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Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change Paperback – December 26, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. On the burgeoning shelf of cautionary but occasionally alarmist books warning about the consequences of dramatic climate change, Kolbert's calmly persuasive reporting stands out for its sobering clarity. Expanding on a three-part series for the New Yorker, Kolbert (The Prophet of Love) lets facts rather than polemics tell the story: in essence, it's that Earth is now nearly as warm as it has been at any time in the last 420,000 years and is on the precipice of an unprecedented "climate regime, one with which modern humans have had no prior experience." An inexorable increase in the world's average temperature means that butterflies, which typically restrict themselves to well-defined climate zones, are now flitting where they've never been found before; that nearly every major glacier in the world is melting rapidly; and that the prescient Dutch are already preparing to let rising oceans reclaim some of their land. In her most pointed chapter, Kolbert chides the U.S. for refusing to sign on to the Kyoto Accord. In her most upbeat chapter, Kolbert singles out Burlington, Vt., for its impressive energy-saving campaign, which ought to be a model for the rest of the nation—just as this unbiased overview is a model for writing about an urgent environmental crisis. (Mar. 14)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

In the 1990s the inhabitants of Shishmaref, an Inupiat village on the Alaskan island of Sarichef, noticed that sea ice was forming later and melting earlier. The change meant that they could not safely hunt seal as they had traditionally and that a protective skirt of ice no longer buffered the small town from destructive storm waves. Shishmaref was being undone by a warming world. To survive, the villagers recently decided to move to the mainland. Soon Shishmaref on Sarichef will be gone. Pithy and powerful, the opening of Elizabeth Kolbert's book about global warming, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, echoes that of another book that also originated as a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring starts in much the same way, with a fable about a town that lived in harmony with its surroundings and that fell silent. The question is, Can Field Notes galvanize a national movement to curb global warming in the same way Silent Spring sparked one to curb the use of pesticides? Silent Spring's success as a transformative force came about because of Carson's scientific authority, the way she shaped her argument, the immediate nature of the threat, and the many movements afoot in American society in 1962. Carson was a scientist, and she had credibility when she described how synthetic chemicals, DDT in particular, affect living things. That authority convinced her readers and withstood critics and attacks by the chemical industry. Carson's writing was direct and her rhetoric carefully chosen, as her biographer Linda Lear and other scholars have noted. Carson appreciated Americans' fears about nuclear fallout: something invisible was contaminating their food. She made clear DDT's similar qualities: "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves." Concerned that her audience might be solely women--mothers worried about the health of their children--she also spoke directly to hunters, outdoorsmen. She deliberately sought, and got, the widest possible reach. Although Carson was describing something people could not see in their food, she was writing about something they could viscerally understand: they saw pesticides being sprayed. They could connect their health with their surroundings, and that kind of connection can lead to powerful activism. It did after Silent Spring. It did in the late 1970s in Woburn, Mass., as Jonathan Harr describes in A Civil Action, the story of families whose children were dying of leukemia. It did in 1978 at Love Canal in New York State. It continues to do so in communities around the world. If we can see the problem--in our family, in our neighborhood, in the natural world we are intimate with--it is not necessarily easier to tackle, but it becomes more immediate, more mobilizing. Just as important as Carson's credentials, her literary brilliance and the tangibility of her topic was the time at which she was writing. In the 1960s Americans were energetically exercising their freedom of transformation. As Adam Rome, an environmental historian at Pennsylvania State University, has written, the environmental movement that blossomed after Silent Spring owed a great deal to the Democratic agenda set in the mid-1950s, to the growing activism of middle-class women, and to a counterculture raised in fear of the bomb and the planet's end. The power of Silent Spring lay in what people and politicians did with it. Field Notes from a Catastrophe is not arriving on a similar scene. There is not much widespread U.S. protest about anything--not about the war with Iraq, not about the administration's links to oil and other industry, not about the diminishing of our civil rights. It is strangely quiet here. Americans are also burned out on environmental catastrophism. Many people have noted that with each new catastrophe that has not appeared--the extinction of nearly everything by the end of last year and food shortages, to mention two examples--doomsayers have lost more of their clout and their audience. The problems grow, but apathy has set in. Kolbert is also writing about something most of us cannot see clearly. Despite reports of melting glaciers, changing ecology, shorter winters and other critical indicators, global warming remains hard to grasp. We can see breast cancer cases on Long Island. We can see high asthma rates in inner cities. And we can see nongovernmental organizations struggling on those fronts. We are not good at seeing big, wide and far away; our sense of scale has not evolved in tandem with the scale of our lives. And yet. After Katrina, newspapers around the country explored the question of whether there was a link between the ferocity of the hurricane and global warming. (Answer: No one hurricane's force can be attributed to global warming, but trends of increasing intensity might, in time.) Maybe climate change is becoming more personal to more Americans--those in the lower 48. Kolbert's book contributes more important images for us to personalize. Fairbanks, Alaska, is losing its foundation; as the permafrost melts, huge holes are opening in the earth, under houses, in front yards. Twenty-two English butterfly species have shifted their ranges to the cooler north. The Dutch are busy developing amphibious houses. Burlington, Vt., has tried to reduce energy consumption and has been only modestly successful; without national political will, any one plan hits a wall. Field Notes has scientific authority as well. Kolbert is not a scientist, but she reports regularly on science, and she may well have talked to every researcher on the planet studying global warming. There are names and characters in Field Notes that even a climate-change obsessive may not have seen in other press articles or books. It can get dizzying at times. Yet the enduring impression is of deep, sober, rooted authority--the same impression Silent Spring conveys. The book is a review of the scientific evidence and of the failure of the politicians we chose. The details are terrifying, and Kolbert's point of view is very clear, but there is no rhetoric of rant here. She is most directly editorial in the last sentence of the book, and by that point, she has built the case. Other books on global warming have not had much widespread social or political effect. There have been many--and even Field Notes arrives at the same time as The Winds of Change, by Eugene Linden (Simon & Schuster), and The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press). In 1989 the much celebrated The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben, for example, catalyzed debate--is nature really ending?--but not a national movement. Perhaps Field Notes can't make a movement where there's little concentrated activist juice. But something about this book feels as though it might. For a friend of mine, Kolbert's New Yorker series was an awakening--the first time, she said, she really understood what was happening and why we must act. Let's hope this powerful, clear and important book is not just lightly compared to Silent Spring. Let's hope it is this era's galvanizing text.

