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Spring 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 1


Book Review Perspectives

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
by David W. Orr
Oxford University Press, 2009, 288pp, ISBN: 0195393538

Kersty Hobson, The Australian National University, Australia
John D. Peine, U.S. Geological Survey, USA
Terence Jeyaretnam, Net Balance Mangement, Australia
Ke Chung Kim, Pennsylvania State Universtiy, USA
Rejoinder from the author, David Orr, Oberlin College, USA

Published online June 9, 2010


Kersty Hobson
The Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200 Australia (email: kersty.hobson@anu.edu.au)

Given the enormity of the subject matter, writing a relatively short and accessible book on the social aspects of climate change is a considerable challenge even for the most seasoned writer. This has not deterred David Orr, with his book Down to the Wire ranging over topics that include religion, politics (and the connections between the two), energy systems, and the psychology of hope and denial. These all are vital components of the unequivocal imperative of addressing climate change that, as Orr unrelentingly argues, necessitates nothing less than a complete reconstitution of how we think and live today. With the undoubted aim of convincing the reader likewise, he surveys an eclectic array of arguments and data from science, theology, activism, and philosophy, drawing them together through his obvious passion for this topic. Written for the nonspecialist, Down to the Wire has a breadth that will appeal to those willing to follow a knowledgeable writer along his journey to find palpable ways forward in garnering the will and means to combat climate change.

Down to the Wire outlines and continually returns to the many challenges climate change presents, discusses why so little appears to be changing despite the pending catastrophe, and outlines Orr’s own ideas on what can be done. In doing so, the book has some definite strengths. For example, Chapter 4, “The Carbon Connection,” tells human stories of loss and vested interests that sit behind the devastating mining across American states such as Kentucky and West Virginia, enabling the reader to connect with these particular people and places. Chapter 5, “The Spirit of Connection,” makes the convincing case that without a sense of gratitude for our own lives and a belief that we, as a species, deserve to persist, all our attempts at sustainability will be in vain. And the final chapter, “The Up-shot: What Is to Be Done?” outlines the steps that the newly-elected (at the time that Orr was writing this book) President Obama must undertake to begin to address some of the many political, social, and psychological challenges presented by climate change.

Despite these strong points, Down to the Wire has its flaws. For one, writing this from Australia, I am struck by how this book is primarily written from an American perspective and for an American audience. Indeed, all its examples of political institutions and events, history, religious trends, and detailed case studies of environmental destruction are drawn from the United States. On the one hand, the international reader is able to make her or his own connections at many points, such as when Orr discusses the public’s growing cynicism toward political institutions. On the other hand, he rarely makes any overt connections to countries outside the United States, ironically giving Down to the Wire a hint of the myopia that Orr criticizes in American politicians. As a result, the international reader faces many points of exclusion, such as some very particular political references and historical machinations probably lost on those not fascinated by all things American.

Indeed, the identity of the intended readers of Down to the Wire remains hanging as one progresses through the book. In an attempt to cover such a substantial territory, many key concepts and sweeping assertions beg more questions than they answer, possibly satisfying neither generalist nor specialist readers. For example, key concepts like “ecological debt” are dealt with too quickly and lightly, and the assertion that the United States may not have the adaptive capacity to manage climate change is made and then set aside. No doubt, it seems churlish to focus here on the perennial breadth-versus-depth challenge that all writers face. However, to my mind, this points to a more substantive concern with Down to the Wire.

In writing this book, Orr is obviously a man frustrated at social inaction on climate change. Yet, he appears still determined to, and wants to convince others, that we can turn things around: an admirable sentiment indeed. However, as a result this book feels like a somewhat erratic and highly personal search for answers, structured around the issues that interest the author. This approach invites an eclecticism that some will find exciting and interesting, but for others–such as me–makes it hard to remain engaged. Still, whatever one’s reaction to Orr’s style and agenda, one has to admire the author’s dogged determination to provoke readers into rethinking their approach not only to climate change, but also to how we view our place and role on this Earth


John D. Peine
U.S. Geological Survey, Southern Appalachian Field Branch, The University of Tennessee, 311 Conference Center Building, Knoxville, TN 37996 USA (email: jpeine@utk.edu)

The overarching contribution of David Orr’s book, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, is its holistic and integrated focus on the social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics that have exacerbated global warming and how the insight gained from taking a broad view can provide a path forward. He suggests that the enemy is us, but that solutions are within our grasp. We have one planet and very limited time to change the escalating trajectory toward what Orr describes as environmental and societal devastation. This volume is a great companion to James Hanson’s latest and more technical book on the science of climate change, Storms of Our Grandchildren, that focuses on the drivers of human-induced climate change.

