MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Kim Stanley Robinson
Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl met in the late thirties in New York, when they were teenagers. Both of them were associated with a group of like-minded young science fiction writers called the Futurians. The Futurians were interested in the Young Communist League and other leftist causes, and this was true to an extent of Asimov and Pohl as well. Both of them later recalled these years very entertainingly in their autobiographies, Asimov’s In Memory Yet Green and Pohl’s The Way The Future Was, and Damon Knight’s memoir The Futurians includes funny portrayals of them both. During those years they wrote a few stories together, as most of the members of that group had a habit of doing. Quickly Asimov’s solo stories established him as one of the most famous science fiction writers alive. Pohl’s career had a more scattered beginning, and along with writing short fiction, often in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth, he worked extensively as an editor and a literary agent. Both men joined the Army during World War II, and Pohl worked as an Army meteorologist, giving him experiences that are perhaps relevant to this book. I recall a dinner in Portales, New Mexico, in 2005, during which Pohl discussed the phenomenon of virga with pleasure; it’s a kind of rainfall that doesn’t reach the ground, and he liked both the word and the sight of those sheets of rain hanging in the sky.
Soon after the war ended both men returned to civilian life, and wrote prolifically through the next four decades. Though somewhat similar in their aesthetics and politics, they were quite different in character, at least in public. Asimov was sanguine and ebullient, a cheerful polymath and public intellectual who could write well on any topic, and spent most of his time in Manhattan. Pohl was saturnine and watchful, and was mostly a science fiction insider, who traveled extensively and lectured frequently. They both remained as committed to liberal politics as they had been in their youth, which put them at odds with some other writers in the science fiction community, especially during the Vietnam War. They were both forthright advocates of the scientific method and the scientific community, and both could be called environmentalists from the moment the term was invented.
By the end of the 1980s, both of them had become concerned that the multiple ecological problems afflicting the planet were going to merge into a larger biosphere crisis that would be greatly exacerbated by climate change. What could they do about it? They were writers, and so they concluded their best chance of making an effective intervention was to write a book warning their fellow citizens of the danger of the situation. This book would first list and analyze all the problems, then suggest viable solutions to them. Writing such a book wouldn’t be easy—the subject is massive and complicated—but these two writers were up to the task. Asimov was simply amazing in his ability to comprehend and synthesize large bodies of information and present them clearly. The four hundred books he wrote in his lifetime covered nearly that many topics, and these weren’t mere summarizations; his clarity of expression, good judgment, and awareness of context made them truly interesting. Asimov on the Bible? On Shakespeare? On chemistry? He was really good on all these subjects, and many more. As for Pohl, he was also a polymath and a fine writer, and the environmental situation was his special topic of expertise, and a matter of increasing concern to him.
So the two men made a great team, and they combined to write in a clear informative style. You can’t distinguish their voices in this text, but I suspect they split the job about equally. Even if the book was Pohl’s idea, and he talked Asimov into lending his fame to the project by coauthoring it—even if Pohl brought the bulk of the preparatory materials to the table—I think it most likely Asimov jumped fully into the work, and did his fair share or more. Write half of a synthesis of the entire planetary situation? This was what he liked to do and was always doing. So here these two old pros took on a task they cared deeply about, and the result is very impressive.
Kim Stanley RobinsonJanuary 2017
Throughout history, the doom-criers have been with us. We have heard of Cassandra, the daughter of Priam of Troy, who told the Trojans constantly that their city would be destroyed—but was never believed.
Before her, there must undoubtedly have been prophets of doom among the Egyptians and the Babylonians, and the history of the early Jews was particularly rife with such matters. The prophet, Jeremiah, was constantly predicting the destruction of Judah, and after him there came a long line of people (including John the Baptist), who said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
The Day of Judgment (which represents the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven) is an ever living threat, and even today, such sects as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists expect it at any time.
All these doom-criers, however, based their hopeless commentary on religion. Humanity was full of sin (by which most religious people meant “sex,” for they never seemed as concerned about murder, theft, and corruption as they did about a little sexual amusement) and, as a result, a righteous and vengeful god was going to destroy everyone and everything. Look at the Flood. Look at Sodom and Gomorrah.
