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Reviews: Is Our Planet Doomed?

Extinct toads, mutant mosquitoes, melting Arctic ice: Is our planet doomed?

By Robert Kunzig
Apr 2, 2006 6:00 AMApr 25, 2023 8:41 PM


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Since 1979, when the National Academy of Sciences undertook its first major study of global warming, "Americans have been alerted to the dangers of climate change so many times that reproducing even a small fraction of these warnings would fill several volumes," writes Elizabeth Kolbert. So far none of these warnings have had much effect. Why try again now? Because, as both Kolbert and Tim Flannery tell us in their new books on the subject, it has become obvious that global warming is already happening. What's more, they each claim, civilization itself is in danger.

Kolbert's book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (Bloomsbury, $22.95), is based on articles that appeared in The New Yorker. In compelling prose, she takes us to places where warming is already visible—primarily, in the formerly frozen North—and talks to scientists who are studying everything from melting sea ice in the Arctic to migrating butterflies in Britain. On one expedition in 1997, for instance, researchers on a Canadian ship studying sea ice found they kept falling through it. Though Kolbert's choice of subject is occasionally debatable—she devotes six pages of a slim book to a small mosquito whose DNA has mutated in response to warming—the details she amasses drive home her message: The world is changing fast.

Kolbert does illuminate the political and economic dimensions of the problem. She visits Paula Dobriansky, the American government's representative in climate negotiations but, in a brief and disturbing interview, is unable to engage her in intelligent conversation. "We act, we learn, we act again," Dobriansky drones. Kolbert thinks we're not acting enough: She describes at length the fate of the Mesopotamian civilization of Akkad, which apparently collapsed in the wake of climate change about 4,200 years ago. However, she offers little guidance as to how we could avoid such a catastrophe ourselves.

By contrast, Australian zoologist Tim Flannery devotes several chapters in The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25) to possible solutions. Outrage, he says, motivated him to write. Specifically, anger at the effect global warming is likely to have on the rain forests of the Atherton Tablelands of Queensland. The region is home to dozens of unique plants and animals that can't tolerate heat. The loss of the beautiful bunya pine alone, Flannery says, will be "calamitous."

A wealth of valuable information fills this book, but the author's tone of indignation does not serve his purpose well. Flannery sees global warming as a stark morality tale, with fossil-fuel companies as the forces of darkness, engaged in "digging up the dead." Yet global warming remains a challenge precisely because cheap fossil fuels have provided so many benefits. They helped lift the West out of poverty, and they are doing the same now for much of Asia.

Apocalyptic visions, which are not the heart of either of these fine books but which both writers indulge in on occasion, are also unlikely to persuade skeptics. "If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century," writes Flannery, "I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable." Kolbert ends on a similar note: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing." There is little evidence in either book that Western civilization is headed the way of Akkad. Yet as both Flannery and Kolbert make clear, global warming is a real danger that needs to be tackled now.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema

As everyone knows, a scientist is a man with unusual hair who discovers the secrets of the universe, speaks an obscure argot, and acts oddly. We know this, argues historian Christopher Frayling in his book Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema (Reaktion, $35) because movies tell us so. Movies construct a distorted image of the scientist "from a kit of parts lying around within the wider culture." That image reflects our hopes and fears of scientific advances—from bombs to cyborgs to genetic manipulations—and it has been surprisingly stable with time.

And that's pretty much the whole book. The idea sounds like a thesis, but no argument develops, and no evidence backs it. Instead, Frayling leaps happily from one subject to the next, from early special effects to sci-fi movie monsters and biopics of scientists. The problem is that movie images of scientists have no discernible historic trend.