The first part of Orr’s book addresses governance and politics, arguably the center of the conundrum that our global society is facing in effectively responding to climate change. He provides a checklist of anticipated adverse effects and conveys a sense of urgency to act decisively, a theme repeated throughout the book, to significantly reduce the volume of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. Orr highlights the high procrastination penalty that we confront to underscore the vital need for decisive mitigative action. The book describes probable types of climate change and their societal effects, such as the loss of ecosystem services relevant to the human population. The author suggests that developing countries are particularly vulnerable to dramatic climate changes such as extreme weather events resulting in floods or droughts that threaten subsistence farming. In addition, tropical diseases could move into formerly temperate zones. In the United States, some climate models predict that the Midwest, considered the nation’s breadbasket, will become arid. Orr does not go into detail concerning the probability or specific nature of these adverse impacts. Rather, his book is a vehicle to raise awareness about the risks we all are likely to face if extensive mitigative measures are not initiated soon.

The book’s most compelling text describes characteristics of society, particularly in the United States, that have led to our untenable situation. He advocates that the familiar notion of the tragedy of the commons includes being infatuated with consumerism, ill-informed, and intellectually bankrupt–a compelling hypothesis reinforced throughout the volume. He points out that the global economy is ever more connected and interactively complex while reflective of societies, resulting in greater collective vulnerability to climate-related stressors. The conundrum of climate change requires a new strategy for facilitating collaborative global governance.

The second part of the book deals with connections, first of adverse societal impacts related to global warming via Hurricane Katrina and then of fossil-fuel extraction via the practice of mountain-top removal mining in Appalachia. They are two sides of the same fossil fuel-social injustice coin. In both accounts the spirit, culture, and physical structure of local communities have been devastated. In conveying those two stories, I was taken by how the author vividly illustrated causal societal connections. The second type of connection is less obvious, but represents more of a disconnect, an obstacle to overcome. The philosophically divergent perspectives of environmental stewardship versus natural resource utilization is a challenge. Orr’s discussion of this quandary compares divergent extremist perspectives of religious fundamentalists believing in creationism and rapture to environmentalists focused on sustaining natural ecosystem processes and functions. He offers the provocative question of whether the power of persuasion of one perspective will prevail or whether societal reciprocity, based on gratitude for the joys of life, will lead to a convergence of will. Is our concern for our children and future generations an overriding factor? I bet on those fundamental family values. As Orr suggests, “what is given must be passed on. Gratitude requires mindfulness, not just intelligence.”

The third part of the book deals with the long view of farther horizons and hope. Orr suggests that “the self induced crisis of planetary destabilization is an invitation for transformational leaders to help us rethink our place in the world and the way we relate to each other and the web of life on the planet.” And he rightfully contends that a sustainable society depends on psychological health and people’s sense of connectedness. All that sounds warm and fuzzy, but Down to the Wire does not provide much specific insight on how to establish global consensus and resolve to act collectively. Orr acknowledges that effective leadership is “the rarest of human traits” and he suggests looking inward at who we are as individuals and as a culture and what we know of ourselves.

What the volume does not offer are many specifics as to successful policies and sustainability practices, many already in place, to address the range of climate-related threats. The impact of Orr’s message is significantly compromised by his not displaying leadership himself. That task seems to be left for another book, but there are numerous models of technology and conservation practices that could have greatly strengthened the case for the feasibility of the general concepts he proposes. For example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the leader of the seventh largest economy in the world. He is directing formulation of one of the world’s most progressive and comprehensive green energy programs. Initiatives include limiting greenhouse-gas emissions, increasing vehicular fuel-efficiency standards, retrofitting buildings for energy conservation, facilitating renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, and building a mass transit system.1 Another example, representing primarily the private sector, comes from Michael Kanellos, editor of Green Tech Media, who posted an article on Earth Day 2010 titled “10 Green Giants that Could Change the World.”2 For instance, General Electric has a US$400 million contract to provide compression equipment and services to the world’s largest carbon-capture project and Dow has launched a multi-pronged strategy to exploit its know-how in membranes, coatings, and material science to reduce the volume of fossil fuels consumed by its manufacturing operations.

