A Few Moments of Brilliance

heatI just finished reading one of the many climate change books on my reading list, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning” by George Monbiot. I have to say that the subtitle really annoys me. Fossil fuels are burning, yes, but the planet isn’t burning. It isn’t combining with oxygen and disintegrating.

Most of the book was a fairly dry account of possible ways to create a low-carbon economy – carbon capture and storage, building efficiency standards, reducing reliance on air travel. It was well researched and carefully planned, but not really my cup of tea.

However, there were several quotes, at the beginning and end of the book, which I found absolutely brilliant, for their style and word choice as well as their content.

“We can determine, for example, that the financial costs of Hurricane Katrina…..amount to some $75 billion…..But does it capture the suffering of the people whose homes were destroyed? Does it capture the partial destruction, in New Orleans, of one of the quirkiest and most creative communities on earth? Does it, most importantly, capture the value of the lives of those who drowned?” -page 50

“This must, in other words, be a moral decision, not an economic one. Either we decide that it is right to spend a lot of money seeking to prevent catastrophic climate change or we decide that it isn’t, but we must make that decision on the grounds of how much we value people and places as people and places, rather than as figures in a ledger.” -page 51

“But this baby, this strange little creature, closer to the ecosystem than a fully grown human being, part pixie, part frog, part small furry animal, now sixteen days old and curled up on my lap like a bean waiting to sprout, changes everything. I am no longer writing about what might happen to “people” in this country in thirty years’ time. I am writing about her. As she trembles on the threshold of life, the evidence of her mortality is undeniable. It seems far more real than mine…..Global warming is no longer a generalized phenomenon, its victims no longer abstractions. Among them might be my child. Or yours. Or you. Or even  me. Of all the complex matters encapsulated in this subject, this, until now, has been the hardest to grasp.” -page 206

Among these quotes runs a common thread: the idea that money is imaginary, numbers are imaginary, but people are real. People are the basis of the very real, tangible world of the human species. And now this species seems willing to destroy itself in favour of imaginary topics such as math and the economy.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to others. If you’re interested in the real nitty-gritty of sustainable energy, it’s very thorough. But otherwise, I found the parts of the book that were most worth reading are the quotes listed above.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your opinion of it. Feel free to leave a comment if you’re so inclined.


6 thoughts on “A Few Moments of Brilliance

  1. To me, the nitty-gritty is what really makes this book stand out. Monbiot shows how hard it is cutting carbon dioxide emissions, but also that it actually can be done without giving up the blessings of modern life (except flying).

    But I agree with you on the quotes.

  2. I haven’t read Heat yet (it’s low on the reading list since it’s rather old and elementary as far as climate change books go), but I did have the pleasure of attending a talk from Monbiot during our last International Week. He was the only speaker to arrive via teleconference, as he refuses to fly (rightly so). The theme of the week was food, not energy or climate, but he went through an argument he described as “similar to what [he] presents in Heat” for the impact of meat consumption on both climate and grain prices. It was surprising to see the crowd’s reaction – most of us became almost-vegetarians on the spot. (I was already there before, so it was rather gratifying to hear Monbiot’s work corroborating my own back-of-the-envelope calculations.)

    He also had some very strong motivational words on climate for the audience, as we’re university staff and students in Alberta (this was before the US election, but he predicted (correctly) that Canada would be the last G8 holdout on climate action, and that Alberta is the core of the worst emissions. But on the flipside, if *WE* can change, the rest of the industrialized world has no excuse.)

    That said, Monbiot has the occasional problem of mis-reading a source (though at least he cites them, unlike most of the inactivist columnists I’ve seen…). He’s worth double-checking most of the time. (Or, if you don’t have the time, remembering he’s in the Professional Individual category on your credibility spectrum.)

  3. I loved this book, both for the reasons you give (his ability with words is amazing), but perhaps more because it does attempt to build a detailed roadmap. And because he is always careful to cite his sources so I can go and check them.

  4. Personally I really liked it, but the I like information packed nonfiction that is still readable. It’s quite an art to put a lot in and keep it comprehensible and readable, and I greatly respect Monbiot for it.

  5. I also liked the book. It has less on the climate science, outside of the first chapter (which is more overview and more “elementary” than, say climate change books written by climate scientists), but more to do with potential alternatives to combusting fossil fuels, which leads it more into policy and technology… and that may account for some extra “dryness” as you say. Still, as Easterbrook and Greenfyre have commented, Monbiot is an excellent writer, and I have a particular professional interest in alternative energy.

    I picked up the book after it came out in 2007, because I had been impressed by some of Monbiot’s articles, the first of which I came upon after a friend of mine quoted some information from David Bellamy that seemed dubious to me, at best. That first article impressed me so, that I’ve been following Monbiot somewhat ever since… (Monbiot includes some discussion of this in his book).


    • Thanks for that link. I remember reading that same story in the book so it must be an excerpt. A particularly ridiuclous example of the claims that make their way around the public…

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