Few people ever took these religious doom-criers seriously, however, for the simple reason that few people ever agreed on religion, and because thousands of years of threats of divine retribution had always come to nothing, anyway.
—But now the situation has changed.
It is not adultery and fornication that is threatening humanity, but physical pollution. It is not an angry god who is threatening to destroy everything; it is a poisoned planet—poisoned by us.
Humanity is being threatened by its own deeds, yes, but the deeds that are threatening us with destruction do not involve the breaking of the ten commandments.
The coming of doom is, instead, the result of deeds that do not seem evil on the face of it. Because we are concerned with improving the health of mankind, and its security, our population has increased markedly, especially in the last hundred years, to the point where Earth cannot support us all.
Because we have industrialized ourselves in order to lift the curse of physical labor from our backs, we have poured the poisons produced by the internal-combustion engine into our atmosphere and dirtied it to the point where we can scarcely breathe it.
Because we have learned to make new materials for the greater convenience of mankind, we have produced chemical toxins that are saturating our soil and water.
Because we have found a new source of energy (and destruction) in the atomic nucleus, we face the threat of nuclear war, or even if we avoid that, the permeation of our environment with dangerous radiation and nuclear wastes.
This book is not an opinion piece. It is a scientific survey of the situation that threatens us all—and it says what we can do to mitigate the situation.
It is not a hopeless cry of doom at all. It is a description of what we face and what we can do about it. And in that sense, it is a hopeful book, and should be read as such.
It is not too late—
But it may become too late, if we wait too much longer.
Let me tell you why we thought it was so important that this book be written, and what it is meant to do.
There have been many recent books on the environment, and how we are abusing it, many of them excellent. Among them they have laid out the vast variety of ways in which the activities of people like ourselves are damaging the health of our planet. Some of these books have even told us what each one of us can (and should) do in our daily lives to slow down the rate of destruction—by recycling, by refusing to buy the most destructive products, by arranging our lives so as to use everything we need more efficiently and thus to need less.
All of that sort of information is certainly very important, and in case you’ve missed any of it we’ll take time to tell you again here.
But if every one of us does all those things it still will not be enough.
It is already too late to save our planet from harm. Too much has happened already: farms have turned into deserts, forests have been clear-cut to wasteland, lakes have been poisoned, the air is filled with harmful gases. It is even too late to save ourselves from the effects of other harmful processes, for they have already been set in motion, and will inevitably take their course. The global temperature will rise. The ozone layer will continue to fray. Pollution will sicken or kill more and more living creatures. All those things have already gone so far that they must now inevitably get worse before they can get better.
The only choice left to us is to decide how much worse we are willing to let things get.
We still have time to save, or restore, a large part of the gentle and benevolent environment that has made our lives possible. We can’t, however, do it easily. We can’t do it at all without at the same time making considerable social, economic and political changes in our world. These changes go far beyond anything we can accomplish as individuals; and to describe why these large-scale changes are necessary, what they must be, and how we can make them happen, is what this book is about.
Let me give you a sort of road map to the book, so you can know what to expect.
First we will start with a sort of overview on how to think about the environment. We’ll look at the recent highly environmental war in the Persian Gulf. Then we’ll look into such matters as “Gaia” and other hopes; what conservation requires us to conserve; how much we can believe about future projections and so on.
In the next part we will examine the major environmental threats to the world we live in, and what kinds of damage they will do to us if we let them. There isn’t any good news in this section. If you’ve already learned a good deal about global warming, acid rain, and all the other threats, much of what this part of the book contains may not be news at all; but in it we will try to explain all the processes involved in layman’s terms, as well as to give you enough information to let you decide for yourself how real the threats are.
Next we will come to some reasonably good news. There are plenty of technological alternatives to our present machines, power plants, energy sources, etc., as well as alternatives in our daily lives. Here we will see how we can use them to do things better and still maintain a comfortable standard of living.
