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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 29, 2007

the sleeping dunes

More rain after a rainy weekend. Today is the last day of Kimmie's vacation. She's cheerful about it, although admits forthrightly, "I'd rather it weren't the last day."

Yesterday afternoon we spent doing errands, driving our 2001 Toyota Corolla on the wet, overcrowded streets, experiencing the selfishness and aggression that increasingly characterize our roads, and our civilization as it sinks, led by deep ruts of habit, into the tar-pit of its doom.

Strong words? I believe them.

Yesterday, on the errand mission, while Kimmie was struggling to get 5 meters of fabric at half-price in the primitive retail environment of Fabricland at Park Royal, I strayed to the Chapters-Indigo bookstore, and, browsing, actually found four books I wanted to buy. I bought two: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (a key inspiration to my mother as she wrestles with writing a memoir of her own), and Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, a British science writer. At reading-time I started both, and enjoyed them both very much--although my enjoyment of Six Degrees was of a different sort. The subtitle of this book is Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and in it Lynas has prepared a forecast of Earth's climate in the coming century, arranged in six chapters that explain likely events as the average global temperature notches up 1 Celsius degree at a time. I'm only in chapter 1--1° C warmer--and it's already, well, I was going to say chilling.

He chose six degrees as his range because this is the range forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as probable over the next century. His method was to survey the scientific literature over the past few years on both climatology and paleoclimatology, in which researchers have made forecasts based on computer models about future climatic events, or have described ancient climatic events from warmer periods in Earth's prehistory from study of fossils and other evidence. Lynas sorted thousands of articles according to whether their scenarios represented a warming of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 degrees. He then synthesized the scenarios and drafted his book.

As he emphasizes in his introduction, Lynas based his scenarios only on peer-reviewed scientific papers, not on the works of journalists, popularizers, or advocacy groups. It's not Hollywood, it's sober, level-headed science.

And it's pretty darned frightening. Even at 1-degree warming there is a substantial likelihood that the Western U.S. may return to conditions that have existed during great droughts of prehistory. The terrain from New Mexico to Saskatchewan consists largely of a great dune-field overlain by a thin layer of soil held in place by plants. When conditions get too dry, the plants die and the soil blows away. On a small scale, this is what happened during the Dust Bowl years of 1934-40. Yes: I said on a small scale. At that time, 85% of Oklahoma's entire population vacated the state in desperation. If warming and drying cause the topsoil east of the Rockies to lose its plant cover, a mighty sea of sand-dunes will reemerge, turning the Great West into something resembling today's Sahara Desert.

This area is not densely populated--but it is populated. Like the Okies of the 1930s, those people would likely have to migrate. Where? And that area is also now a key food-producing region for the U.S. and for planet Earth. There goes one breadbasket. Who's to pick up the slack?

In the introduction Lynas talks about giving a presentation in Britain, and overhearing one of the attendees apologizing to another one for bringing him to such a "depressing" event. Lynas was shocked, because although he too finds these images alarming, he does not see them as inevitable--it is at least partly or mostly still avoidable, he thinks. If we act now.

At this moment, I feel more like his depressed attendee. As Clive Ponting describes in his A Green History of the World, Easter Island was covered with forest and populated with wildlife when humans first made landfall there in the 5th century AD. When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen arrived there on Easter Sunday, 1722, he found a treeless rock with "about 3,000 people living in squalid reed huts or caves, engaged in almost perpetual warfare and resorting to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to supplement the meagre food supplies available on the island." Time and again, human beings have passed environmental points of no return, felling the last tree, killing the last animal.

Heading off such a course requires vision and leadership. Where are these today? The world's most powerful people seem preoccupied with thoughts like, when it comes time to fell that last tree, they want to be the ones felling it--not someone else.

I hear the dunes waking.

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