June 2021

I’ve been reading a lot lately about climate change, and the environment more generally, starting with Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks. It’s a bit of a hard book to categorize; it’s partly a memoir about a couple of years in his life when he lived first on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National park, in the Mojave desert, and then in Las Vegas for a writing fellowship— also in the desert, but obviously also a radically different place to be. But, while there is a fair bit about what he did and thought about over that time, more of the book is about the way that different societies have thought about time, and the human relationship to it, and how that thinking shapes our relationship to the world around us. This summary doesn’t come near to doing the book justice; it’s beautifully written and wide-ranging, recreating, as all good criticism of any kind does, the path taken by a mind that is trying to understand something about the world. It was also, I have to acknowledge, a bit of a tough read for me; in part this was because it gave me Trump flashbacks, but more generally the book does not, in general, make you feel good about the way things are going— but then, we shouldn’t feel good about that, so that can’t be considered a fault.

I was able to ameliorate the anxiety of Ehrenreich’s book somewhat by reading, at the same time, John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, a collection “essays on a human-centered planet.” The book collects, with some revisions and editions, the pieces that Green wrote for the podcast of the same name, which “reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” That’s a bit of a silly premise, of course, and he knows it; in practice, the review/rating aspect of the pieces is pretty minimal. In fact, they are thoughtful, funny, and frequently poignant examinations of a topics ranging from Diet Dr. Pepper to the plague; they’re all fairly short, but they do a lot of work in a little space, and they integrate personal experience with historical and cultural context in a way that often seems to me like a magic trick. The pieces in this book are, to a large extent, what this blog would be like if I were a much better writer than I am. And, while some of the pieces— like those on Kentucky Bluegrass (the plant, not the music) and air conditioning certainly showcase the blunt force insanity of our society’s relationship to the environment, Green also manages to communicate a sense of wonder and delight in what humans— as individuals, but mainly collectively— can accomplish.

(Side note: isn’t talking about “the environment” ridiculous? What isn’t the environment? Doesn’t setting it aside as some kind of distinct domain help to explain why we’re so bad at dealing with environmental problems? Come to think of it, I’m not sure “the climate” is much better. In a way, I guess you could say that this is actually what Desert Notebooks, in particular, is about.)

Along similar lines: “Upriver” by Rebecca Altman, is, ultimately, about plastic and health. She studies “body burden,” the amount of a toxin or pollutant that persists in the bodies of people exposed to it, and she begins by talking about the levels of a substance called PFOA found in people in Little Hocking, a town in the Ohio River valley, on the border between West Virginia and Ohio.

Material culture and industrial infrastructure carry the history of their making. What happens when their residues enter the body? Do they transfer that history to us? In her book Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber describes bodies as “living scrolls.” They record the history of the communities in which they live and the priorities of the society that disregards them. To study body burden is to learn how to read the historical archive stored in flesh and blood and bone.

PFOA, specifically, is a by-product of the production of Teflon at Dow’s nearby Washington Works. But there are many different chemicals being produced in the area, and various facilities, under the direction of a variety of companies; all are linked to the petrochemical industry and the production of plastics, either directly or through the various additives that stabilize plastics or give them specific properties. Part of what Altman is talking about is in fact the discovery of plastic— not in a literal sense, but the growing appreciation of the range of different materials that could be made from petroleum or its byproducts, and the subsequent braiding of those materials into our lives, in so many different ways. For instance, she describes the realization by a chemist at the Union Carbide and Carbon Company named George O. Curme, Jr., that ethylene— a chemical produced from ethane, which is a component of natural gas— might have many uses; ethylene is now an important chemical “substrate” that is “the basis for a sprawling industry entailing thousands of industrial petrochemicals”— Teflon among them. Moreover, the business in ethylene was built on Union Carbide’s original business in metals; perhaps it wouldn’t have developed at all, had the company not already developed expertise in certain kinds of industrial manufacturing. Investment and expertise in one area lead to new possibilities in others; they also create incentives to follow some paths and not others. Discussing some photos (a few of which are in the article) than Ansel Adams took for Fortune at a Carbide plant in 1941, Altman says:

Looking at them, I began to understand how metals, petrochemicals, and plastics work as their own kind of trinity. For what is a petrochemical plant but a mash-up of metal made from the kind of specialized alloys ElectroMet could make? Of processing equipment—which could harness “Brobdingnagian” forces, as Fortune put it—formed, molded, precision cut, and welded by Carbide’s other expertise in metalworking torches? And what would have become of the company’s venture into petrochemicals had it not been underwritten by its metals business?

