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Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Six Degrees of Dread

A BBC headline this morning declared that “Global Warming is 'Irreversible'”. Another added that “Emperor Penguins Face Extinction”. A lot was written about our many woes (oil and money, food prices, storms, refugees, wars)... It was surreal to see this unfold, lifted straight out of the very pages I've been reading – Mark Lynas' “Six Degrees”.

I heard a brief description of this book on the radio sometime after its publication in 2007. I remember the beginning of a head ache (too little sleep?), my hand shaking a little (too much coffee?) as I wrote the title and the rousing message “buy this today” on the back of a newspaper (promptly lost).

Bookshops didn't have it. Newsagents had never heard of it. “The book about the impact of global warming on the planet, degree by degree” - I explained with superb scientific flair.

This, I am sure, distinguished me from the pie-eating teenage mutants buying an "idiot-proof" diet book (could it be the one sub-titled "from pig to twig"???) and the teacher-type asking for “What the Swedish Butler Saw” - but it got the same reaction from the shop assistant. The same polite smile frozen in place (and finger poised on the weirdo-alert security button under the desk)... “hmm, let's see”, some tapping on the computer, and “nope, it's not here” (unlike the diet and the butler, both widely available).

Once purchased (Amazon had it), “Six Degrees” sat on a shelf, under a bed, in a box, then another shelf in Portugal. This is because, and BE warned, it takes great courage to pick up this book. You know, even before the foreword, that you are in for a bumpy ride, some seriously scary stuff and a lot of heartbreak. I feel the same about seeing "Titanic".

The book describes, detail by desperate detail, what happens to Planet Earth as the average global temperature goes up one degree... two... three... up to six. Beyond six, it doesn't matter anymore. In fact, beyond TWO degrees we lose all control: we will by then have effectively pushed Mother Earth downhill into a fiery furnace.

The fact that the planet is warming fast is not an unreasonable galactic event or some cruel twist of fate, but the direct result of the way humans have been living for the past two centuries.

It seems that intelligent life on the planet has painstakingly trapped itself into a system that requires a lot of cheap energy to function. This energy comes from burning the planet's fossil fuel stores. In the process noxious clouds of greenhouse gases are dispatched into the atmosphere. This in turn has the effect of warming our world into extinction.

You turn off the cheap energy tap and society unravels. You keep going, belching carbon, and you're lucky if some obscure protozoa is left behind to welcome back the dinosaurs.

How intelligent does this sound? And how much of a choice does it give us now? And how many of us even KNOW that this is going on? And would “knowing” be enough to push us into “doing” something about it? Would scientific facts, the early symptoms of mass extinction make you cancel a flight, turn off the tumble drier, eat fewer pork chops?

I've been telling people about this book, and generally ranting on the topic. In response, sympathetic nods, rabid political rants, surely-it's-not-so-bad assurances or a deflated “oh yeah..” where the “yeah” stretches into a yawn, while the hand reaches for the remote control.

At the very least, I tell people, reading this book will explain the rules to a new game we're about to play, a game we really, REALLY don't want to lose.

First, we'll all have tickets to a geographic lottery. Many thrills and surprises await. Some regions will become deserts. Coastlines and island nations will vanish in a gentle but ample assault of the sea. Whole areas will be levelled by hurricanes. Massive loss of animal species and flora. Less food and water. Untold suffering, both slow and brutal. Migration, despair on an unimaginable scale, wars. Loss of any sense of what's happening, or for how long.

It is also a guessing game. How much time have we got before it begins? If not ourselves, then will it be our children who wake up in a desert, who wilt away or whirl up into Oz, still in their square houses, still in their best red shoes??...

Perhaps it is a race too. Do we manage to stop the ticking bomb in time? Before the ice caps melt? Before the Amazon vanishes? Do we manage to put in any kind of a fight at all? By the sounds of it, if we don't then we'll find ourselves sliding into ever-gaping orbits of horror, aggrieved and unrepentant: “oh but I recycled... I changed all my light bulbs”. Oh poor, doomed, deluded species.

The race is on, this much is clear – before we can get going, we need to understand what is at stake. We are not extinction-proof, but continue to act with that supremely arrogant assumption. We are the cancer sufferer who still smokes thirty a day because he feels immortal. For a chance at survival, we have a lot to learn, and some things to give up. We need to find our way back to simpler lives.

With this in mind, I'll be planting onions and cabbage. As soon as the weather improves.

1 Comments:

At 7 February 2009 at 20:05 , Anonymous Rupert Wolfe Murray said...

Where can I get a copy? Sounds amazing. It should be compulsory reading..

 

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