What sets apart Heat: How To Stop the Planet from Burning by George Monbiot, and part of what makes it worth your time to read five years after its publication, is its unusual take on the problem of the global warming. Rather than trying to convince readers of the dangers of climage change, it tackles the complex and thorny problem of an adequate societal response.
George Monbiot sets himself the formidable task of finding ways to reduce the U.K.'s energy usage by 90% between 2007 and 2030. He says that he chose that number based on a study by the U.K.'s MET office. (If that seems extreme, in 2009 Hans Schellnhuber, Germany's chief climate advisor, found that 100% reductions would be necessary, as noted in Mark Hertsgaard's Hot.) The focus is not the whys of such a reduction, though they get their due, but the hows: how on Earth we could do such a thing without throwing whole societies into chaos. How it could be possible without freezing, starving, being rendered immobile, or plunged into literal and figurative darkness.
The wonder of the matter is that Monbiot does, for the most part, succeed.
In the process, he delves deeply into problems of energy generation and use, both mechanical and economic. What is, and is not, possible and feasible is not merely summarized, but explained.
Along the way, issues that might be entirely unfamiliar to non-engineers crop up. For instance, I hadn't known that energy companies need to boost generation in anticipation of what would seem to be minor blips in demand. Something as innocuous as the timing of the end of a major football (or, in our terms, soccer... or then again, football) match has to be monitored.
How come? Because when it's over, a staggering number of U.K. viewers will get up and turn on an electric kettle to make tea, and the electricity has to be there when they do.
Monbiot relies on data and logical analysis to persuade. His purpose is quite evidently not to make the reader feel comfortable. His emotional appeals sometimes seem designed to provoke as much shame as empathy, as in the chapter about air travel (the one place where he cannot achieve his emissions goal). He concludes, not happily, that routine air travel is incompatible with preserving a liveable planet. He is abundantly aware of his readers' likely impulse to reject that conclusion, since it affects them so closely. He himself refuses to reject it because he can't find a basis on which to do so, besides selfish desires.
Late in the book, he admits that he has set aside sentiment to write certain passages, as it is impossible for him to write about the climatic catastrophes that await if he lets himself think of the real human beings and human societies they'll affect. Monbiot may be, or affect, the prickly curmudgeon, but there is feeling beneath the prickliness.
The style of Heat is dense, sometimes technical, and always direct. While Monbiot is certainly aware of the obstacles, he has little patience for bluster about what political realities demand, when he knows the planet itself has its own inexorable realities. Physics cannot be bargained with.
This is not to say Monbiot lacks an understanding of human dynamics. Indeed, he puts forth an insightful proposition at the end, pointing out that climate change campaigning puts us in the unusual position of having to "fight ourselves" as well as politicians and energy companies (p. 212).
And then he says this:
The problem is not that no meaningful progress has been made at the international climate talks. The problem is that we have not wanted it to happen. ... [I]f those governments that have expressed a commitment to stopping climate change have found their efforts frustrated, it is partly because they wanted them frustrated. They know that inside their electors there is a small but insistent voice asking them both to try and to fail. They know if they had the misfortune to succeed, our lives would have to change. They know that we can contemplate the transformation of anyone's existence but our own. (pp. 212-123)I wish I could be sure he's wrong. But the truth is, it's hard to imagine a lifestyle fundamentally different from the one we're used to. I am convinced -- sometimes to horror -- of the danger. I know a change of course is necessary. I want to believe myself willing to jump in feet first... but that doesn't mean there's no trepidation involved. My health situation makes some of the necessary changes especially daunting.
The problem is, everyone can cite some kind of obstacle, some reason they can't change what they're doing. We do need structural reforms to make change doable. We need our collective imagination to envision what change woud look like. But perhaps most challenging of all, we in the developled world need to demand that governments, businesses, and civil institutions push us to alter our own lives -- and maybe make them harder.
And we have to mean it.
Heat is not an easy book to read, on any level. Which is the other reason you should read it.
Monbiot, George. Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007.