A copy of “The Fragile Earth” rests on a typewriter on Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A copy of “The Fragile Earth” rests on a typewriter on Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Off the Shelf: Seeking transformation in the face of catastrophe

Potent words on climate change resonate across decades

Shortly after Earth Day this year, I purchased a book that had an illustration of a melting planet on the front.

“The Fragile Earth” is a collection of essays about climate change that have been previously published in The New Yorker. The first in the collection is Bill McKibben’s 1989 “Reflections: The End of Nature,” in which he offers foundational knowledge upon which discussions about climate change rest interwoven with his own thoughts.

It’s sometimes said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it, some are more attractive than others. “The Fragile Earth” cover depicts a cartoon planet Earth melting on a bright yellow background — that succeeded in attracting me. The volume contains 21 essays across three parts. Part I features a 2016 essay by the Kenai Peninsula’s own Tom Kizzia about whale hunters in Alaska. Others dive into how climate models work and the effect of carbon emissions on oceans.

Among the foundational knowledge McKibben shares, for example, is the process through which the climate is being changed: the harvest of fossilized remains of aquatic algae, carbon dioxide’s ability to capture solar infrared radiation that would otherwise go back to space, the fact that methane is more than 20 times as efficient at warming the planet as carbon dioxide.

What’s notable is how familiar many of McKibben’s points sound despite being written more than 30 years ago. Speaking for myself, it seems like people have been talking about climate change for my entire life. I can remember when my childhood neighbors replaced their front lawns with succulents to save water, getting a recycling prize during a Girl Scouts jamboree and giving a speech in high school about hydroelectric dams.

Climate change was always presented as something that was happening right now and as something I could help mitigate.

In his essay about the end of nature, McKibben examines the implications of climate change on warmer temperatures and hotter days, of rising sea levels on coastal and non-coastal communities alike and the way those impacts would change the United States’ agriculture.

There are a lot of natural processes that put more carbon and methane into the atmosphere, McKibben explains. Trees contain a lot of carbon dioxide that is released when they’re burned, for example, and termites are thought to be responsible for between 1% and 2% of global methane missions.

The problem is all of the ways humans add to those natural emissions, such as by burning fossil fuels.

It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless, in my experience, when tasked with saving the literal planet. I sometimes think climate change, though, is too often presented as an abstract problem future generations will face.

I feel like I’m staring it in the face every day; in the form of a particularly severe spruce bark beetle outbreak that was foreseen by scientists in the ‘90s, by the failure of infrastructure in Texas to keep people alive during particularly severe cold weather and by the opening of emergency “cool down” shelters in the Pacific Northwest during particularly severe heat waves.

Like a lot of contemporary climate voices, McKibben arrives at the conclusion that what needs to change is not how humans mold nature to accommodate their whims, but rather how humans should change their behavior for the sake of the planet.

“We live at the end of nature, the instant when the essential character of the world is changing,” McKibben writes. “If our way of life is ending nature, it is not radical to talk about transforming our way of life.”

“The Fragile Earth” was published in 2020 by The New Yorker.

Ashlyn O’Hara can be reached at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of The Peninsula Clarion that features reviews and recommendations of books and other texts through a contemporary lens.

More in Life

This photo of Frenchy with a freshly killed black bear was taken on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)
Unraveling the story of Frenchy, Part 1

The stories were full of high adventure — whaling, mining, polar bear hunting, extensive travel, and the accumulation of wealth

Seeing God’s hand in this grand and glorious creation

The same God of creation is the God that made me and you with the same thoughtfulness of design, purpose and intention

Chewy and sweet the macaroons are done in 30 minutes flat. (Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Sophisticated, simplified

When macarons are too complicated, make these delicious, simple macaroons

Michael S. Lockett / capital city weekly
Gigi Monroe welcomes guests to Glitz at Centennial Hall, a major annual drag event celebrated every Pride Month, on June 18.
Packed houses, back to back: GLITZ a roaring success

Sold-out sets and heavy-hitting headliners

Michael Armstrong / Homer News 
Music lovers dance to Nervis Rex at the KBBI Concert on the Lawn on July 28, 2012, at Karen Hornaday Park in Homer.
Concert on the Lawn returns

COTL line up includes The English Bay Band, a group that played in 1980

Marcia and Mary Alice Grainge pose in 1980 with a pair of caribou antlers they found in 1972. The sisters dug the antlers from deep snow and detached them from a dead caribou. (Photo provided by Marcia Grainge King)
Fortune and misfortune on the Kenai — Part 2

In Kasilof, and on Kachemak Bay, in Seldovia and later in Unga, Petersen worked various jobs before being appointed deputy marshal in 1934

“Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked a Movement” was published in 2018 by Razorbill and Dutton, imprints of Penguin Random House LLC. (Image via amazon.com)
Off the Shelf: The power of personal voice

“A Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked a Movement” provides first-person accounts of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida

Most Read