Tag Archives: climate change

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.


“A Conversation with David Sanger About Today’s Global Realities and America’s Next President”, a lecture by David E. Sanger

The college where I work has a partnership with The New York Times. Students (and others) receive The Times free of charge, and it is used in various ways, in various classes. I think this is great! And the paper generously sends us a distinguished guest speaker annually.

David Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. His speech (title given above) was well worth my time. He also discussed the question of what kinds of issues can be addressed during the Presidential campaign. He thinks the campaign is NOT a good forum for analysis of international affairs, which are a major focus of his reporting.

That said, he gave his list of the three global challenges our next President will face. It turns out I have been worrying about the wrong problems! His big three:

  • Terrorism, or “the forces of disorder”
  • Cyber attacks
  • Dealing with a China (as a “rising power”) and the former Soviet Union (still capable of causing trouble)

Sanger had the luck (good or bad) to speak a few days after the Paris terrorist bombings of November 13.

He considers these problems challenging but manageable, pointing out that we survived the shocking instability of the Cold War and other very dangerous situations over the past decades.

Questions were taken in writing, and I handed in the following: How will climate change impact these global issues? He answered that its major impact will be in the arena of terrorism, because populations may be displaced and having masses of (desperate) people on the move is destabilizing. Some “climate refugees” (my term, not his) may be susceptible to recruitment by extremists.

I was/am completely uninformed about cyber attack. This I will continue to ignore. If my computer at work gets crotchety (it has happened three times in the past month), I will call Computer Services and leave it to the experts.

Sanger’s cautious optimism was a balm. I don’t have to build a fallout shelter immediately. Wait, that was the 50s! What is the equivalent in this year of 2015? I don’t have to give up air travel, stop using a computer or panic about “communists”. Whew! I will continue to nurse my personal concerns about climate change and racial justice.

“Renewable – One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope” by Eileen Flanagan

I’m surprised I’ve never met or even heard of Eileen Flanagan, because we move in circles that overlap. I said the same about Judy Wicks, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business (see my blog entry of April 8, 2015). Flanagan is a decade or so younger than Wicks and I. Wicks and Flanagan both reside in Philadelphia.

Renewable begins with Flanagan’s recent act of chaining herself to the White House fence during a climate change protest. Then she circles back to recount how she came to that moment.

A major factor in her personal and spiritual growth was her Peace Corps service. She joined in 1984 and was sent to Botswana, a country known to me only through the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, who created the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Flanagan’s reflections on Botswana are enhanced by her analysis of the comparative impacts of colonialism on Africa and Ireland, her ancestral home.

Upon her return from the Peace Corps, Flanagan went to graduate school at Yale to earn a Master’s degree in African studies. Then she faced the complications of seeking simplicity while raising children in urban America. Familiar territory!

Interestingly, one of Flanagan’s companions in the White House protest described above was civil rights activist Julian Bond, who died this week.

“Ceremonial Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

I don’t often read two works by the same author back to back. After reading Living at the End of Time, I wondered why John Mitchell’s earlier book Ceremonial Time (1984) was described as a “cult classic”. It didn’t take me long to figure it out.

At its most obvious, Mitchell’s description of his Native American friends and their ritual dance was intriguing and, to me, unexpected. He develops a definition of “ceremonial time” as a condition when people or things from different eras can in some fashion coincide or overlap, and discusses his experiences of this.

In more prosaic historical terms, Mitchell describes the ecological and human conditions on his chosen square mile of Massachusetts from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. Although he resists much of the contemporary change he describes (highways, shopping malls, businesses and the loss of farmland), he gradually accepts them as a small glitch in a long pattern.

It’s when Mitchell discusses “the future” that I really accepted that this book is thirty years old. Much of “the future” he spoke of has arrived. And no doubt Mitchell has adapted to the internet, cell phones and social media.

Mitchell posits several fates for his beloved neighborhood of Scratch Flats – nuclear annihilation (odd that we don’t think about that much in 2014), the asphalt apocalypse (my term, not his), tribalism with a modern twist, and the return of the Ice Age. After all, geologic history suggests that this in an interglacial era. In 1984, he had not apprehended the threat of global warming.

Would he have considered global warming if he had written in 1994? In 2004? I don’t know. When did I “pick up” on it? I often claim foreknowledge based on having watched the movie “Our Mister Sun” in 1960. I studied atmospheric chemistry in the 1970s, but that was oriented towards protecting the ozone layer and understanding photochemical smog. The climate impact of carbon dioxide was not on our agenda.

When did I BELIEVE that global warming would hit hard in my lifetime? Some time between five and ten years ago. And I am, after a fashion, both a scientist and an environmentalist.

