Falter: Has the human game begun to play out? Bill McKibben, Black Inc.
Clear, Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being, Paul Mason, Allen Lane.
Losing Earth: The decade we could have stopped climate change, Nathaniel Rich, Picador.
We shouldn’t need reminding that politically and ecologically things are rather grim globally, but there seems to be a lot of denial about, so maybe all the books out there sounding the alarm, of which these are merely three of the more prominent, are necessary. Bill McKibben tends to write on green issues, Paul Mason on politics and economics, but of course the two are linked (as they are in Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth), and the problems we see – hoarding wealth, quashing dissent, passing problems on to our grandchildren – are the result of rampant self-interest.
When it comes to the literal and metaphoric gathering storm clouds of climate change, it’s sad to note, as Nathaniel Rich does, that we already knew the dangers of global warming in the 1970s, and have gone backwards since, partly because fossil fuel companies have spent billions sowing the seeds of doubt regarding the science. Rich’s book describes a different world: in the 1980s George H W Bush was calling himself an environmentalist, oilmen acknowledged the problem and talked about the opportunities in developing alternative energy sources, and the majority of Americans agreed global warming was a serious problem. But eventually politicians lost interest (except Al Gore) and oil and coal executives began to fear loss of profits.
Bill McKibben’s book Falter catalogues what has happened subsequently, and what problems we face, not just in a far distant future but now: extinctions, famines, sea level rises, plastics contamination. This is happening not simply because of equivocation, but because of the determination of powerful people to halt attempts to curb emissions and find renewable energy sources. McKibben describes these efforts as crimes against humanity (as does Nathaniel Rich, who thinks that at some point we will begin to see major litigation against polluters). For McKibben, global warming is an issue of justice for the poor and future generations, created by a deliberate ideology of individualism rampant in elite circles. It is odd, he notes, that environmentalism is seen as radical, because it is a form of conservatism, whereas it is the minority wrecking the planet through their selfishness who are the true (dangerous) radicals.
Paul Mason likewise catalogues a series of ills: prejudice rife, kleptocracies in power, journalists in jail, humanitarian crisis in Syria, Orwellian dystopian fiction becoming fact in China. He notes the forces arrayed against community and truth, the irony of a glut of misinformation in an age when we are more connected than ever, the deliberate misuse of information technology to aid the self-interest of those in power, and the way human beings are prey to the uncertainty of global markets.
Interestingly, McKibben and Mason’s concerns converge on the new frontiers of technological innovation. It is not just presidents and miners who are the villains. They describe AIs ‘learning’ how to be racist by mimicking social media, biotech entrepreneurs desperate to be allowed to create designer babies, Silicon Valley billionaires signing up for cryogenics so they can live forever and launching rockets to colonise Mars, web data being mined to rig elections, trolling, the deliberate undermining of the democratic potential of the internet. They are concerned not simply that we will be replaced by machines, but that the human (and the natural world) is being pushed aside in technology’s relentless march, and that technology is increasingly being used for the betterment not of humanity in general, but a select few.
It is all pretty depressing reading (especially for a book
entitled Clear, Bright Future). Then again, hope happens where progress
seems impossible, not inevitable. McKibben writes that despite the selfishness
in the world we do have the capacity for community and cooperation. Mason
agrees (though he thinks in typical Marxist fashion that religion is part of
the problem. McKibben, rather, says that in order to progress the political
left needs to get over its prejudice against churches, which are, after-all,
places of community, stewardship and altruism).
The conclusion McKibben, Mason and Rich all make
is that restraint is needed but would be unprecedented. (Human history is
generally one of expansion.) As Rich says, there is no global police to enforce
emissions reductions. And not only are we witnessing those with power globally
using that power for their own interest, they are also encouraging the rest of
us to be merely self-interested. One might be driven to think we need divine
intervention to save us.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com