Nathaniel Rich’s issue-long essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine receives a title worthy of a play: “Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change. A tragedy in two acts.” It’s definitely worth an hour or two of your time—and it’s accompanied by powerful photos by George Steinmetz of global examples of climate change in action. However, for all its fascinating research and dramatic storytelling, Rich’s essay is fundamentally flawed both in its narrative and its contradictory conclusions.
On the one hand, plenty of evidence is marshaled to conclude that “human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations” (66).
Yet, unwilling to end, apparently, so bleakly, the essay then veers in its conclusion to hoping for some sort of future “revolution” sparked by young people and driven not by reason but by fear:
“At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help. … Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. it is also human nature, after all, to hope” (66).
But why should a revolution be needed? Why was reason routed? The article clearly shows us why, yet its conclusion hesitates to name it. It’s corporate capitalism’s power and money acting as an invisible hand to alter the course of both the global economy and American democracy. It’s not “human beings” as a whole who are the villains because of a flaw in our nature. The oil and gas industry—and many others, including chemical and timber companies, and agribusiness giants like Monsanto, all of whose collaboration with the oil and gas conglomerates goes largely unexplored here—intervened. At first they used “collaboration” and sponsorship of scientific research and meetings. Then they turned to outright and covert nullification, using both mass media and secret lobbying and cash. So are “we” really to blame?
The article also shows no interest in chronicling the story of others fighting climate change who were not elite scientists testifying to elite congressmen.
Perhaps the most startling sentence the Times judged to be fit to print: “But in order to become a revolutionary, you must first need to suffer.” Hmmm.
Rich has a novel well worth reading. In that form he can be more daring. It’s Odds Against Tomorrow, which imagines how the citizens of New York City and the surrounding area will adapt when most of the 5 boroughs are flooded and tall buildings are repurposed as islands. It’s hardly a first-rate novel, but is definitely intriguing. Odd that the Times’s bio on Rich neglects to mention it.
Postscript: there IS a great novel that’s emerged out of the climate change/science revolution crisis. It’s the Moby-Dick of our Anthropocene era, and a masterpiece: Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2017).
In this novel novel, humans seem to be the main characters until it begins to become clear that trees are the true protagonists, the heroes of time, for only they (and other plants) can take carbon out of the air and generate oxygen and many other things. Whatever carbon-sink technology humans may be able to come up with, it will never be able to match plants’ way with greenhouse gases.
To tell this overstory (Powers’ clever pun), like a great tree this epic spans millennia, not a mere decade or so, or even 75 to 100 years. To save the human, we must first decenter and corral human arrogance. This novel plots how to do that. It also deconstructs the narratives of our allegedly postindustrial/postcolonial era with as much encyclopedic ambition and panache as Melville did with the discourses of nineteenth-century industrialism and imperialism.