mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Earth Worst

The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability.
    by Eugene Linden
    Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $25

Remember the torrential winter storms that pounded California? The fires
that devastated Florida last summer? The weeks of 100-degree-plus heat
that baked Texas? 1998 has been a year of extreme weather, both in the
United States and abroad, and scientists say humanity is at least partly
to blame. The Florida fires, for example, were dwarfed by earlier blazes
in Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia that were often set by politically
connected agribusiness companies. The smoke over the Amazon was so
thick, wrote one observer, that the sun disappeared for days at a
time. Get used to it. To hear Eugene Linden tell it in The Future in
Plain Sight, weirdly unpleasant weather is bound to increase during the
years ahead. Global warming, caused mainly by the carbon dioxide
released from fossil fuel combustion and forest fires, is already
raising temperatures around the world. Eight of the 10 warmest years in
recorded history have been in the last decade, and the first nine months
of 1998 rank as the Earth’s hottest months on record. Because a hotter
planet experiences more evaporation, global warming also causes more
frequent and severe storms and drought. As 1998 has shown, the costs of
such weather to human life and property are enormous.

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And weather, Linden warns, is not the only thing that will be more
volatile in the 21st century. Linden, the environmental correspondent
for Time magazine, argues that human history is on the verge of a major,
cataclysmic shift. The last 50 years have been a period of remarkable
political stability—without world wars or economic cataclysms—and this
charmed era comes at the end of 150 years of climatic stability. But
such periods of stability are actually exceptions in human history,
Linden contends. He predicts the next 50 years will mark a return to
instability.

His thesis: As climates change, population growth and economic
globalization continue, the effects will overwhelm financial systems,
food production, disease control and other pillars of the social order.
Because these trends are all but irreversible in the short run, writes
Linden, humans in the 21st century will be in the position of watching
and understanding events that we cannot control, and that will make the
coming instability all the more intolerable. Humanity will eventually
make the transition to stable population growth, to an economic system
that neither beggars the Earth nor marginalizes the great bulk of
humanity, and to a value system that recognizes the limits of
materialism, but these transitions will not come about smoothly.
Billions may die along the way.

Gloom and doom is a tricky message for an author, but to his credit,
Linden does not pull punches for fear of frightening away readers. Nor
does he employ the melodramatic tone favored by some environmental Paul
Reveres. His voice is urgent but businesslike. He cares about his
subject and trusts readers to care too.

After all, who could remain indifferent to the news that 30 of the
world’s 50 largest cities lie near coasts, leaving them vulnerable to
the increased flooding that climate change will produce? When 750
million of the world’s 2.5 billion workers are either unemployed or
underemployed and rural masses throughout the Third World are migrating
in unprecedented numbers to cities that are already woefully
over-stressed, who cannot see the potential for social upheaval?
Ecosystems are fraying under humanity’s weight today, yet Linden reminds
us that human numbers are bound to increase because half of the world’s
population is younger than 26 years old. These are arresting facts.
Unfortunately, Linden doesn’t include enough of them, nor explore their
implications sufficiently, to do justice to his argument. The problem
may lie in the organization of the book, which is divided into three
sections. The first section is reportorial and discusses the trends
noted above; the second is a thought experiment in which Linden
speculates in detail about how the world will look in 2050; the third
contains a brief conclusion. Many chapters in this book read like
extended magazine articles in Time; they are studded with useful
information but lack the nuance and in-depth analysis one expects from a
serious book. One wishes that the 96 pages spent on the thought
experiment had instead been devoted to expanding the first section of
the book. In a chapter on urban migration, for example, Linden touches
on a key debate now underway about human welfare: Are things getting
better or worse for the world’s poor? The conventional wisdom is that
the last 50 years have brought tremendous improvements to poor people
around the world and that current practices of global capitalism and
technological society should therefore continue largely unchanged. But
Linden summarizes the evidence for this argument in a single sentence
before concluding the paragraph by arguing that this comforting view is
in fact misleading. He makes a number of excellent points in this
chapter, but his discussion is too truncated to sway anyone but a
newcomer to the debate.

That is a shame, for much of this book’s analysis is dead-on. It is
possible that the world’s urban population could swell from 300 million
in 1950 to 6 billion in 2050 without massive social collapse, as Linden
concedes, but it is not likely. Too many things, he reminds us, would
have to go perfectly: Corrupt governments would have to be reformed and
technological breakthroughs made. Likewise, it is possible that a new
spirit of cooperation between the world’s rich and poor will reduce
inequality, but at the moment humans are not headed in this direction.
Rather, the combination of rising population with a worldwide embrace of
American-style consumerism makes instability, even chaos, inevitable,
says Linden.

Linden is too well-informed to be optimistic about our collective future
but too savvy not to offer us reasons for hope. Family sizes have shrunk
dramatically in recent years in poor nations, for example, as women’s
status and education have been improved. If bad ideas can transform the
globe, so can good ideas, Linden writes.

If the bad ideas have the upper hand at the moment, that is hardly
Linden’s fault. The future, says the old cliche, is where we will spend
the rest of our lives, and it looks like it’s not going to be a pretty
place.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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