An editorial in the April 19, 2010 issue of The New York Times concerned the Icelandic ash plume that shut down air travel over much of Europe for nearly a week. The last two lines are, “It will be a long time before we forget the threat that lies smoldering under an Icelandic glacier. Or its lesson that even in the 21st century, our lives are still at the sufferance of nature.”3 Hopefully, the vital message from David Orr’s very important book that we must reduce this devastating threat of global warming to nature and humanity before we reach the point of no return will resonate over the long term as well.

Notes

1 For further details refer to the website of the California Energy Commission at http://www.energy.ca.gov.


Terence Jeyaretnam
Net Balance Management Group, Level 4, 460 Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3000 Australia (email: terence@netbalance.com)

David Orr was part of the team that over a two-year period prepared recommendations for climate-change action during the first 100 days of the new American presidential administration that began in 2009. He describes Down to the Wire as a follow up to that project. The book digs deeply beyond the thin veneer of global discussions around climate change. Beyond a personal journey, it examines the communication challenges and policy-setting barriers presented by climate-change issues that are inherently presented within a vortex of uncertainty. Finally, it is a book about making real, local changes, with a message of hope and how hope could take root.

Down to the Wire indeed does take us down to the wireon climate change. I suspect that many of us in Western societies have the same feeling deep within of apocalypse regarding the way our population is growing; the way we each create a mountain of waste every day not knowing where it disappears to or why we needed it in the first place; the way we put another seventy liters of petrol in our over-sized cars knowing the harm it is creating yet feeling it is a necessary evil; the way our feet seem to bump into the litter on the streets while we hope that someone else will clean it up; and the way the insatiable appetite that we all seem to have growing within us, as we are driven to crave more and more material things to clutter our lives. I think that our brains have processed the messages and background information and have come to the conclusion that something is not right–that it cannot be right, cannot be sustainable. Orr just lays the truth out that something is terribly wrong and that we are pretending that, like most things, there will be a quick fix. If I have any criticism, it is only that the book is primarily written for an American audience, when the problem, the challenge, and the necessary response are of a truly global nature.

Down to the Wire is a book that hard wires reality–that climate change and environmental degradation are issues beyond scientific, technological, and economic realms. They are issues of ethics and governance. The book explores the meaning of our existence through carbon (our makeup as well as that which makes up fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse warming) and spiritual connections. It describes our presence as what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno calls “the tragic sense of life,” a sober philosophy, free from the delusion that humans should not assume that we can be “as rich as possible for doing as little as possible.” Or as Orr eloquently puts it, “recognition of tragedy has the honest recognition of what we are, who we are, and what we can be, but aren’t yet. I think this opens us to genuine nobility, not just affluence, not just power, not just domination of the world, but genuine nobility.”

The book is also a personal journey. The author describes his experience during the summer of 1980, one of the hottest and most unbearable summers on record in much of the United States, as a preview, a very small opening, into a world confronting climate collapse. He wonders how our infrastructure, our bodies, and our minds will be able to cope under such extreme weather. Clearly a well-read man, receptive to the physical changes he has seen during his short time on Earth, Orr comes to his conclusions through the marshalling of scientific, as well as anecdotal, evidence, a personal touch that he is able to deliver in this soul-searching book.

This volume is also about communicating the conundrum of climate change. Orr does not like the idea that the public can handle only good news. For him, humans should be treated as intelligent creatures capable of “handling the truth.” He explores some of Abraham Lincoln’s and Winston Churchill’s speeches in the face of insurmountable challenges and draws out how they managed to convey hard reality. The book conveys the importance of setting out the facts and the likely tragedies that will unfold, yet gives society something to hold onto and work with, acknowledging that we are perhaps beyond prevention and into a phase of building resilience. At times, though, the book is about a wilting planet. As Orr describes it, “So now, in Biblical terms, we’re evicting ourselves from this Garden of Eden called the Holocene.”

Finally, the book is about hope, “in a long emergency” which, in its most real sense, the author is engaging in himself. Hope, as Orr says in the volume, is “a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” In contrast to despair or optimism, that both require one to do nothing, hope requires action. The transition movement of which Orr is a part–the Oberlin Project (which aims to turn a 13-acre piece of land that Oberlin College owns into a certified green neighborhood)–is the ultimate act of hopefulness. The sustainablist in him comes out with sleeves rolled up, with a smile on his face, with a sense of eternal optimism, with Gandhian principles of nonviolence, with a fatherly look of hand-holding to help us navigate our way through the most pressing challenge of our time.


