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Over Niagara Falls--in a Canoe?

It is rare that a work of fiction and a scientific study enter your field of vision at the same time, and as you browse through them you realize they're intimately connected and you devour them, one after the other, with growing excitement, enjoyment and deep concern. That's what happened to me with Curt Stager's Deep Future and Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior.

Not that I belong to those who place art and science in different and irreconcilable worlds. It is true they employ different strategies that make one seem abstract and objective while the other is frankly subjective and concrete. But the assumptions on which they proceed have more in common than what divides them, even in their modus operandi. In the final analysis, both are imaginative attempts to come to grips with that elusive phenomenon reality/existence which, I suspect, is ultimately unknowable. Our only viable option in dealing with the world is to proceed as though what reason and observation uncover as real and true actually is real and true.

That is why both the scientist and the novelist start their books with a premise that all informed people today accept, namely that rapidly intensifying Global Warming is real and that it is true that humanity is the cause of it. While Curt Stager sets out to describe the consequences of this development for our planet in a larger geological time frame, Barbara Kingsolver is more concerned with the immediate effects upon people's lives and what might be done to soften the blows with which the changing climate has begun to batter our environment and us.

The strength of Stager's argument resides in the scientific data on which it must be based, but this is also the source of the scientist's weakness: where hard scientific evidence is not available he must be silent, or, at best, he may speculate. As a novelist, Kingsolver is not hampered by the need for scientific proof. She must create a plausible world inhabited by characters in whose lives we, the readers, can recognize our own. Within that world she is at liberty to act out any plot of her choosing. She is responsible only to the skill of her pen and the integrity of her imagination, and on these rests our willingness to suspend disbelief.

And what writing skills and wealth of imagination Barbara Kingsolver brings to her work! My first encounter with her writing dates back about a dozen years when a book review led me to her novel, The Poisonwood Bible. It deals with an American missionary family in the Congo whose experiences we see through the individual optic of each of his four daughters as well as that of his wife, as the missionary learns that the message he has come to preach is of no relevance to the people of the Congo. I was stunned by her descriptive powers, entranced by the sights, sounds and smells of Africa she conjured up. That and the insightful way in which she places her characters in the political context of the Congo convinced me the author had to be a Black African. It turns out that she is a White American who lives with her family on a farm in the Appalachian mountains.

Kingsolver's minute and informed description of her characters' physical environment owes a good deal to her training as a scientist. She was a professional biologist before she became a successful novelist. All of her learning and living she invests in her latest novel, Flight Behavior. The setting is Appalachia. A young woman (Dellarobia Turnbow) is walking through a forest to meet a young man for a one-day-stand in some remote hut in the hills. She is troubled by what she is about to do because she is married and has two children whom she loves and cares for. But the marriage is a sham that was forced upon her by a pregnancy, and she can endure it only by flight into sexual infidelities whenever they become possible without discovery.

As conflicting emotional and ethical arguments torment her on her lonely walk to the rendezvous, it suddenly appears to her that the forest is on fire or that she is seeing a burning lake. In her quandary she reads this as a warning to her and decides to forgo her assignation and hurry home. Later inspection reveals that 'the fire' is an invasion of millions of colourful butterflies--monarchs who lost their way on their migration from Mexico. Dellarobia is credited with the discovery of this spectacular phenomenon that is quickly picked up by the media. Thousands come to see it, among them a biologist (Dr. Ovid Byron), through whom she learns, step by step, that this disorientation of the butterflies is the consequence of Global Warming and will eventually kill them. She comes to understand that this is a warning to humanity whose heedless exploitation of nature has put them, metaphorically speaking, in a canoe drifting rapidly towards the edge of Niagara Falls.

If this sounds didactic, it is so only in the sense that any Bildungsroman is: the events educate the protagonist who reaches maturity in the process. Dellarobia learns as much about the environment as she does about her marriage. As both are crumbling, they threaten to bring her down with them. I don't want to reveal any more about the plot so as not to deprive you of the suspense with which events unfold. The novel is breathlessly woven from the interaction of plot and character, and the forces that drive them are so compelling I couldn't put the book down. We enter the interior landscapes of the characters where Kingsolver acts out the torments and ecstasies of the questing human spirit and invites her readers to reflect on their own lives and the future of all of us. The parallels between the breakdown of Dellarobia's marriage and of the environment are brilliantly insinuated as psychology and ecology become intertwined. The ambiguity in the title of her novel, Flight Behavior, points to the classical option when confronted by imminent danger: fight or flight! By the very act of writing this splendid novel, Barbara Kingsolver has committed to facing the challenges of climate change.

That is also the object of Curt Stager's ambitious study, Deep Future, subtitled The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth. Stager is a scientist with advanced degrees in biology and geology who specializes in palaeoclimatology and has published many articles in his field. He teaches at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondack Mountains (a home location much like Kingsolver's) and is a research associate at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute. Like Kingsolver, he too knows the Earth's climate is changing as a consequence of our massive carbon emissions, and environmental disasters have already begun to impact our lives. The question is how, precisely, life will be affected and how bad is it going to get.

