Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Elizabeth Kolbert

Thanks to all for an excellent discussion this morning.  We ran out of time to discuss the "Afterword" for the (late) 2009 paperback edition, so if you have some further thoughts--or thoughts you just didn't get a chance to express this morning--please add them here.  And perhaps you've been thinking about our overall discussion, and realize you have some things you'd like to add.  Here's the opportunity!

Click on Kolbert's name to see an interesting interview with her from 2006.


  1. "Global warming is real. The only debatable issue is how warm it will get. That's really the only question." - Elizabeth Kolbert

    I am impressed with how her passion for the topic of climate change motivates her to keep her Afterword(s) up-to-date with hot issues (no pun intended). I do wonder if she will write again, and if she does, what her stance will be. If dramatic changes are not made, will she go a more mainstream publicity route? Would she "attack" people to "save" the earth, or at this point, as she is "not optimistic," will she simply watch as the world changes with a regretful "I told you so"?

    Somehow, I don't imagine apathy or silence to be her weapon of choice.

    Going off of Dr. H's comment this morning about the idea of Field Notes being a required text for incoming freshmen, could this be brought up through the English department? Perhaps English 110 classes(required unless tested out of, I believe) could at least incorporate chapters from the book...

  2. One of the things that occurred to me while we were discussing man v. nature was something my Grandmother told me when I called her to ask about dates for the timeline project.

    She was born in 1930 in Chicago, and for a number of decades, the sanitation situation in the city had been pretty horrible. All the sewage drained into the Chicago River, which would then drain into Lake Michigan and contaminate the lake. People realized something had to be done.

    Here's where the story gets pretty wild, though. People apparently decided that the best way to deal with the situation was to reverse the course of the entire Chicago River, which would make it drain into the Mississippi River, rather than Lake Michigan. The first canal that was built to do that was completed in 1900, with another finished in 1910, and the third in 1922. My grandmother told me that she remembered learning all about this in school, and even taking a tour of the area (though exactly what they were touring I'm not sure about; I don't think a canal would be much of a view). Everyone in the city wanted to show off what had been done: an example of human ingenuity triumphing over nature.

    I have to ask myself, however, what unintended consequences the plan might have had. For one thing, I doubt all the people along the Mississippi River really appreciated having all of Chicago's sewage heading down their way. Whether there were other effects, I don't know. Luckily people had the sense to also work on sewage filtration and water purification, but long before those projects were begun, a group on engineers stared at a river and said, "Hey! I bet we could turn that thing completely around!"

    Human ingenuity is an amazing thing. Honestly, it's probably the only way we have a hope of mitigating climate change, or even just surviving its effects. Of course, maybe if people hadn't been so determined to have an effect in previous years, we might not be in this situation at all. Here's hoping that in the future we can direct our efforts into areas that benefit humanity, rather than just digging us even deeper into our current hole.

  3. Unintended consequences? Definitely. The canal (called the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal - it's also used for transportation of freight) is back in the national news as a major controversy!
    The issue is that a non-native invasive species, the aisian carp, may get from the Mississippi River (it's been migrating upstream for the past couple decades) into the Great Lakes system through this canal. These fish are fast-growing and voracious, and it is feared that they could seriously damage indigenous fish populations and the ecosystem. So several years ago, a $10 million system was installed to prevent their migration through the canal, but carp DNA has recently been detected upstream of the barrier. This prompted Wisconsin and Michigan to petition the Federal Government for closure of the canal (and resumption of the Chicago River's original course). But the Obama administration has cited economic concerns and sided with Illinois, which wants the canal left open. (It should be noted that the canal also affects water distibution from the Great Lakes - another big political issue!) Finally, the Supreme Court seems likely to decline to hear the case. For more information on this fascinating story, check out the following websites:

  4. Reading Dr. Boulter's post has brought something interesting to mind regarding water distribution as a political issue. In one of my classes, we were recently talking about international conflict, particularly conflicts in regards to tangible resources such as water. In places around the world, water is a valuable resource that can literally cause wars or prevent populations from seceding (ex: the Kurdish population in northern Iraq and part of Turkey). I have never really considered how horrible not having water could possible be. However, there are already nations in the world that are not fortunate enough to have the water resources that we have here in the Great Lakes region, something which causes major conflict. As global climate change continues to occur, I wonder how many water resources we will lose (ex: see Ch. 4 of the Climate Change text regarding droughts). Going off of that, I wonder if, as climate change escalates, we will see growing unrest among people of the world because of disappearing resources. This is all just speculation, but it's certainly interesting to consider what a world with less water would be like for those who inhabit it.

    This made me think a bit about Kolbert's decision to include various areas around the world that have already been affected in a variety of ways by climate change. I wonder if, in the future, she would choose to focus in on an issue that is much more immediate of a concern to our own lives, rather than the bigger picture which we often have difficulty comprehending. While the issues she brings up in her book are certainly alarming, we tend to be a bit removed from the actual effects that she is describing. I wonder if bringing up a more immediate issue would make her argument that much more effective in the public sphere.