Then we will begin to cover some quite new ground, first by looking into the social and economic changes that our environmental problems will bring about.
There isn’t any real doubt that major changes are inevitable. The only question is what kind. Some of them will happen no matter what we do, because as the environment deteriorates they will happen automatically. Others will be brought about by our efforts to stave off disaster. All the changes will be significant, and the world of the next generation is going to be quite different from our own.
Finally we will get into the political aspect of true conservation: why real change will be difficult, and what political actions we can take to bring it about.
I know that this part isn’t good news, either. To ask the average self-respecting American to take an active part in the notoriously dirty business of politics is not unlike asking him to consider entering a career in street prostitution. But if we want to prevent the worst of the disasters we have no alternative to political action. Individuals can’t do the job on their own; it’s too big. Only government action can carry through the changes that must be made. And governments are both created and controlled by politics.
* * *
I almost feel I have to apologize for making you work so hard.
I have had this feeling before. I have spent a good deal of time in talking about the dangers to the environment long before they became a fashionable subject—for more than thirty years now. Sometimes I’ve done it in the books I’ve written, sometimes in the course of my part-time career as a lecturer, going around the world to give speeches to groups of all kinds. Over the years I must have given a couple of thousand talks and, although they have been on many subjects, I usually have worked the environmental questions into them somewhere.
Generally speaking, the audiences I’ve addressed have been made up of caring, intelligent people—rather like what I imagine the readers of this book to be, in fact. And yet, in every talk, somewhere along the course of the recital of approaching disasters I’ve become aware of a sort of stillness that comes over the audience. The people listening are always polite. They’re even attentive. All the same, I can see that they are also beginning to wish strongly that the catalogue of bad news would end pretty soon.
I sympathize with all those people. I wish it could end, too.
The trouble is that things haven’t got better over that third of a century. True, there have been a handful of real victories. A few lakes are cleaner than they were. Even in downtown Pittsburgh you can sometimes see a star or two in the nighttime sky. In New York’s East River an astonished angler caught an actual live fish not long ago. The United States has banned the use of ozone-destroying CFCs in spray cans (though not their manufacture and use in other ways).
But all of these partial triumphs are not enough. For every gain there have been a dozen losses; as we will see, taken all in all, our world is dirtier and more threatened now than it has ever been in the past, and it is sure to go on becoming more and more so if we let it.
I sympathize in another way, too. Like most of my listeners, I sometimes find it hard to believe in my heart that all these large-scale environmental problems have much to do with me.
They don’t, after all, look very real—yet. I know just as well as my listeners do that, when I wake up tomorrow morning and look out my window, things won’t look so bad. The sun will still be shining. The trees in my backyard will still be green. There will still be food in the supermarkets and no one will be staggering down the streets, blinded by ultraviolet radiation. There isn’t any doubt that some terrible things are in the process of happening to our world. But the worst of them haven’t happened yet.
So, really, why should any of us get very excited now about calamities that may be decades away?
* * *
I do get excited, though.
I have seven very good reasons for serious concern. Their names are Christine, Daniel, Emily, Eric, Julia, Tommy and Tobias. They are my grandchildren.
As I write this they range from the very small to the middle teens, and when they grow up and have children of their own I would like very much for them, too, to have green trees around them and plenty to eat, and for them to be able to walk in the sun without fear of a nasty death, and to know that the world will survive.
It looks very much as though they may not have all of those things, though. They are lucky enough to have been born to a great competitive advantage: They all live in parts of the world that will be among the slowest to suffer from what we are doing to it. But that will not save them for long … not unless you and I and a lot of other people do get excited, excited enough to do now the things that will give them their birthright of a good life then.
It can happen. There can be a happy ending to it all … if we have the wisdom and the willingness to make it happen, by doing some pretty difficult things.
If we don’t, there won’t be any happy ending. There will merely be—for many of the things that make the world good, and very possibly for much of the living world itself—an ending.
Copyright © 1991 by Asimov Holdings, LLC and Gateway, LLC