Climate

A review of 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming

ClimateProgress reviewer John Atcheson recommends “2084” but first has some thoughts on Amazon.com.

It would be impossible to review James Lawrence Powell’s 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming without first discussing Amazon’s new Singles format.

Amazon describes Singles as a vehicle for presenting  “”¦ compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”

It’s about time.

Historically, authors had two choices when writing a piece – magazine articles of less than 10,000 words, or book-worthy tomes exceeding 50,000 words.

A few outlets, such as The New York Review of Books, Harpers, or the Atlantic Monthly will publish pieces longer than 10,000 words, but even in these magazines, the novella and long-form journalism are constrained or ignored completely.

Conversely, many important topics are routinely expanded into full-length books by repetition and over-explanation, rendering exciting ideas stale and boring.

This situation hurt both authors and readers – the options were to give short shrift to important ideas, or explore them to death.

Enter Singles.  Authors now have a choice of lengths, and journalism and literature are the better for it, and so are readers.

Amazon has made it convenient and affordable to purchase Singles titles, which can be easily downloaded on a Kindle or a variety of other platforms, for a price that ranges from 99 cents to a few dollars.

Powell’s 2084 – a piece of fictional journalism modeled on Studs Terkel’s interview technique — was made for Singles.  Much shorter, and it wouldn’t have covered the ground it needed to cover, much longer and we’d be itching for the end.  But at 91 pages (print equivalent) it is a compelling and absorbing work.

Powell clearly hopes that fiction can save the world. The book is a retroactive history of the toll global warming has taken on the Earth as told through the eyes of eighteen observers in the year 2084 – an obvious homage to another future history, George Orwell’s 1984.

The sense of regret and loss permeates the book, and at their best, the individual interviews evoke a righteous anger as well.

For example, the interview with Tavau Toafa – in 2084, the last person alive to have been born on the island of Tuvalu – recounts his grandfather’s (who was Tuvalu’s last Prime Minister) poignant observation as he leaves the island for the last time:

As our islands sank beneath the horizon, soon to sink beneath the waves, he knew that he would never return and that our flag would never fly again. To have to abandon your homeland is one thing; to have it vanish entirely is another.

An interview entitled “The Fall of Rotterdam” chronicles the final chapter in the Netherland’s struggle against the sea.  It’s not giving away the story to say they lost.

Powell is a scientist, and he puts his considerable knowledge of global warming and feedbacks to good use.  Floods, fires, storms, rising seas, disease, famine, refuges and warfare – including a war between the US and Canada – are the leitmotif for nearly every interview.   He weaves repeating major events into several of the interviews which helps establish a certain verisimilitude to the chronicle, rendering it all the more chilling.

He also does a good job of forecasting the kind of political horrors the challenges embedded in global warming are likely to ignite.  A chapter entitled America First looks chillingly like the logical conclusion of the fascistic right wing  leanings we see in today’s politics.  He is equally convincing in describing how global warming-induced water shortages combine with ethnic and religious hatred to ignite a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or how water shortages inevitably lead to yet another tragic war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The one thing missing from this work of fiction is the personal. For many, the cavalcade of disaster may start to feel like a litany – oft repeated, but rarely heard.

In the end, what I’ll call “social action” dystopic fiction’s most powerful aspect may be to make us see the consequences of our actions through the eyes of characters we’ve come to know, trust and care about, and to appeal to our emotions as much as our reason.  In On the Beach, when we watch Peter Homes plant a garden he knows he will never harvest, it speaks louder than a thousand essays.  When Winston Smith and Julia defy Big Brother and engage in a love affair in 1984 we cheer their defiance, fear for their well-being, and curse their betrayal of each other.  The totalitarian presence is not something we know in the abstract, it is visceral and personal, and we hate it at every level.

Powell’s choice of format didn’t allow for this kind of connection between reader and character, but it did enable him to give a realistic portrait of the world that awaits us – perhaps inevitably now.

John Atcheson has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks (see “Utility decoupling on steroids.”)  He is working on his own novel about climate change.

8 Responses to A review of 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming

  1. Jim says:

    You do not have to read Kindle Singles on a mobile device; you can read them on a Mac or PC by downloading the software at these links:

    Mac: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000464931

    PC: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000426311

  2. George Ennis says:

    Just read the book. Brace yourselves since it basically provides a glimpse at a future which based on current actions or inactions is likely to become all too real.

  3. Mike # 22 says:

    A quick look at a few sources puts the lifetime emissions for one ipad as about half that for one year of newspapers, with global sales to do something like 150 million by 2014. Are paper media headed towards obsolete? I’ve tried reading books on a pc, and it doesn’t work for me, but people love their e-readers. Maybe time to take the plunge.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I suspect that, if there are any human survivors in 2084, that they will not be like the mainstream today. I’d like to imagine that there might be hardy bands of refugees, dedicated to salvaging as much of human achievement as possible, like Dark Age monks huddled in their stone huts on craggy and remote Atlantic islets, in the faint hope that we might slowly drag ourselves back up to some level of ‘civilization’ and be the better for our having gone through the fire. You can almost imagine a last-ditch attempt to codify as much of human culture as possible and store it in some repository like the Svarlsbad seed bank.
    Unfortunately I’m more inclined to imagine the descent into barbarity of all those cheery dystopian novels that abound these days in all their eschatological profusion. I can just imagine a band of our more deracinated descendants bursting into the repository and smashing all the precious relics as ‘unGodly’ or an affront to their Creator Figure, the Blessed Sarah of the North.

  5. KenL says:

    I coincidentally just read “2084” today. It mostly accomplishes what the author intended–it makes the huge upheavals, the mass misery, the catastrophes and widescale death and destruction caused by climate change quite frightening and tangible.

    Of course the farther into the future the events described, the more speculative they become. I’m not sure his scenarios for Israel, or for the US essentially annexing Canada, are necessarily credible. (The behavior of the Canadian gov’t in the latter in particular strains credulity.) But the exact nature of the political fallout is not so important. The point is that by the end of the century, as one character points out, it is likely that life will again be “nasty, brutish and short”.

  6. Villabolo says:

    @4 Mulga Mumblebrain:

    “I’d like to imagine that there might be hardy bands of refugees, dedicated to salvaging as much of human achievement as possible, like Dark Age monks huddled in their stone huts on craggy and remote Atlantic islets, in the faint hope that we might slowly drag ourselves back up to some level of ‘civilization’ . . .”

    “I can just imagine a band of our more deracinated descendants bursting into the repository and smashing all the precious relics as ‘unGodly’. . .”

    A canticle for Leibowitz

  7. otter17 says:

    I read this yesterday, and IMO it was overall a well-written collection of fictional interviews from around the world. Some of the facts thrown around seemed somewhat out of place coming from some of the interviewees, but I suppose in a world of catastrophic climate change we would all want to learn about what went wrong. Be careful not to get climate change induced depression, because this is some heavy stuff.

    I think that there needs to be a blockbuster movie that presents some of the same information. I envision a movie that has several interwoven character story lines throughout the years leading up to 2100. It would be a facts-based reasonable estimate of a business as usual scenario, maybe with fact checking from climate scientists. It wouldn’t be so much an action flick (like The Day After Tomorrow) as a struggle for morality, civilization, and survival. The characters would drive the story, affecting one another from across the world via their decisions, but the movie would also be a vehicle to explain some of the more salient pieces of scientific evidence. It need not be too preachy, but something to nudge people into doing their own research.