Ke Chung Kim
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802 USA (email: kck@psu.edu)

How come our climate has gone crazy? Global warming, stupid! It is an American euphemistic answer to historic environmental disaster, the most serious issue of the new century. As David Orr clearly explains in the preface to his new book, “The ongoing disruption of the Earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” Naturally, it is a matter of human sustainability, which is in everyone’s interest. Yet, most Americans continue to deny the reality of the first global human-made environmental disaster that has already begun. It may not be surprising that Americans, democratic capitalists, are busy enriching themselves and enjoying individual peace and freedom. Americans, being moral individualists, perhaps are too embarrassed to admit that we are the primary culprit. Amidst intellectual paradox and denial, we are at the crossroads to redirect our destiny for humanity’s future.

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse presents an excellent dissection of the issues pertaining to ominous climate change, with the focus on American governance and politics. Orr opens many doors for all of us to debate and research, although his discussion is primarily directed to strategies in the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural domains. His powerful analysis of intellectual paradoxes certainly ignites the core of our conscience, from the individual to the leadership level of American society. In this sense, considering the trends and attitudes of world leaders in dealing with international economic and environmental issues, his treatment of global climate change is rather narrow and somewhat inadequate for the even broader worldwide debate that we now need. On global issues, the world community respects and expects American leadership, which is still of paramount importance for policy and mitigative efforts. At the same time, Americans are not readily open to global environmental issues even though, as the most developed nation and a global leader in science and technology, we are in many ways responsible for climate change. As recent opinion polls show, Americans are the people least aware of industrial and technological abuse of the world environment and most skeptical of global warming. Similarly, the American media downplay global environmental issues like biodiversity, for instance neglecting the 2005 release of the historic Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the most ambitious study ever of planetary ecosystem health. Climate change is nevertheless everybody’s concern as a matter of human sustainability. Our audience is now global.

The issues of global climate change are complex, involving a wide range of economic and sociopolitical perspectives linked to almost every fabric of our society. Climate change is closely tied to fossil fuel, which is then connected to international policy and economic development. Thus, climate change represents the anthropogenic assault facing the entire Earth ecosystem. Compounding this problem is a huge demographic load of 6.8 billion people. Resource overuse and increasing energy demands are complicated by an impending shortage of oil, dilemmas made worse by the collapse of the American financial system. As Orr describes in abundantly clear terms, climate change offers the first global evidence of how and how much we have abused our planet’s ecological integrity.

In the sustainability context, as we enter the period of mitigation and rebuilding nature for human sustainability, I am concerned that global agreements dealing with environmental issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change often move to the back burner without specific resolution as other hot issues arise. Concern about global biodiversity loss, along with the spirit and excitement of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), started at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and quickly spread worldwide, but gradually declined to the point of oblivion. This year world governments failed to deliver on commitments made in 2002 to reduce global biodiversity loss by 2010; instead, the planet has seen alarming biodiversity declines, as reported by the Joint News Release (29 April 2010) from the 2010 Biodiversity Indicators Partnership, UNP/CMC, BirdLife International and CBD. To most Americans, the CBD is a historical note and biodiversity is no longer something we must protect. The United Nations and its agencies maintain minor activities, although these are mostly administrative functions with practically no productive consequences. Even the Year of Biodiversity, designated for 2010, is hardly noted or celebrated in the United States and most other countries. Similarly, the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009 collapsed and cast a negative shadow over the global climate movement.

In the face of these catastrophes, the core of Orr’s analysis offers diverse approaches to resolving the emerging disaster. The mitigation of global climate change, currently planned through carbon trading and carbon-emission control, could come to the same fate as the CBD because global environmental issues require collective sacrifice. The massive expenditure needed from every nation would involve the economic and social lives of all people. However, although many intellectual and public leaders do understand what biodiversity is and what the CBD stands for, we cannot expect people to sacrifice their tight personal resources to support global environmental issues.