Marguerite Holloway, a contributing editor at Scientific American, teaches journalism at Columbia University. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1st edition (December 26, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596911301
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596911307
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (133 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #109,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Barron Laycock HALL OF FAME on March 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
One never ceases to marvel at the consistent way in which we humans seem to be lunging headlong into the ecological abyss. In this wonderful new book by former New York Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, the reader is whisked away into a series of field trips into the myriad of places across the globe where the increasing evidence of approaching disaster is being observed, discussed, and reacted to in ways that has to give the reader pause. Eskimos are abandoning a small island in the Artic Ocean even as the surrounding ice cap that once protected from wind and storm damage melts into oblivion as a direct result of the Greenhouse Effect.

Kolbert offer us poignant glimpses at humans forced to confront ugly truths about the nature of the Anthropocene era, that is, that so-far limited expanse of time that humans have inhabited the earth. Presented with the bulk of the evidence, it is hard for an objective intellect to escape the distinct possibility that as a species we seem to be hell-bent on self-destruction. Indeed, the breadth and scope of the manifest effects of climate change on human habitation is breath-taking, affecting societies as far-flung as Netherlands to Siberia, from South Africa to the Great Barrier Reef. She writes wryly about stepping through the looking glass in a conversation with a Washington wonk who attempted to justify the Bush administration's active opposition to both the Kyoto Treaty and any attempt to rework it into a manageable tool to effectively combat the effects of global warming.

It is in such encounters that she discovers her voice and her poignant sense of urgency; if the best educated among us choose to stand in active opposition, what chance is thereto turn this catastrophic change in climate around?
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Format: Paperback
Earlier this year I read The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. It was an excellent book full of scientific explanations to nearly all the questions I had about the issue of climate change. Now I have just finished Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. It also is an excellent book. In fact, I wish I had read it first - not because it is the better of the two books, but because it is a better introduction to the subject.

Field Notes From A Catastrophe details the author's experiences as she traveled, met, and conversed with several leading authorities of the climate change issue. The first chapters explain some of the negative effects of climate change on nature, while the later chapters deal with how climate change has affected man and civilization in the past, how it will likely affect us in the future, and how political leaders are squandering the last few years we have left to make much of difference - all in order to appease their big-time cash contributors.

The author excels in letting experts in the field tell the story for her. For example, in explaining the devastating consequence of modest, but prolonged, local climate change to an ancient middle-eastern civilization the leading paleo-climatologist to study the case says, "The thing they couldn't prepare for was the same thing that we won't prepare for, because in their case they didn't know about it and because in our case the political system can't listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think."

I highly recommend this book. For more advanced scientific information about climate change many other good books are available (including The Weather Makers), but for an introduction to the subject this one is nearly perfect.
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Format: Hardcover
Discussing global climate patterns which are exacerbating weather changes worldwide, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how human-induced global will likely have dire consequences. In the Netherlands, Kolbert explains, construction is under way on buoyant roads and amphibious homes resembling toasters. In Alaska, as myopic politicans insist on drilling for more the last drop of oil, climate change is forcing people to leave their homes and, as Kolbert explains, their ways of life.

This will affect us all, as conflict over basic needs could soon turn the United States into a fully guarded zones, with security personnel staving off millions of migrants from flooded regions. Yet, as Kolbert also notes, the United States is the largest emitter of carbon in the world. Thus, the U.S. population has substantial responsibility for the migrations to come.

This book deserves serious attention, not only as a handbook of facts about climate and geography, but also for its keen interest in what real people are experiencing, right now.

Kolbert foresees widespread and dire consequences, yet interviews an expert who retains some hope that we could still avert utter disaster. In that sense, there's an element of activism to this book -- although Kolbert's sense of doom is quite clear by the book's conclusion. We're selfish, says this book, and it's killing us.

So what should our response be? Carbon emissions are more dangerous due to the increasing lack of forests, which we tear down for cities and rangeland. Methane is second to carbon dioxide in its warming potential; it accounts for 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with more than twenty times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
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