't have money also want to spend it. That's what our culture has done to us. But is it inherently bad to want things, when we need some things to survive?

I don't think it's inherently bad to want things. But I do think that the extreme to which we've taken things as a culture is worse than inherently bad, it's abominable, it's going to murder the planet before we have time to come to our senses.

And if I were a different person, I would say that we should just stop it all now. But I think we all know that although that could work, it won't happen, re: the patriarchy and the oil, but also re: the privilege that has been lurking around everything I've written in this essay.

Because you can't tell a lady who has three kids to not drive to work. You can't tell a developing nation to not build a factory, when they're also told the only way to progress is to emulate the nations who run on....factories. You can't tell the young black man to not buy a new fancy car because you're the society who told him that a fancy car is what would make him be taken seriously. You can't tell the poor teenager to stop shopping at the cheap stores at the mall when she's told by society that she has to dress a certain way to be considered a woman. You especially can't do that when it took you 23 years and waiting tables at the busiest brunch place in your city to stop shopping at the damn mall and start buying clothes from local stores and you just yesterday filled up literally a suitcase with the Forever 21 shirts you accumulated in college.

What that we buy do we need? What that we buy do we buy because we think that we need it because our culture has convinced us that status symbols are as important as food and water in order to imbed consumerist culture and the desire for growth at any cost so deep in our blood that we're drowning in it? Is it okay for me to buy fancy headphones because at the end of the day the desire to not hear other people talk after listening to strangers bark at you for eight hours feels like closer to a need than my actual need to put food in my mouth? If I'm using them to listen to female artists, and try to bring them more cultural voice, does that help?

The best gift I've ever been given was the privilege to attend my wonderful undergraduate institution, and among the array of gifts within that gift was the idea of intersectionality and the ability to live it in practice by creating my own degree.  I called it Navigating Craft, but if I had to explain it now I would say something along the lines of 'writing about ideas, social, political, cultural, writing to help me understand the world, writing to hopefully one day help other people understand it too, from a place of humility, thoughtfulness, and humor.  I write to shift the paradigm, whether it be my own or the societal paradigm that has gridlocked into, literally earth shattering consumption.'  

Because I don't know how to answer the questions I posed in the penultimate paragraph.  But I know that I should have said something when a male customer felt it was appropriate to touch my body in reference to commenting on the size of the plates my restaurant serves food on.  I know that it was okay to stop working on my writing to talk to my good friend about the state of internet writing and how we think that both style and content are indispensable when creating art.   I know that my greatest gift other than and alongside my education is my friends, who will agree when I say in a joking yet serious tone that just maybe we are the ones who can start the revolution.  Or, a revolution.  (You know the joke.)  But I know that it has to do with shifting the paradigm, and I know that all I can do now is take the next step, as Adam so eloquently said (by which I mean Jenni Konner/Lena Dunham so eloquently wrote) on the last episode of Girls, "to the next step in a series of random steps." 

And as long as with each and every step I'm fighting the patriarchy, fighting for women and people of color and whatever the politically correct acronym is these days for the sexuality spectrum, and for these voices to be heard, and when I have to consume things trying to consume things that empower women, people of color, and local economies, then maybe these random steps will lead me to a place where I can actually help the environment in ways grander than walking to work.