Even the knowledge base behind our understanding of biodiversity has not been enriched recently, notably within the context of taxonomy, the most basic science that has built our understanding of global biodiversity since the Linnean period over 250 years ago. Taxonomists in universities and natural history museums provided knowledge in the form of species identification and biodiversity classification, collectively called taxonomic service, of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms. This loose scientific infrastructure has rapidly declined since the 1992 Rio Declaration and has now almost collapsed without any new models. This decline is greatly hampering the discovery and description of new species worldwide and retarding the advancement of knowledge about global biodiversity that is baseline data for human development and sustainability. This trend became even more vivid and disturbing to me last year when I read Biodiversity and Landscape: A Paradox of Humanity for its new release in paperback (2009).1 All of the predictions regarding biodiversity presented by my colleagues of distinguished scholarship and scientific accomplishment were as ominous and disturbing as in the original edition (1994). I am afraid that an intellectual paradox is deeply ingrained in human nature, expressed by the anthropocentrism that is at the core of our approach to advancing science and technology, as well as in recognizing and admitting the human abuse of our life-support system.

In Chapter 6, “Millennial Hope,” Orr discusses the possibility of averting climate-change catastrophe with technology that raises serious ethical questions because it means unprecedented technological experiments on our planet. If they fail, these experiments could add to global disaster and cloud the future of human sustainability. A recent issue of The Economist (April 24, 2010) had several articles on the impacts of the Icelandic volcanic eruption. Like this spectacular volcanic show that we could only watch on our television screens or through the window of a flying helicopter, we are basically helpless regarding natural events, particularly those seriously affecting biodiversity, the environment, and climate at the global scale. Beyond watching with indignation, all we can do is work on mitigation, security, post-event repair, and perhaps rebuilding. Yet, there is always someone with the power of technology who tries to control natural phenomena as well as human-made climate change. To counterbalance the impacts of global warming, the idea of “geoengineering” to cool the atmosphere is floating around among technologists. This is not surprising in the sense of the anthropocentric mentality–simply stated “we can control it with technology since we made it amiss.” Regrettably, we have not learned that we cannot control natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, or even a regional hurricane like Katrina. With climate change, however, anthropocentric problem solving for the benefit of humanity has become a threat to human sustainability.

Humans are a curious and inventive hominoid species, Homo sapiens Linnaeus, with large brains and apt genetic makeup to successfully survive, expand our habitats, and modify the environment. These traits finally led humans to take over the Earth system. Ever since hunter-gatherer days, through the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we have expanded our needs and found ways to meet them. Since the development of organized societies built on productive agriculture, wars and warfare broke out for territorial or religious causes and never ceased for long. With these wars, fighting tools, arms, and armament technology evolved. Throughout human history, we have never learned to avoid warfare and sustain peace. After the Industrial Revolution, science and technology advanced and our intellectual capacity for innovations and invention grew. Technological progress accelerated, along with the development of public education that facilitated technology’s phenomenal advance, particularly during the last century. In the modern technological world, we are faced with unprecedented challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, among other environmental disasters. The impacts of rapidly growing technological innovations are not nature’s products, but human-made effects for the sake of problem solving, entertainment, or advancing needs.

Technological advance through anthropogenic-driven innovation continues and may be able to improve our livelihoods and enhance our capacity to survive in the new millennium. Anthropocentric technology usually meets the intended objective, but with a bag full of side effects that later come to haunt us. To win World War II over the Japanese empire we invented and exploded atomic bombs, but ever since nuclear bombs have evolved and became a perpetual threat to humanity. Even today, Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are political quagmires for the world community. Now, we have reached the point of no return for a planet loaded with 6.8 billion people who demand crucial ecosystem services and products that are increasingly difficult to sustain. Every aspect of our technological success resulted in a paradox of economic gain and ecological loss with no clear direction for getting back on track. We needed better transportation, which produced automobiles; we needed more energy, which produced coal mining and nuclear power; we needed more food for a rapidly increasing population, which led to more chemical fertilizer and pesticides; and so on. We have now reached the point of no return for the Earth system burdened with people pursuing the lifestyle Americans have developed for the last century. To resolve the anthropocentric paradox we need a new paradigm to look at the Earth system in a natural context, not anthropocentrically as a collection of objects.