To those of us who try to stay informed about the developing scenario of climate change and who watch the mounting environmental disasters closing in on us, Deep Future is like an aerobic exercise for the mind. It stretches and ventilates our understanding and expectations as Stager opens up the narrow spacetime of our little lives. As a palaeontologist he can bring home the fact that episodes of global warming have happened before in the history of our planet, both in the near and distant past. And they will happen again. They are a natural product of the ever shifting interplay of the negative and positive energy fields that give us life and death. The tilt of the Earth's axis, the spin and wobble of our planet on its orbit, and the unaccountable fluctuations of the sun's energy output--all are part of the causes for the perpetual swing between glacial and interglacial climates. The complexity of these processes is not fully understood, but we do know that the current Global Warming event is man-made, a consequence of industrialization and our obsession with the comforts and pleasures cheap fuel provides in a technological age.

To understand more concretely what effects Global Warming may have on life on Earth, Stager takes us back to the Eemian Interglacial, the most recent episode of Global Warming. It started about 130,000 years ago and reached its peak about 117,000 years ago. It seems like a long time in the past, but on a geological scale it's just a couple of seconds out of a 24-hour day. At the time, temperatures rose between 11[degrees] and 13[degrees]C in East Antarctica; glaciers and ice sheets melted, putting huge tracts of land under water; the boreal tree line moved hundreds of miles north; birch woods, hazels and elders flourished above the Arctic Circle; European forests teemed with wild boars, wolves, and beavers; hippos bathed in the Thames river and water buffalo in the Rhine; rhinos inhabited the British Isles; mammoths, giant lions and giant beavers roamed North America; and the whole planet was a paradise for insects.

In other words, life continued to flourish during severe Global Wanning. The habitat of some species was devastated. They either adapted or became extinct; some benefited from the new climate and proliferated hugely. Homo sapiens was alive then and survived handsomely. In fact, the fossil record suggests that it was during the Eemian Interglacial that a modern form of our species evolved and spread from the Rift Valley south to what is now South Africa and north to the Middle East.

Global Warming doesn't necessarily mean the end of the human presence on Earth. In fact, by pumping excessive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, we have probably averted another severe glacial period which, according to Stager, was due in about another 140,000 years. It would have lasted thousands of years and might have proven fatal to our descendants since ice ages are much more deadly to animals and plants than warm-ups. That's why Stager issues a new rallying call: Save the carbon! Our descendants a few thousand generations down the road may need to release it into the atmosphere to avoid freezing and starving to death.

Such predictions are, of course, highly speculative, Stager keeps reminding the reader. Everything depends on the severity of the current Global Warming event. Will it be moderate or extreme? A moderate warming episode is in progress now, and even if we were to stop pumping carbon dioxide into our atmosphere today, the Greenhouse Effect our pollution is causing will affect the human presence catastrophically through floods, droughts, storms, air pollution, heat waves, acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, and generally adding to the global extinction rate of our fauna which human beings initiated and which rivals the mass extinction caused by the asteroid hitting the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago.

In pre-industrial times, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 280 ppm (parts per million); today it is 390 ppm, a level higher than at any time during the last 800,000 years, and probably higher than in the past 20 million years. Stager estimates that it will take the Earth's climate 100,000 years to return to the conditions before industrialization, even if the current Global Warming episode remains at the current levels. But atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise and rise at accelerating rates. Worldwide, 9.14 gigatonnes of carbon were released from fossil fuels and cement production in 2010; in 1990, the amount was 6.15 gigatonnes. That's an acceleration rate of 50% in 20 years. If it continues--and it may be a self-amplifying process, we are headed for an extreme Global Warming episode.

The Earth experienced such a worst-case Super-Greenhouse episode in the Cenozoic Era about 55 million years ago, when global temperatures suddenly spiked and stayed for several million years at around 10[degrees] to 12[degrees] (possibly even more) above current temperatures. At the time there were upwards of 2,000 gigatonnes of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere, compared to 300 gigatonnes today. It's not clearly understood what caused this dramatic increase in atmospheric carbon concentration, but the consequences were catastrophic. The Atlantic ocean became a tepid, brackish lake, Stager explains, and up to half of all bottom-dwelling foram species [marine protozoan] vanished from the fossil record. Since almost none of today's animals existed at the time, it is speculative to prophesy what would happen to them, but it is fair to say that they'd not be 'happy campers'.

Stager explores many implications and possible consequences of Global Warming in considerable detail without ever preaching to the reader. He simply presents the scientific data and leaves the rest to us. I found his study reassuring for two reasons. Firstly, because he places the current Greenhouse effect in a larger geological perspective which demonstrates that whatever happens life will go on. The Earth is not in any real danger. And secondly, an underlying optimism pervades his book that suggests Homo sapiens will come to his senses in time to prevent an extreme episode of Global Warming by drastically reducing carbon gas emissions. This would give our descendants a chance to survive the coming challenges and make a comeback. In this, he is of one mind with Barbara Kingsolver. Both the novelist and the scientist know the time to act is now. No one can be sure when the point of no return is reached, but do we really want to go over Niagara Falls in a canoe?

Henry Beissel is a poet, playwright, essayist, translator, and editor who has published over 30 books. He is Distinguished Emeritus Professor at Concordia University, Montreal, and now lives in Ottawa.
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Author:Beissel, Henry
Publication:Humanist Perspectives
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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