The Suicidal Planet

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Granted its basic assumption about global warming, The Suicidal Planet: How to Prevent Global Climate Catastrophe offers a rational model policy to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to prevent environmental catastrophe. Writing a sober, earnest appeal to action, the authors, Mayer Hillman, Tina Fawcett, and Sudhir Chella Rajan, all environmental scientists, carefully avoid sensationalism while explaining the nature of the problem and its likely consequences. Nevertheless, their message is alarming. Humanity, collectively, faces a uniquely perilous threat during this century. Likewise, their remedy is alarming to all those, the vast majority of people, who want life to go on more or less as before, except better. That remedy is a new attitude toward energy consumption known as “contraction and convergence,” and it would entail a fundamental reordering of culture, at least in those industrialized societies that produce most of the harmful pollution.

The book’s tone is cautiously optimistic, yet its arguments seem ill-suited to changing the attitudes of those who now most enjoy the benefits from fossil-fuel usage. The Suicidal Planet is, unfortunately, like a medicine that, while sure to effect a cure, is so unpalatable that the patient prefers the disease, however much pain it is sure to cause eventually. That is to say, the authors hope that their readers will respond rationally, responsibly, and unselfishly when for many people in developed countries, the United States above all, insouciant waste is the very basis of their present well-being.

The authors develop their basic assumption about the environment’s health in the first of the book’s three sections, “The Problem.” It is an assumption well supported by recent research: Waste carbon produced by burning fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal, creates atmospheric carbon dioxide that prevents heat from venting into outer space (the greenhouse effect), thereby warming the atmosphere. So far, the global average temperature has risen a little over 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit during the last two centuries, two-thirds of that rise occurring since 1970. That seemingly modest amount comes mostly as the result of a human-caused increase of carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to about 380 ppm during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Should there be another degree of temperature increase, the authors warn, changes to climate will occur that may render much of the globe uninhabitable for thousands of years. The book summarizes the likely consequences, all of which are familiar from accounts in the news media and in films: rising sea levels and displacement of coastal populations; more powerful and destructive extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes; altered precipitation patterns, leaving some now-fertile areas parched by long-lasting drought; widespread economic devastation; spread of diseases and pests out of the tropics; and a wholesale loss of plant and animal species.

Because greenhouse gases are accumulating at a swiftly accelerating pace, 2 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming is likely to come soon, perhaps by 2020. If readers accept that this constitutes a “tipping point” that will trigger rapid, irreversible climate change, then the authors’ subsequent recommendations are cogent and urgent. Therein lies a problem, however. Unacknowledged in their succinct, lucid explanations, the question of a tipping point, or at what temperature it may come, remains in some dispute. While scientists overwhelmingly agree that danger lies near and is potentially lethal, prognostications differ, albeit not by much. Really, it should not matter whether the point of no return comes after a rise of 2 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 degrees, within twenty years or fifty nears. It should matter no more to a sane person than the question of whether to slow a speeding car before entering a blind curve just because the exact sharpness of the curve is not yet apparent. However, the credibility of the science does matter. It matters because whenever experts disagree, however slightly, or even appear to disagree when they do not, that “controversy” is seized upon to defend the status quo until “there is better science” (to paraphrase one prominent American mentality). To continue the analogy, it would be as if the speeding car’s driver decides not to reduce speed, despite all traffic signs, until...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 11 (February 1, 2007): 9-10.

Future Survey 29, no. 7 (July, 2007): 4-5.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 6 (February 5, 2007): 49-50.