Mitchell is an environmentalist and a story teller. He has important things to say in either idiom.

“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.

“Walden Warming – Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” by Richard Primack

Henry David Thoreau has been part of my life for a long time. My mother quoted him. So did my minister. We read some of his writing in high school, more in college. And I am a New Englander. Walden Pond is located in woods just like those I played and camped in as a child. But until I read this book, I never thought about the impact of global warming on Walden Pond, and on “my” woods.

Dr. Richard Primack is an academic botanist with decades of research experience, but his work around Walden Pond began only about ten years ago. Looking for an “angle” from which to study the impact of climate change on plants, Primack learned that Thoreau, most commonly thought of as an author and philosopher, was a dedicated naturalist who kept detailed records about the plants and animals around him. The crucial pieces of data related to dates – when did the winter ice leave Walden Pont, when did plants leaf out, blossom and set fruit? Having an “old” data set allows for comparison with present conditions. Yes, it can be documented that climate change is having an impact on plants. (And so are many other actions, especially development.)

Primack moved on from plants to insects, using data from Thoreau and other early naturalists. When he ran out of records, he turned to the world’s great insect collections, reading the dates on specimens, from which emergence data can be construed.

Primack repeatedly referred to “analyzing” data, but didn’t really say how. I assume he looked for statistical correlations, but wonder if he also engaged in mathematical modeling, to me a mysterious but potentially useful “black box” endeavor. 

Primack also studied climate impact on birds, bees, butterflies, fish and frogs. Only a person with tremendous energy and a steady supply of graduate students could cover so much physical and intellectual territory.

I was totally taken by surprise when Primack discussed the impact of climate change on humans by analyzing data from the Boston Marathon! 

His last chapter, on solutions to global warming, wasn’t really needed. So many people are addressing that topic. But I would say Primack is entitled to hold forth, since he produced so much well written discussion in Walden Warming. His ideas about introducing southern wild plant species to New England are intriguing.

This book, which I highly recommend, is right on the line between “popular” and “scientific”. I hope Primack continues to write in both veins, since he has valuable information to impart.

“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 2.

Yes, I finished this book! See my first review, dated August 9, 2013.

Hollis believes cities are more likely to save us from environmental destruction/climate change than rural approaches. I agree with him on this. Living out in the country and “off the grid” either involves a standard of living most of us wouldn’t accept, or use of all kinds of high tech gadgetry (solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, etc.) that are produced elsewhere, always at some environmental cost. And you have to own a car. Cities allow for many efficiencies, most notably that one may have a well developed social life close at hand, just because there are so many people around.

(Memory… When I went to college, I was surprised how much I enjoyed living in a dorm, and having friends – both close and casual – nearby. As a child in suburbia, I found it hard to get together with friends. A college campus is often more like a city than a suburb, despite all that grass.)

That said, I should make it clear that Hollis is ambivalent about cities, frequently citing situations gone wrong (riots, slums…) as well as examples of smart growth and strong communities. But he considers it inevitable that the human future will be largely urban. He can’t decide if cities are “organic” and sometimes self correcting, or if they must (at least some of the time) be organized from the top down.

Hollis cites so many other authors that you could spend months checking them all out. Two who intrigued me were Colin Beavan (No Impact Man) and Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking).

Beavan (and family) tried to live city life with “no impact”. He even turned off the electricity in his apartment. Ridiculous… Candles are too dangerous. He charged his computer elsewhere. How did he do laundry? And this was a one year experiment! Interesting, but not significant (to me). Doesn’t mean I won’t read it…

Shoup’s book about parking interests me much more! Hollis says he argues that parking should never be free. This issue is close to my heart. I work on a college campus. I know what parking costs – it is not free, ANYWHERE. Free parking on a college campus sends the wrong message – use your car, don’t worry about the impact. I feel like I’m seeing (once again) something I remember from the early days of recycling. Why was the “container industry” allowed to introduce the aluminum can without taking responsibility for its disposal?? Individuals and municipalities and campuses struggled so hard to deal with single use cans, while the “container industry” got rich. Whether we talk about solid waste or parking, each technology needs to be viewed as a whole process, not a one-way dash towards profit and convenience. 

However did Hollis miss John Francis (Planetwalker)??

Hollis suggests that cities (especially megacities like London or NYC or Hong Kong) will soon be more important than countries. Might this decrease the likelihood of war? In this case, what will global citizenship mean? Do I want to live in a megacity? NO! But what about my sons?

I recommend this book to people interested in the near future, climate change and planning/development. With all the talk currently heard about resilience and adaptation, that’s a lot of people.