Book review: Future Earth

Climate change (Image: Kai Stachowiak; Public domain pictures)
Climate change (Image: Kai Stachowiak; Public domain pictures)

Eric Holthaus’s ‘Future Earth: A Radical Vision For What’s Possible in the Age of Warming’ is unique in its scope, conceptually speculative and realistic. It is grounded by an eclectic mix of evidence of global warming and narratives of social movements led and championed by activists and researchers from Global South.

In its two parts, the book tackles the present and future of the world, piecing together climate-related events, socio-political movements, global policies and narratives of action and awareness across the world.

In Part 1, ‘A Living Emergency’, Eric begins with Puerto Rico’s experience of recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Although he provides a bird’s eye view of the recovery process, Eric argues that the slow rate of recovery has created a new normal, ‘A living emergency’, filled with despair, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

This section also describes other events that are direct consequences of global warming: the melting of ice in the Arctic, the sinking of Marshall Islands, 2018 Cyclone Yutu, Cyclone Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique in 2019, wildfires in Alaska, Hurricane Dorian in Abaco Islands, Bahamas, and firestorm in Australia in 2019.

These events are pervasive and definitive of our new planetary area, and Eric deftly juxtaposes this global work with his own personal narratives and existentialism — growing up in Kansas, surviving wildfires, and reflecting upon the future that his children will inherit from him. For professionals and activists engaged in this environmental movement, these meditative sections are inspiring and essential.

The early sections call for radical changes in the face of inevitable climatic collapse, and transition to a new kind of environmentalism beyond the individual or moral standards, but an actionable, scalable model for a new way of life rooted in collective support and universal justice.

Part 2 is divided into three chapters: the 2020s, the 2030s, and the 2040s, where Eric outlines his speculation around catastrophic success, radical stewardship and new technologies and spiritualities for each of these decades. These are founded on the vignettes gathered through interactions by experts from Global South, evidence of the impact of our current actions on the climate, and in the direction of policy initiatives that are currently shaping discourse such as the New Green Deal in the US, the radical future for people of Marshall Islands, residents of a large ocean state just 32-feet above sea level and facing the wrath of increasing sea levels due to melting of glaciers.

Future Earth combines scientific and research on social movements to explain issues of justice and equity. Eric begins with Latin word for ‘disasters’ as ill-starred but then goes on to explain that climate change compounds natural disasters, giving people less time to recover before they are plunged back in crisis mode. This is where it can be disagreed, that disasters are not natural.

As Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), recently argued that disasters result when a natural or man-made hazard affects a human settlement which is not appropriately resourced or organized to withstand the impact, and whose population is vulnerable because of poverty, exclusion or socially disadvantaged in some way.

In Future Earth, Eric does acknowledge that disasters are consequences of policies and weak governance around climate and complicity of fuel and other environment polluting industries. This is an ambitious book with a huge speculative element. It would have been interesting to understand how these scenarios were arrived at and unpack the underlying assumptions.

This book has effectively set the ground and is an incredible step towards co-creating a future this planet is hurtling towards. In the end, Eric also provides a personal guide for readers to reimagine their role in building a better world for everyone irrespective of their gender, class and status.

I’m impressed by the hopeful future it envisions but we have a lot of ground to cover to get there & avoid the consequences of years of inaction in climate policy. What impressed me most about this work is that Eric mentions he pulled off the research for this book while maintaining a low carbon footprint. In these times of zero international travel what and whose stories do we choose to tell, are equally important as we give up our privileged spaces to make space for those who are in the fight on the ground.

Sneha Krishnan is Professor at Jindal Global University and Co-Founder ETCH Consultancy Services.