Book Review — The End of the Long Summer

book_long_summerDianne Dumanoski, in her book, “The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth,” writes with great breadth and depth about what she calls the planetary era. Since the beginning of this era, in the middle of the twentieth century, it has become clear that man-made global climate change — and she doesn’t waste time trying to convince the deniers — is part of a deeper problem, the impact of human civilization on a whole set of planetary systems (species diversity; species abundance; nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur cycles; fresh water systems, etc).

In its final days [the final days of Apollo 11], I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon again and again while I waited in vain to read or hear even a passing mention of the Antarctic ozone hole or recognition of the profound watershed in the human journey it symbolized — the arrival of a new and ominous epoch when human activity began to disrupt the essential but invisible planetary systems that sustain a dynamic, living Earth …

… In the second half of the twentieth century, modern civilization emerged as a global-scale force capable of redirecting Earth’s history. This fateful step marks a fundamental turning point in the relationship between humans and the Earth, arguably the biggest step since the human mastery of fire, which hepled launch the human career of dominion. The consequences are not limited to global warming,  nor are weather extremes the first evidence of our new status. Accelerating climate change signals a far deeper problem — the growing human burden on all of the fundamental planetary processes that together make up a single, self-regulating Earth. When future historians look back on the twentieth century, this quick visit to the moon will surely seem like a minor event compared to the giant leap humanity had taken here on Earth.

She cites the appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole as the beginning of this planetary era, and explains how that event might easily have been much more disastrous:

The human enterprise survived this first encounter with planetary systems thanks only to dumb luck, argues Paul Crutzen, who shared the Nobel chemistry prize with Rowland and Molina in 1995 for his pioneering work showing that nitrogen oxides from fertilizers and supersonic aircraft could damage the ozone layer. Had the problematic refrigerants been engineered not with chlorine but with bromine, a similar chemical and possible alternative, the world would have faced catastrophic destruction of ozone everywhere in all seasons and significant harm to land-based forms of life. In his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech, Crutzen explained that, atom for atom, bromine is one hundred times more destructive to ozone because it does not require unusual conditions for its activation. The rapid ozone destruction caused by CFCs over Antarctica, by contrast, depends on heterogeneous chemical reactions on the solid or supercooled liquid particles found in rare polar stratospheric clouds, such as those found over the South Pole in the total darkness of winter. “I can only conclude that mankind has been extremely lucky,” Crutzen concluded. “It was a close call.”

Dumanoski’s “Long Summer” is a work full of big ideas, and I must admit to a guilty pleasure: an infatuation with big ideas, no matter how (as in this case) dire.

In the end she achieves a tough hope, a hope earned through the difficult process of facing frightening truths, and seeing beyond them to some possible viable human futures.

Big Idea: “The Return of Nature”

Modern civilization has been built on mistaken assumptions, chief among them that in the past, climate has generally changed gradually.

“Abrupt climate change” Dumanoski says, ” … is not some theoretical possiblity. It has happened before, and happened repeatedly … The most mind-boggling insight from the ice cores is that rapid climate change is normal; it is the rule. When the Earth system changes, this is how it behaves.”

She explains the “long summer” in which we’ve been living, and what a freakishly unusual and mild period it’s been in Earth’s history:

The ice cores drilled from Greenland and Antarctica also tell us that we live at a truly extraordinary time within this long, volatile climate history, a rare period blessed with a warm and stable climate that has now lasted almost twelve thousand years. During a visit to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, I sat for a long time contemplating a graph with a red line tracking temperatures in Greenland through the most recent ice age and the interglacial period we now live in — a period of roughly 110,000 years. This line surges like a roller coaster through great peaks and valleys of coldness for over a hundred millenia and then soars upward in fits and starts and reversals and renewed ascent to our own time, the long summer since the last ice age, known to scientists as the Holocene. Then the sweeping temperature excursions simply stop, and the red line settles into a dense scribble stuttering within an extremely narrow range of climatic possibility. The difference in this climate record between most of the time in recent Earth history and our time is positively stunning. It looks as if this immensely dynamic climate system had suddenly fallen asleep for the duration of the long summer.

“It is already too late to prevent global warming,” she says. But it’s not too late to do anything at all. And as a basis for hope, she points to the fact that the planet’s “fitful variability has helped make us who we are.”

Big Idea: “A Stormworthy Lineage”

Humans evolved in conditions of wild climatic variability and instability. “What has emerged from this instability is a versatile human species for all seasons and climes.”

She quotes Rick Potts, a Smithsonian researcher in human origins, as saying that our evolutionary pattern represents “the survival of the generalist” (not adapted too restrictively to any particular landscape niche, such as the Neanderthals were to narrow transition zones between grasslands and woodlands).

Humans are just one of perhaps as many as twenty upright-walking hominin species that evolved in the face of climatic oscillation and shifting landscapes. Our 5-million-year family history is in large part a story of extinction. Today humans are the sole survivors, the only member of this diverse family — which scientists long ago called hominids but have recently renamed hominins based on new genetic evidence of relatedness — to emerge from a brutal gauntlet of intensifying climatic extremes …

… The rising instability, particularly over the past 700,000 years, forged the very human talents that have allowed us to become a planetary force and an agent of crisis and instability. At the same time, however, this evolutionary legacy also gives me good reason to believe that humans can — with wisdom and luck — make it through the dangerous passage ahead.

Other big ideas I’ll leave it to you to explore:

  • Progressive externalization” of the brain’s developmental program (” a collaboration between biology and culture”).
  • Human culture as a nurturer of man’s survival, and also as “a manufacturer of crisis.”
  • Geo-engneering, the “temptations [and pitfalls] of technofix.”
  • Civilization’s growing complexity and increasing vulnerability.
  • Modern civilization at risk because of its dependence on stable climate, cheap energy and growth.
  • Globalization is contrary to traditional human evolutionary survival strategy, which depends on modularity and redundancy (a survivability strategy is often not the most efficient strategy).

The hope that Dumanoski speaks of at the end of the book is hard-headed, and does not ignore the possible desperate future we may be facing.

But she never doubts the survival of the Earth.

What’s clearly uncertain is the fate of the civilization man has built so profligately upon it.

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