The Earth Beat Climate changes a veteran journalist By Reed McManus
Since 1999, Elizabeth Kolbert has covered environmental topics for the New Yorker, among them bee-colony collapse, mountaintop-removal mining, and the extraction of oil from Alberta's tar sands. Her climate coverage mushroomed into a book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe (Bloomsbury, 2006), and led her to The Ends of the Earth (Bloomsbury, 2007), coauthored with Francis Spufford. Sierra caught up with Kolbert as she was setting aside the planet--temporarily--to report on the 2008 election.
How did you end up covering the "terrifyingly intractable problem" beat?
In 2000, I didn't know much about climate change. Was it really the biggest problem facing the world, or not? I started by going to Greenland in 2001.
How difficult is it to write about complex climate topics for general readers?
I see it the same as writing about any scientific field where the experts are talking a language and you have to serve as a translator. But the basic science involved in climate change is pretty simple. I wrote a piece about particle physics. That's hard science.
Many journalists feel that they have to disassociate themselves from the environmental movement.
True. There are basic agreed-upon ideas, like making money is good. But we don't all agree that preserving what's left of natural habitats is always good. When those two things come into conflict, one of them wins.
Do you risk being hammered for taking a stand on climate change?
It would be the case if [my position] were wrong. What I found from the most eminent people in their field was horrifying. If you talk to climate scientists, they are very, very doubtful about the future of life on this planet. What could be more significant than that?
What's your environmental vice?
I have a job that requires me to travel. It's very hard to report on the Arctic without going to the Arctic.
When will climate issues hit home?
It will take real catastrophe to get people to act. In Australia, unending drought has opened their eyes. The crucial thing to understand about climate change, and what many people don't understand, is the time lag. We are now experiencing the climate change brought about by greenhouse gases emitted decades ago. And we are already establishing the climate of the future.
How can engaging writing help?
My job is doing the best I can to communicate what's going on in a way that makes people read and think. Whether they take that as a spur to action or not is beyond a journalist's control.
A Deeper Cut of Meat
In Meatpaper you learn exactly how Oaxacans consume a goat. They buy it at the market ("a calm animal tastes better"), simmer its jugular blood, and wrap the flesh in maguey leaves before roasting it in the ground.
You may find this fascinating or horrifying. The editors of this new quarterly are fine with either reaction.
They've identified a new American obsession with meat that they call the "fleischgeist." Targeting a reader who is one part foodie, one part grass-fed, organic, free-range environmentalist, Meatpaper sheds the plastic wrap to reveal the stories behind meat and the people who produce it.
Amid photo spreads of salami slices and marbled beef are features on why Filipinos love Spam, debates over kosher meat preparation, and a Q&A with a food historian who is resurrecting dishes like beaver tail.
At times the content veers into the political, such as a confrontational interview with Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore; or the artistic, like a review of the works of Jana Sterbak, who dressed a lissome model in a scoop-neck dress made entirely of flank steak.
"The subject matter is so raw that it could inspire someone to stop eating meat," says coeditor Sasha Wizansky. "Or it could encourage someone to start."
Crash Course Crude absurdities: a gusher of thoughts on energy By Lisa Margonelli
With crude oil at a hundred dollars a barrel, along come dozens of $26.95 books about oil and There Will Be Blood, the Oscar-nominated film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as an oilman. You already know the stakes, ably summed up by Matt Damon's character in the film Syriana (available on DVD): "It's running out ... and 90 percent of what's left is in the Middle East.... This is a fight to the death."
The prose gushing out on this subject ranges from light, sweet crude to grimy sludge, but it's hard to think of a topic more urgent and more complex. Fortunately for readers, this serious subject appeals to a range of authors, from journalists and scientists to ambitious congresspeople and Willie Nelson.
