Monday, October 24, 2016

Book note: The Unnatural World

Here's a book that's well-timed, both for the thankfully soon-to-come end of the current political season and, on an incomparably bigger scale, for the new geological era, the Anthropocene, that (some) scientists think is just getting under way as humans emerge as a powerful force on the Earth: The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age. It's by David Biello, a friend via my freelancing at Scientific American (he's now a curator at TED).

I have not read all of the book yet, instead skipping around idiosyncratically with particular attention to the last two chapters, which respectively focus on carbon capture and space exploration. On the former, David gives a clear-eyed sense of what a difficult problem it is to put CO2 somewhere other than in the atmosphere, while describing various scientists and ideas that aim at doing just that. On the latter, he rightly rebuffs any notion that we can solve environmental problems by escaping from them into space, while defending the very real value of space science and technology for understanding and potentially addressing problems on Earth.

In the past, I've speculated about how right vs left attitudes on climate disruption might change as the issue becomes less about whether there's a problem and more oriented toward what to do about it. The current political campaign has given little reason to think the subject is going to be treated with the broad-based seriousness it deserves anytime soon, even though what happens after the imminent GOP cataclysm is anyone's guess. However, over time, the kinds of topics discussed in David's book--how do and how should we use our growing ability to change the world--will become increasingly central to our lives and our politics. The Unnatural World offers a fascinating avenue into that future.

Incidentally, another upcoming book looking at such topics is Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future by planetary scientist David Grinspoon. May these two books give some much-needed attention to the large-scale and long-term matters on which our progeny's fate depends.

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