As it happens, the former regional headquarters of Union Carbide and Carbon in Chicago— a prominent feature on the city’s skyline, referred to as the “champagne bottle”— is now home to a hotel called the St. Jane, named after Jane Addams, social reformer and founder of the Hull House. Addams was a prominent advocate for safer, more consistent waste collection, working for several years as a local garbage inspector. One of her many concerns was the South Fork of the Chicago river, known as “Bubbly Creek” because of the gasses released from the animal products dumped into the river by the city’s meatpackers at the Union Stock Yards, with long-term deleterious effects on the well-being of the people who lived along the river. Irony is one of history’s certainties, if you’re willing to wait for it long enough.

All of this is of course a product of how we think about the environment, and the world, and what courses are possible or likely for humanity. “The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth”, by By Chirag Dhara and Vandana Singh, suggests— echoing some of what Ehrenreich says in Desert Notebooks— that the desire for sustainability is fundamentally incompatible with an understanding of economics that calls for perpetual, unlimited growth. Drawing attention to the “materials footprint” of a product (as opposed to just its carbon footprint), they argue that while you can reduce certain kinds of environmental harms with new products and new technologies, genuine sustainability will require simply making, and having, less of things (along with much more reusing and recycling). The main example is in the piece electric vehicles, which may indeed put a lot less CO2 into the atmosphere, but which— if production of them is going to come anywhere near that of conventional vehicles right noe— will also require the mining of vast amounts of lithium and other minerals, all of which has its own environmental costs (some of which I talked about last month). Of course, we might come of with different, better kinds of batteries that don’t require lithium, but they’ll be made of something, and whatever that is will also have its costs. Until we accept that a much more fundamental rethinking is necessary, we’ll just be shifting the costs from one column to another.

For me, a really good work of non-fiction is one that points you toward a lot of other interesting stuff. (Austin Kleon describes such books as “centrifugal,” because they “spin you out” toward other books.) One of the directions that Desert Notebooks spun me in was toward this essay by Alex Ross about the bristlecone pine, a species of tree that can live for thousands of years— the oldest ever found was close to 5000 years old, and the oldest one currently living (that we know about for sure) is nearly 4500. They grow incredibly slowly (in human terms), and their wood is so dense and durable that it weathers like rock. This results in trees with wild, fantastic, twisted shapes, no two alike:

On the one hand, these trees grow only in a small part of the Great Basin, on mountain slopes, so their habitat is limited; on the other hand, to have lived so long they clearly must be among the toughest organisms on the planet. How and whether they will cope, then, with the changing climate is not clear. But, to some extent, they have been through this before; one reason that people study bristlecones is that their rings provide some of the clearest records of climatic shifts, for example periods of cooling that can result from massive volcanic eruptions. One of the scientists the Ross talks to notes that

“These volcanic events have been linked to disruptions of early civilizations, like Akkad, the world’s first empire. The poem ‘The Curse of Akkad’ tells of how the harvests failed and the population starved. ‘People were flailing at themselves from hunger’—that kind of thing.”

The eruption he is referring to occurred in 2036 BC, and its effects are visible in the rings of the oldest bristlecones. These trees have lived through any number events that register as catastrophes on the human scale; if nothing else, that makes them a reminder that our scale is not the measure of all things.

Speaking of surviving, this piece by Marion Renault describes new research into bdelloid rotifers— animals only a few microns in size, which have been successfully revived after twenty-four thousand years in the Siberian permafrost.

And, speaking (as I was earlier) of Jane Addams: she was also involved with the playground movement, which promoted the creation of the first neighborhood playgrounds, to give urban children safe places to play and get exercise. “Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out”, by Andrea Lange, shows how versions of the same problems remain. There are few public spaces of any kind for teens in most cities, and those that exist are rarely planned with girls in mind. Teen girls, “surveys show, are less likely to use the basketball courts and skate parks intended for adolescents, and run the risk of harassment, or worse, when they appear in adult spaces.” The British group Make Space for Girls is promoting some solutions to this problem, but the main point, for me, is that every structure, every order, is better for some uses, and some people, than others.

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