Climate Change: A Good Place to Start

Reading about climate change can be one of the more punishing experiences of modern life. Take the opening of David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth (2019): “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” Such apocalypticism is one of the modes – though not the only or even the most prominent – that characterizes the booming industry of the climate monograph and the climate essay. It walks the ever-so-tight rope between despair and righteousness, between a politically useless resignation and a politically potent anger.

For those of us who want, and try, and so often fail to opt out of the carbon economy and the variety of mundane practices that contribute to widening global inequalities, famine and drought, evisceration of species, pollution of air and water, and all else that “climate change” entails (such a lot for so small a phrase), reading the literature can feel like salt on a wound, a reminder of one’s own futility, and worse, complicity. And yet, it feels more necessary than ever.

For a less harrowing but maximally insightful experience, I recommend Hope Jahren’s The Story of More (2020), recently published by Vintage Books. Author of the bestselling Lab Girl (2016), professor at the University of Oslo (formerly at the University of Hawai’i: in her words, she left the U.S because she is “worried about the future of science in America”), Jahren has genuine scientific credibility. She is also a capable writer, with commendably clear and personable prose. Of course, clarity and personability are not necessarily commendable qualities, especially in a work with such political urgency, but in this case they constitute the book’s primary strength. It is clear-eyed, unafraid to take account of the problem in its full scope, but unwilling to even hint at despair.

In many ways, taking account is precisely what The Story of More does. Jahren is a numbers person, who, in preparation for several college courses and this book, “set out to quantify global change in the most concrete and precise terms,” because “only after we see where we are can we duly ask ourselves if this is where we want to be.” The result is informative without being overwhelming for non-numbers people (count this reader among them). Of particular note is her “Environmental Catechism,” included as an appendix, which lists dozens of quantitative descriptions of global change since 1969 (the year Jahren was born: thinking about climate change on the scale of the author’s own life is one of the book’s more effective strategies): since then, “population has doubled,” “production of meat has tripled,” “global fossil fuel use has nearly tripled,” “the average global sea level has increased by four inches,” and so on. 

The book consists of twenty-three short chapters (including four appendices). It is, altogether, a breezy 208 pages. But Jahren uses the limited space to great effect: we learn something about population, poverty, famine, agriculture, aquaculture, fossil fuels, transportation, sea level rise and a variety of other relevant topics. Not enough to be an expert, but enough to begin to see how the complex systems of ecology, economics, politics, geography, and demographics interact in sometimes invisible ways in our own lives.

For all its quantitative accounting, The Story of More is also a deeply subjective book, as much personal essay as science monograph. Jahren interweaves her story of global change with moments from her own life and family history. A chapter discussing urbanization introduces her grandfather, who, emblematically, moved from a farm in Iowa to a town in Minnesota, where “he took up indoors work in the hog kill.” Admittedly, I was skeptical of this strategy at first. Thinking in terms of global systems is difficult but necessary, and downgrading from the scale of systems to the scale of an individual life can sometimes be reactionary and misleading. But, in this case, Jahren negotiates the difference of scale well. Her grasp and presentation of systems is made palpable and legible in these moments.

If Jahren’s affability and commitment to clarity are this book’s strengths, however, they are also its limitations. For one thing, I was disappointed that The Story of More does not include citational notes (one of the four appendices, called “Sources and Suggested Reading” offers a general sense of where her information comes from). I understand the calculus: notes are cumbersome, and this book works for its brevity. Nevertheless, notes would have made Jahren’s credibility more visible, and they would have allowed for easier transitions from her work to that of other climate scientists. For another, Jahren offers advice for how to effect change that favors the personal register: “Each of us must privately ask ourselves when and where we can consume less instead of more, for it is unlikely that business and industry will ever ask on our behalf.” How right she is, and yet I found myself wanting more about that business and industry, more about the cynical politics of denial and “personal responsibility” and the economic shortsightedness that have too successfully and for too long vitiated any genuinely radical political possibility. I wanted more indignation, but it’s probably for the best that Jahren leaves that to other writers.

The Story of More is not meant to be definitive. It encompasses widely, not to encompass all, but to encourage further research and action and passion and hope. It succeeds remarkably in that goal.