Consider the geopolitics. By 1990 the global hunt for oil was sufficiently rough that BP's Lord John Browne swallowed a sheep's eye wrapped in a noodle just to ingratiate himself with the government of Kazakhstan, which had a huge oil field. In his gossipy The Oil and the Glory (Random House, 2007), Steve LeVine reports that later in the '90s, the U.S. company Unocal got Clinton administration backing to make deals with the Taliban, though, LeVine says, executives "didn't actually sit in a war room devising strategy with Taliban commanders"--because Benazir Bhutto's Pakistani army helpfully took on that role.
LeVine's reporting is easily worth a quarter of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate, but it reminded me, ironically, of Gary Shteyngart's brilliant novel of life in a former Soviet oil republic called Absurdistan (Random House, 2006), a black comedy of petrodollar excess, thuggery, and depression.
With oil, truth and fiction can be but two ends of the same Ping-Pong table. Exhibit B of the comically corrupt are the films the FBI made of executives of oil services company VECO counting out bribes for members of the Alaska legislature who called themselves the Corrupt Bastards Club, frequently disappearing off camera to flush the toilet. Exhibit C: Beverly Hills High School, which made millions from the oil wells on its property until students started getting sick and Erin Brockovich showed up in stilettos and an Armani pantsuit. As detailed by journalist Joy Horowitz in Parts per Million (Viking Adult, 2007), the controversy tainted everyone.
So what's the solution? Among the simpler: Get off the sauce, as Willie Nelson advocates in his slim On the Clean Road Again (Speaker's Corner Books, 2007). He manages to work the phrase "If you've got the money, honey, I've got the time" into this rant/recipe. We'll need money, time, and a scientific breakthrough to live the dream espoused by The Hydrogen Age (Gibbs Smith, 2007), by Geoffery B. Holland, which promises an "internet of energy" if only we adopt hydrogen. Fortunately, only time and maybe sneakers are needed in How to Live Well Without Owning a Car (Ten Speed Press, 2006), in which Chris Balish offers a mix of the practical--a worksheet to figure out a car's total cost and impact--as well as the horrifying: The average American walks just 300 yards a day.
Alternatively, we could comprehensively remodel the country's so-called oil addiction into something more patriotic (and profitable). David Sandalow's Freedom From Oil (McGraw Hill, 2007), offers a fun-ish civics workbook containing a series of memos to the next president and a State of the Union speech touting electric cars, ethanol, and a carbon tax with kickbacks for working families. Apollo's Fire (Island Press, 2007), written by Representative Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Bracken Hendricks with a forward by Bill Clinton, advocates making renewable energy our moon shot and building a new economy around it. This is heady stuff, and the authors contend our real bugaboo is not research, money, or special interests, but fear.
Unfortunately, writing books is easier than changing our relationship to energy. As Tom McCarthy thoughtfully explains in Auto Mania (Yale University Press, 2007), the need for better environmental standards for vehicles has been obvious for decades, but car culture has proved to have a stubborn inertia, like that of a runaway SUV barreling down the freeway. This American obsession with cars and fuels has the elements of a religion, observes early environmentalist Wallace Stegner in Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil (Selwa Press, 2007). In 1931 the solution to the United States' dwindling oil reserves was Saudi Arabia, and Stegner was paid to chronicle the kingdom's exploration by the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) itself. Stegner's awestruck description of the oilmen makes a fitting warning for those seeking new fuels: "If utter faith in a way of life, and utter conviction that the rest of the world would be served by adopting it, constitute the essential elements of missionary fervor, these men were missionaries."
While watching actor Daniel Day-Lewis wheedle, scheme, humiliate, and kill for California oil in There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic masterpiece based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, a deeper barrier occurred to me: greed. If we want a green alternative to black gold, we'll need to "greendy" the U.S. economy--encouraging the greedy and virtuous alike to create the best fuels. Will anyone ever eat a sheep's eye wrapped in a noodle for the right to site solar panels and wind farms? We can hope!
Photos, from top: John Kleiner, Lori Eanes (4); used with permission.