Nevertheless, one of Frayling's leaps is worth the price of admission. In 1929, a German movie called Die Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) featured a rocket flying to the moon. In 1930 the movie company funded a rocket test attended by, among others, a young Wernher von Braun. In 1942 the secret German rocket center at Peenemünde, which von Braun directed, launched the forerunner of the V-2 rocket that later killed thousands of Londoners. On the side of the rocket was the sleek logo from Die Frau im Mond. In 1945 von Braun surrendered to the Americans and later helped design Saturn rockets for the Apollo program. He also advised Walt Disney on a series of movies about space travel and even narrated one. In 1960 a movie about von Braun himself was called I Aim at the Stars, which prompted one critic to quip, "But sometimes I hit London." A few years later, von Braun became the model for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. —Ann Finkbeiner

The Map Book

A map can be a plan, a prayer, a piece of propaganda. It can portray the great breadth of the earth, or a small pocket of it. All of these variations on the form are represented in The Map Book (Walker, $45), a visual chronicle edited by Peter Barber that begins in 1500 B.C. with the earliest known town plan—a guide to the Babylonian city of Nippur, annotated in cuneiform on a clay tablet (above)—and ends with a satellite-generated map of Mount Saint Helens that shows, with a smidgen of red, an eruption of the volcano in March 2005. The collection includes the earliest surviving sea chart—a 14th-century map of the Mediterranean showing coastlines, ports, and hazards like sandbanks—and a secret Nazi map, drawn in 1940, that uses pie charts to indicate the location of white immigrants to the United States (presumably those most amenable to propaganda to keep the country out of World War II). Map lovers visiting New York City should also investigate the newly restored and reopened Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division at the New York Public Library, a repository of 400,000 items, many in digital form. Among the rarities in the collection are America's first road atlas, printed in 1789, and a map drawn in 1668 by Pieter Goos that depicts California as an island. —Josie Glausiusz

On the web

Saintly doctors and evil, scheming scientists may populate the screens of many early films, but a new Web site launched by the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City shows that current movies take a more enlightened approach. Science Cinémathèque, a project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, features reviews of recent movies such as Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and a series of short student films on such topics as wormholes, the patterns in pinecones and sunflowers, and Ignaz Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian physician whose campaign to promote hand washing among doctors was met with near-universal scorn. Designed to foster interest in science through the moving image, Science Cinémathèque provides a welcome antidote to the mad boffins of yesteryear. —Josie Glausiusz


Twenty years ago, the Marlboro Man was a debonair cowboy leading a string of horses across a rushing creek in the early morning gloom. At least that's how he appears in the opening pages of the April 1986 issue of that venerable science magazine, Discover. Nowadays Discover's pages are free of cigarette ads, smokers are pariahs, and the Marlboro Man, as played by Sam Elliott in the movie Thank You for Smoking (Fox Searchlight Pictures) is dying of lung cancer. When Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) empties a case full of cash at the Marlboro Man's feet, he may qualify as the most despised spinmeister in America.

Naylor is a spokesman for the fictional Academy of Tobacco Studies, a role in which he has the remunerative but unenviable task of promoting a deadly addiction to a vehemently hostile public. He battles the sanctimonious Senator Ortolan Finistirre of Vermont (William H. Macy), who schemes to stick a skull on every pack of cigarettes; he sweet-talks a Hollywood mogul into paying celebrities to smoke in the movies; and he experiences a slight change of heart only after antismoking crusaders bundle him into a van and slap nicotine patches all over him, putting him into a coma.

Naylor is a cynic, and Thank You for Smoking is a clever satire. As it reminds us more than once, smoking kills more than 400,000 people every year in the United States. Of course, by now even semiconscious adults in America are aware that a smoking habit is likely to kick them into an early grave. But the film's most chilling moment may pass most viewers by. At one point Naylor casually, but very conspicuously, offers his 12-year-old son, Joey, a glistening bottle of Coke.

Research shows that regular consumption of sweet sodas significantly increases the risk of obesity, bone fractures, and tooth decay. Pushing cigarettes onto the public is rightly excoriated, but peddling dangerous soft drinks to children in the movies is still perfectly fine. —Josie Glausiusz

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