Thursday, September 26, 2019

Kate Marvel on Jonathan Franzen

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Kate Marvel came to climate science via a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. That background has served her well as a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. She also writes a regular column, "Hot Planet," for Scientific American (SA).

Widely acclaimed novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay under the occasional Cultural Comment section of The New Yorker on September 8, 2019. I've not read What if We Stopped Pretending but trust him to have provided the takeaway in the subtitle. The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can't prevent it.

Kate disagrees. Strongly. The title of her SA Hot Planet column pulls no punches, e.g., the title: Shut Up, Franzen. And like Franzen, she provides her takeaway in the subtitle: Climate change is real, and things will get worse. But because we understand the driver of potential doom, it's a choice, not a foregone conclusion. 

Marvel notes that we've "had the potential for total annihilation since 1945, and the capacity for localized mayhem for as long as societies have existed." She goes on to describe the basic physics of not doing anything, "the easy choice of a slow destruction through inaction....." In other words doom IS a possibility. There are no guarantees. Marvel tells us about the science to which we must listen whether we like it or not. Evidence not belief.

In the end what is required is "concerted action" and whether this is possible is not known. Human nature? Politics? Economics? Other? Dr. Marvel closes on the side of human possibility, written the way a writer would write. What an incredible planet.

But I am a scientist, which means I believe in miracles. I live on one. We are improbable life on a perfect planet. No other place in the Universe has nooks or perfect mountaintops or small and beautiful gardens. A flower in a garden is an exquisite thing, rooted in soil formed from old rocks broken by weather. It breathes in sunlight and carbon dioxide and conjures its food as if by magic. For the flower to exist, a confluence of extraordinary things must happen. It needs land and air and light and water, all in the right proportion, and all at the right time. Pick it, isolate it, and watch it wither. Flowers, like people, cannot grow alone.


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