  5. After living in California for 12 years, I can definitely say that water distribution is a major issue. Of course, it really isn't helped by human stupidity (or at least short-sightedness) - building golf courses and expecting manicured lawns in a regions that's a desert was not a particularly bright idea.

    Of course, there are problems in other parts of the country as well. We near the Great Lakes are doing pretty well (unless we decide to sell our water to someplace halfway across the country), but the Ogallala Aquifer in the center of the country is being drained a lot faster than it can be replenished. Once we add climate change-induced drought to the mix, we're going to have a pretty serious crisis on our hands. All things considered, this probably would have been a very relevant subject for Kolbert to have touched on in her book.

  6. First of all, to comment on Heather's first post above:

    I find it interesting that, in the case of Chicago, the authorities looked at that situation and decided that the most economical solution was to change the course of the river! That seems pretty drastic, and I feel that there must have been other, more practical options available. Besides, as I understand it from Heather's post, Chicago really didn't SOLVE the problem...they simply RELOCATED it. Why was it not ok to dump sewage into the lake, but perfectly acceptable to dump sewage into the Chicago and Mississippi Rivers? Im sure there were many other factors involved (such as the economic benefits of the new shipping route), but on the surface, this strikes me as being very poorly thought out!

    Regarding Kolbert:
    I feel like it must be extremely frustrating, from her perspective, to put so much work into this book and then sit and watch as the world in general ignores her warnings and continues on its present course. If I were in her position, I would have a hard time being optimistic about the future too! The facts could hardly be presented in a more comprehensive, accessible manner, and if people aren’t convinced by this book, what is it going to take…dramatic "Day After Tomorrow-esque" global blizzards or 100-foot high intercontinental tsunamis? She is justified in her frustration, but she is also spot-on when she says that “despair is rarely helpful.” My question then is, “what else can possibly be done to mobilize the people in this war against climate change? At the moment….I really have no idea…

  7. The point that Joe brought up in the first part of his comment made me think of what we talked about at the end of the Friday morning session with Dr. Boulter: the ethical and moral issues regarding climate change. Regarding the Chicago River example, is there a moral responsibility of the people in charge of diverting the Chicago River, which causes harmful effects on other people (the people on the Mississippi River receiving the sewage downstream) to pay those people for the damages they've caused? And how are those damages to be repayed? I wish we had more time to discuss the eithical issues of climate change in class, but I'm interested to hear what other's idea on that topic are.

  8. Going off of Hillary's post, do those of us in regions such as the Great Lakes have a "moral responsibility" to share our water with those who don't have water?

  9. Responding to Steph: To my mind, answering the "moral responsibility" question requires that we consider the context: that is,the decision of some to settle in a desert, and yet to design their cities and suburbs to use water like a population that lives in a region with plenty of rainfall. To settle the desert southwest AND to live there without respect for what its ecosystems are--and to expect to be able to SUSTAIN that lifestyle--is foolish. It's a profligate use of limited resources. I see no moral responsibility to share the water of the Great Lakes in such a case--in fact, it would be immoral to do so.

    My two cents.

  10. Just a follow-up: there's a great publication called _High Country News_ that covers issues pertinent to the Western US. They often have articles on topics related to water--you can get a glimpse at this web link

  11. First, I wanted to add to what Dr. Hale said about sharing our water. Even though we have these huge lakes by us, the very large majority of people in Great Lake states still get their water from ground water, not the lakes directly. Pumping water to the West (which would cost billions of dollars) would lower the entire water table causing problems for everyone. Also, consider the economic impact if port cities have to redesign or move docks for ships when the level goes down, assuming the same size ships would still be able to go through. Environmental impacts as well, I think it would be easier for us to start saying "no" to expansion in the West rather than changing all of our lives.

    In terms of fresh water in the West, I try to find arguments that deniers can understand. Cost is very effective, and in terms of the Colorado River, which doesn't even reach the Gulf of Mexico any more, the costs are huge. Without that river, countless Western cities will be in trouble. Also, consider the fact that the U.S. built a $280 million desalination plant for the river just before it reaches the Mexican border. The shallower waters that did reach Mexico were too salty for agricultural use. Some would say this plant was built because the U.S. recognized its moral responsibility with the river. However, others argue that this gesture towards Mexico in the 1990s was to persuade the country from joining OPEC, an action that would have raised oil prices for the U.S. Now, instead of paying millions of dollars to keep a price down that will ALWAYS go up, why couldn't we have invested that into renewable resources? As a nation, we don't have very good foresight.

  12. This doesn't really relate specifically to some of the previous comments, but I am recently rereading "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, and I came upon this passage:

    "Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

    I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie maker, one time, and he raised his eybrows and inquired, 'Is it an anti-war book?'

    'Yes,' I said. 'I guess.'

    'You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?'

    'No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?'

    'I say, 'Why don't you write an anti-glacer book instead?''

    What he mean, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too."

    The book was published in 1969, and while there was information already about the damages to the environment, I had to step back when I came to this passage and think about it. How crazy that something so permanent, something people to believe to be absolutely unstoppable has been so drastically affected by humans...


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