BookBrowse Reviews The Suicidal Planet by Mayer Hillman

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The Suicidal Planet

How to Prevent Global Climate Catastrophe

by Mayer Hillman

The Suicidal Planet by Mayer Hillman
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  • Published:
    Apr 2007, 304 pages

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An overview on global warming--and what we can do about it--from a world-class authority

From the book jacket: Climate change is the single biggest problem that humankind has ever had to face, as we continue with lifestyles that are way beyond the planet's limits. Mayer Hillman explains the real issues: what role technology can play, how you and your community can make changes, and what governments must do now to protect our planet for future generations. In The Suicidal Planet, he proposes:

  • A ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions by the world's governments.
  • Global carbon rationing to reduce our individal carbon outputs to a fair and ecologically safe level.
  • Helpful guidelines for the home, travel, and leisure.
  • And much, much more.

Featuring the very latest information on global warming completely revised to include U.S. facts and figures, The Suicidal Planet takes us out of the problem and into the solution to our international crisis.

Comment: The Suicidal Planet is not an enjoyable read, but it is, arguably, a necessary one. In the first section, the authors lay out the problem as they see it - our planet is warming at an alarming rate, and two-thirds of the effect is due to the burning of fossil fuels, which have released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There has been a one-third increase in CO2 levels since 1750, and half of that increase has been in the past 40 years. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow, we could not eliminate the increased carbon levels in the atmosphere and therefore we cannot stop global warming, but by drastically reducing our carbon emissions on a global basis we could stabilize carbon levels and, therefore, in theory, prevent further rises in temperature.

If we continue on our current course, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that average world temperatures will rise between 2.5°F and 10.4°F between 1990 and 2100. Temperature rises in currently colder areas would be more extreme, with Alaska, Canada and Northern Asia rising by 18°F (see the sidebar for how such an increase could effect the USA).

To put things in perspective, the global temperature shift between the last Ice Age and now is believed to be 10°F; and an estimated 11°F increase in world temperatures was sufficient to wipe out 95% of species at the end of the Permian Period 250 million years ago.

The authors predict much gloom for the world if temperatures increase, not least of which is that just a couple of degrees of temperature increase will lead to substantial increases in the number of environmental refugees, for example, a 3 foot increase in sea levels would submerge low lying areas of Bangladesh and China, occupied by about 200 million people. This fact, just one of many in this fact filled little book, brings me on to my main criticism of The Suicidal Planet and, for that matter, every other book that I have read over the past few years that offers a solution to an immediate or impending environmental catastrophe. Each book addresses the symptoms of their particular focus but never the underlying cause that links all of our problems. Books about the water crisis facing much of the world offer solutions for smarter irrigation or dividing resources more fairly; books about the loss of species talk about creating more preserves or whatever. The Suicidal Planet is no different. Higher carbon emissions are a symptom of two key factors. Firstly, over the past two centuries the world has learned how to utilize fossil fuels in any number of inventive ways; secondly, the world's population has increased six-fold, from about 1 billion 200 years ago, to about 6 billion today; and rising!

However, other than a few passing references to population, The Suicidal Planet entirely ignores the population issue; and population control is no part of their solution. In fact, if I am understanding their proposal correctly (as explained in detail in Part 3 of Suicidal Planet), it could actually be beneficial for poorer countries to increase their populations, because under the proposed system of Contraction and Convergence (C&C), carbon usage levels by country would be based on the country's population, with the ability for countries to trade between each other at a national level. Initially, developed countries would have higher allowances than non-developed, but over a decade or two, per capita allowances would be equalized across nations.

In practice this would mean that the carbon allowance for a country such as Afghanistan (the lowest per capita emitter of carbon in the world) would be in excess of its current usage, while the USA's would be substantially below its current usage. The USA could buy Afghanistans' excess usage at whatever rate the market demanded. However, if the percentage allowance by country was adjusted regularly based on its population some developing countries could see it as advantageous to increase their population in order to increase their percentage of the overall allowance!

The second half of the C&C plan is that within each country carbon rationing cards would be issued; and this is where the developed world, and particularly America, would feel the pain. For example, the authors' carbon budgeting tables illustrate that by the year 2030 carbon usage would have to be at 1/8th of the level of today's average USA usage to stabilize the effects of global warming! Long distance travel by carbon producing means would be effectively impossible - for example a return flight from New York to Miami would use up the entire annual carbon allowance for an individual!

Rationing cards could save our planet's environment, but it's difficult to see the world's governments ever agreeing to such drastic levels of rationing in time to make a difference. However, perhaps the threat of rationing cards will be enough to drive new technologies and encourage sensible cutbacks in consumption. However, unless the world manages to stabilize and then gently reduce its population back to manageable levels, it's difficult to see a long term solution to any of our environmental problems, with or without rationing cards!

How big is the problem? According to the IPCC, a 60% reduction in global emissions is needed by 2050 to stabilize temperatures.

Would governments ever endorse rationing? Apparently, a system of Contraction and Convergence has already been endorsed by most European environment ministers, key spokesmen in China, India and Africa, the World Council of Churches and The World Bank. Of course, endorsing a concept is quite different to agreeing the details, but the amount of discussion on the concept of C&C is substantial at both government and individual level in much of the world.

Can new technologies save us? According to the authors, emphatically no. The second half of the book is spent in an exhaustive and humorless review of all alternative energy sources, and the authors' view is that even if we harness every renewable resource we cannot meet the world's growing demand for energy - so we must ration the supply. Energy efficient means of land or sea based transport might come along (especially if minds were concentrated by the specter of rationing cards) but, according to the authors, air travel is doomed as not only is there no known alternative to jet fuel but the damage airplanes do by releasing their carbon emissions into the high atmosphere is substantially worse than a similar amount of emissions at ground level. Having said that, the authors claim that air travel is doomed because there is no clean alternative to jet fuel reminds me of the entry about powered flight in our 1889 set of Chambers Encyclopedia, which states with great authority that powered flight is impossible because the steam engine is too heavy. Fourteen years later, the Wright brothers took to the air!

What are other countries doing? No other developed or developing country comes close to the USA's consumption of fossil fuels; and the majority of, if not all, developed countries are further down the road to recognizing and managing the problem of carbon emissions. For example, I read The Suicidal Planet while flying from California to England on a carbon-spewing, ozone destroying jumbo jet; on arrival I shared some of the facts from the book with the first half dozen or so friends I saw; without exception they were all familiar with the concepts outlined in the book and had consciously made changes to their lifestyle - nothing particularly dramatic, but changes nonetheless. The European media are constantly exhorting individuals and businesses to shrink their carbon footprint, and suggesting practical ways to do so; and European venture capital companies and governments are busy investing in new forms of renewable energy (such as the newly opened solar power farm in Spain, sufficient to provide energy to 600,000 residents of Seville). The overall result is that tangible improvements in carbon emissions are being made across the board. On the flight back I chatted with a couple of Americans, both of whom had become much more aware of the issues during their short stay in England; one had even cut out articles to bring home to his daughter.

This review is from the May 10, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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