My summer reading this year has included two books that I’ve really looked forward to, and which have not disappointed. These books are on the one hand very different and yet share enough similarities for me to review them together. Michael E. Mann’s The New Climate War focuses on the ‘climate emergency’ whilst Dave Goulson’s Silent Earth is about the ‘ecological emergency’, and specifically the decline of insect populations. As I pointed out in a recent New Scientist opinion piece: “the climate emergency often overshadows the ecological emergency, even though the two overlap both in their causes and their solutions”. Reading these two volumes in parallel has given me a much deeper understanding of just how true that statement is, and it’s why I’m suggesting that of the many, many books that have been recently written about our current environmental crisis, these deserve to be the ones that you read.
Silent Earth deals with the billions of small things – the insects and other invertebrates – that make the world function the way it does. These creatures facilitate the recycling of organic material, the pollination of wild and crop plants, the regulation of populations of other species, and play a host of additional ecological roles. The central thesis of the book is that the growing evidence of declines and extinctions of these small animals should give us cause for concern. In contrast, The New Climate War is about the big stuff – how the world’s atmosphere and oceans are heating up, the contribution of human activities to that warming, and what this means for weather patterns and sea levels across the globe. And how industry and politicians have conspired to deny, obfuscate, and divide, undermining efforts to decarbonise the world’s economy.
It matters not whether we view the world through a microscope or via an Earth observation satellite, both of these ways of seeing and understanding are important to our future as a species. The flap of a butterfly’s wings may only rarely be the indirect cause of a hurricane in the Caribbean, but reading these books nonetheless reminds us of the connections between the world’s biosphere and its physical domains.
The science underlying both books acts as a background to their main purpose: convincing the reader that there are urgent issues with which we, as a society, must deal. In this respect they are unapologetically political, and the point at which science meets environmentalism. The books are written by scientists who are respected experts in their respective fields, but who are not content with sitting back on their award- and citation-laden laurels, and allowing their science to speak for itself (as important as that is). Both Mann and Goulson have entered the more public arenas of politics and social commentary to argue the case for fundamental restructuring of some aspects of our societies. Their reward has been near constant criticism, much of it personal, vindictive and even threatening, by the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry (Mann) and agro-chemical & farming interests (Goulson) and the keyboard warriors who labour on their behalf, wittingly or not. That Mann and Goulson persist in voicing their concerns in this way, at the same time continuing to publish high quality science, says much about them as people and their commitment to these important causes.
The stereotype of the cold, calculating, emotionless scientist is shattered by these authors as they frequently refer to their families, especially their children, as a prime motivation for their activism. In an emotive chapter, Goulson imagines his son as an old man sitting up through the night to defend the vegetables that he’s growing with his family in a Britain that has experienced not an apocalyptic collapse of society and basic infrastructure, but “a slow unravelling over decades”. As he remembers back to the world of his youth he wonders: “Why did we fail to act? We humans do not seem to be very good at grasping the big picture”.
The Big Picture is certainly an underlying theme of both books, despite the different scales at which these scientists work, and both are revelatory in their descriptions of what’s occurring behind the scenes. Pull aside the curtain and we see the financial connections between various anti-environmental think tanks and lobby groups (Mann) and the hypocrisy of large business corporations which continue to manufacture highly toxic pesticides that, although banned in the west, can be profitably exported to developing countries (Goulson). All of these messages of corruption and environmental degradation could make the books pessimistic reads. But in fact both have an optimistic undertone, a sense that we know what the issues are, we know what’s got us into this mess, and there are routes out of it. But only if (and it is a huge if) there is the willingness of governments and large corporations to act.
Both writers share a belief in humour and personal anecdotes as vehicles for emphasising important points. For example Mann describing the fearsome and brutal attention given by climate deniers to Greta Thunberg and other youthful activists as being like the Eye of Sauron (one of several Lord of the Rings analogies). Or Goulson’s description of giving a phone interview to Australian radio while lurking in the piss-smelling toilet of a British pub. These books are brought to life by the authors’ experiences as scientists and as advocates, and their passionate wish for a better future.
Full disclosure: this can hardly be considered an objective review as both Dave Goulson and Mike Mann are friends of mine. Dave I met over thirty years ago when we were graduate students in the same department, and we’ve published a few things together. Mike I encountered much more recently, as I described in this post, when we were concurrently on sabbatical at the University of New South Wales and discovered that we were living in adjacent apartment blocks. In some respects the world of science is a very small one. Despite these personal connections I don’t think that I would have said much that’s different about either book had I not known their writers. But who knows, that’s not the way things are. There are certainly things to criticise in both books, and I don’t agree with all of the writers’ conclusions and could debate several points of interpretation with them, especially in Silent Earth where I’m in more comfortable territory. But those would be minor criticisms in light of the conclusions that these important books draw: that our world is changing rapidly, that we are responsible, and that we have a duty to act immediately. It’s not too late, but we need to listen to the science and what scientists such as Mann and Goulson are telling us.