The Industrial Revolution jumpstarted human population, adding more than six billion people to the planet during the period of 1800-2010, with an addition of 4.3 billion since 1950. Endless economic expansion eventually yielded global economic failure and financial devastation on “mighty” Wall Street in 2008. In other words, anthropocentric approaches to development and decision making brought humanity to where we are today: a global environment with a polluted landscape, a warming biosphere that is in the process of being transformed into a “chemosphere,” a changing climate, and a collapsed economy and financial system. Contemporary reality blinds intellectual elites who continue searching and experimenting without definable principles or viable models to renew our broken system. Leaders and people all around the world are trying to stop the decline of humanity and to stabilize the environment with anthropocentric approaches and technology and a compulsion for continued economic growth. We can no longer afford to look at the Earth system without recognizing the dynamics of our life-support system as the basis for the future of humanity.

The issues dealt with in this book are at the heart of environmental disasters that may determine the future of our life-support system as well as our evolutionary destiny. Life on Earth has existed for 3.5 billion years. The global biodiversity that sustains it did not emerge suddenly during the last century, but rather evolved over many millions of years in each unique lineage. Throughout geological history, natural events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as their related after-effects like tsunamis and natural climate changes, have not been in the human domain. These natural events changed geology and the global environment, overhauling the planetary system, renewing biodiversity, and refreshing the global living system. While these events occurred before the emergence of humans, we now face not only natural disasters, but also disasters of our own creation. To mitigate the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems and to protect humanity from destruction, we must better understand what nature is all about and what biodiversity–all these organisms, big and small, pestiferous and beneficial, plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms–truly means to us.

We must better understand how nature sustains ecosystem function and services and how our fellow species evolve irrespective of how we have abused them under the drive of an anthropocentric worldview. As the primary resource and capital for sustaining our life-support system, global biodiversity must be protected. Our knowledge base, including crucial information about the dynamics of the biosphere, biodiversity, ecosystems, and climate change, needs to be expanded at both local and global scales. We must dedicate ourselves to the perpetuity of the Earth’s species. Otherwise, we have to prepare for the extinction of the human species. As Orr states, we must continue the work of public institutions like NASA, the (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy that provide crucial information and strategies for humanity beyond anthropocentrism.

Notes


1 Kim, K. & R. Weaver (Eds.). 2009. Biodiversity and Landscape: A Paradox of Humanity. 2nd ed.New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rejoinder from the author:

David W. Orr

Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 44074 USA (email: David.Orr@oberlin.edu)

First, I would like to thank the four reviewers for their perceptive comments and the editor for the opportunity to make a brief response. Every author needs to say what a book is and what it is not. Down to the Wire was indeed written as several reviewers noted, for an American audience for reasons that I explain in the Preface. The United States has been the heart of the problem and can still be a major factor in deflecting the worst of climatic destabilization. Second, again as I explain in the Preface and Introduction, the book is a companion piece to my involvement in the President’s Climate Action Plan (PCAP, 2008), which targeted the first 100 days of the Obama administration, as well as the “Oberlin Project.” The latter is a partnership I helped to launch, direct, and fund between Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin to create an integrated model of post-fossil fuel sustainability. Against this backdrop, the book is a meditation on the largest challenge humans have ever faced. Third, the book is not specifically about policy, which has been covered exhaustively, as I noted, in the PCAP. It is about leadership, especially the kind that helps connect us to deeper levels of obligation and opportunity.

I began the book with a quote from David Archer’s The Long Thaw that describes the temporal dimensions of climate change. Even were we to stop emitting carbon dioxide today, Earth’s temperature would continue to rise, as would sea levels, for another thousand years or longer. That is about the best that we can expect. Twenty percent of the carbon released today will remain in the atmosphere for the next 100,000 years. We have created a different planet, one Bill McKibben (2010) describes as Eaarth. The sheer longevity and magnitude of what we have done and are doing defies comprehension. We have effectively evicted our descendents from the only paradise humans have ever known—what geologists call the Holocene. Problems, we like to assume, are solvable, but this one is not. Hopefully, we still have time to contain the worst of what lies ahead, but only if we move quickly and smartly.

That said, there is real disagreement about how and what to communicate to the public. On one side are those who prefer to present a “positive,” upbeat message or what Gus Speth calls “happy talk.” On the other side are those who believe that the public can handle the truth and that that capacity is the best chance we have to mobilize enough people to do enough to avoid the worst. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Churchill, for example, did not sugarcoat the great challenges of their time as “economic opportunity.” To the contrary, they described them as moral dilemmas and national catastrophes that would require sacrifice and blood. But the disagreement is an honest one. For my part, I would prefer to tell the truth as best I can, and get down to work helping to build something better where I live.

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