Book Review: Eric Holthaus, The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming
With the dire predictions of humanity’s prospects in the face of a changing climate, it’s no wonder most coverage of the climate crisis is depressing. But it doesn’t have to be. There’s still a small, but closing, window of possibility in which society can come together to create radical change that begets a better future.
Eric Holthaus—a meteorologist by training and a climate journalist by trade—rips off the metaphorical bandage to expose the wounds people are inflicting on the planet, in hopes of helping them heal.
“Climate change is a product of a system of White supremacy and colonization over the past 500 years,” Holthaus says. “A certain group of people felt it was justified to exploit people and land. That’s the simplest explanation of climate change.”
There needs to be a picture of what we’re fighting for, not just what we’re fighting against.
When viewed with such clarity, the problem of climate change no longer feels like a scientific inevitability. In fact, Holthaus doesn’t view it as an environmental issue at all; he sees climate change as an issue of justice. As such, climate change presents an opportunity—and an imperative—to remake society and the systems that support it.
Guided by his thoughtful curation of insights gleaned from climate science, social movements, and hundreds of conversations over six years, Holthaus’s new book, The Future Earth (Harper Collins, 2020) lays out a courageous blueprint for a better future. A future rebuilt upon climate reparations, decolonization of the atmosphere, and the courage to work toward “catastrophic success.”
“There needs to be a picture of what we’re fighting for,” he tells me, “not just what we’re fighting against.”
I talked to Holthaus on July 2. Six weeks after the death of George Floyd. Five days before a federal judge ordered that the flow of oil in the Dakota Access Pipeline be stopped. It was a unique moment to talk about imagining a better world.
Holthaus is based in St. Paul—one half of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, the other half being Minneapolis. I’m just across the St. Croix River, in Wisconsin. With the pandemic lockdown in full swing, we forego a coffee shop meeting for a phone call, though he sounds like he could use a shot of caffeine.
Despite Holthaus’s background in meteorology, he centers the conversation around people. Weather is political, he writes, and climate change is “an interconnected way to explain everything wrong with our society.”
The current environmental mess is the result of choices, he tells me. The classic environmentalist argument puts the onus on individuals, saying they have to give up the most damaging contributors to climate change: cars and air travel and meat, and in so doing, sacrifice their happiness.
The status quo is comfortable for a reason.
But Holthaus doesn’t see responding to climate change as a matter of sacrifice. He says this misses the slow work of listening to and learning from one another; of building relationships and a shared vision of a new world. The number of people truly benefiting from the existing system is quite small, so it can undoubtedly be improved.
The choices Holthaus blames for the state of the world are the choices that leaders make to build economies based on unlimited growth in a limited world. Choices that leaders make to perpetuate a status quo that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Choices that leaders make to exacerbate inequities and avoid course corrections.
Because these are choices, they are remade every day. And every choice, he says, is an opportunity to either repeat these mistakes and maintain the status quo, or to make changes.
“The status quo is comfortable for a reason,” he writes. “It makes daily life easier to manage, especially when the alternative doesn’t yet exist—or, more accurately, when those in power are actively opposed to making a better world a reality.”
Holthaus argues that people need to be brave in imagining something better. For starters, he says, success needs a different metric. Rather than endless growth, how about thriving? And in place of innovation and efficiency, Holthaus argues for a focus on repair and maintenance.
Care work and conversations are the tools to enable a society to change course.
“We need to rid ourselves of the word ‘efficient,’” he tells me, and uses the example of renewable energy to illustrate. Right now, in a capitalist system, renewable energy companies have to strive to be the lowest-cost and most efficient. But to what end? “If the goal of renewable energy is not to make money but to give electricity so [people] can improve their lives, we’re adding an unnecessary middle step. Who cares if the total energy produced is a few percent less if you have the networked grid of rooftop solar with batteries in a way that is resilient to extreme weather and is shared?”
Holthaus says society should be willing to pay extra for local sources of renewable energy that strengthen communities and benefit residents with jobs and discounted energy even if they are, say, 2% to 3% less efficient. And, he adds, each community should have the power to make these decisions for themselves.
To help the economy recover from the pandemic, he pushes hard against the idea of rebuilding the status quo, or replacing the current fast-paced system with one that is equally hurried and reproduces the same harm. “We can’t just switch to electric cars; we can’t have cars at all,” he says. “Using half of urban areas for parking lots and roads is not a good use of space or the Earth or our attention.” And when a newer, more sustainable transportation system is in place, he anticipates people won’t even miss cars.
When the Hypothetical Happens
“Technology makes it easy to do things quickly,” Holthaus tells me, but “when we do things quickly we don’t always think about the consequences first.” Hence the current humanitarian and environmental crisis of climate change.
Instead, he says the best “technology” for decarbonization is social movements. Care work and conversations are the tools to enable a society to change course. And that’s going to have to happen at the individual community level. Holthaus is already seeing this in the Twin Cities. Between the pandemic and the uprisings since the killing of George Floyd, he says, people are seeing that the system is broken—more so than ever before. Neighborhoods are banding together, taking care of each other, and figuring out how to get through and still do the work that needs to be done.
In these moments of upheaval, change can come quickly. This year has proven that to be true. Though his book covers the period from 2019 to 2050, readers may be surprised to find that 2020 is by far the most apocalyptic. When Holthaus was writing it last fall, the events were hypothetical, if possible, scenarios. He wrote of massive storms and economic collapse leading up to a kind of now-or-never moment. “It has been amazing…to see that hopeful world emerge in the real world and in the writing,” he says. To “see the change happening so quickly that I had to rush to keep up in my writing.”
In the months between when the manuscript was completed and when the book went to print, Holthaus has watched with anxiety as many of his predictions have come true. He tells me he can’t figure out what to feel or what to say. Unfortunately, climate anxiety is not new to Holthaus. It was part of the impetus for the book in the first place.
The old world has fallen away.
The initial idea was to write it as a letter to the son his then-wife was expecting, describing the possibilities that would await him in this fast-changing world. But, Holthaus points out, that was in 2014—before the Paris Climate Agreement, before the Green New Deal, before AOC, before Greta. While public opinion has galvanized around the prioritization of climate action in recent weeks and months, that simply was not the case back then. It’s easy to forget how much public perception on the issue has shifted in such a short time.
So Holthaus picked a more exciting genre with which to funnel his grief and anxiety for the climate: choose your own adventure. The world he imagined had 15 different endings, depending on what actions were taken in the interim. Ten of those were apocalyptic: The world would burn, humanity would suffer, the end.
The problem is that those are the unhappy endings the public is already faced with in the media every day. Everybody already knows about the bad, because climate catastrophe is the mainstream approach to covering this issue. And psychologists suggest that fearmongering is not the best or even the most efficient way to move people to action. Inspiration is.
That’s when all 30,000 words of that choose-your-own-adventure book went on the shelf, and Holthaus started over with a blank document. On the first page of the resulting book is a dedication to the two sons he now has, followed by a courageous and hopeful vision of the next three decades.
Holthaus talks about the current moment as a liminal space. “The old world has fallen away, and there’s not yet a clear vision of what the new world is going to be,” he tells me.
While it may seem like a heavy lift to imagine a new world, Holthaus is not starting from scratch. He readily admits the groundwork has been being laid for centuries, led mostly by women of color. And so in his reporting, he aims to center the stories and voices of those communities doing this work, in the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico, and other places where climate change is not some future fear, but the present. They play critical leadership roles in the book, making hypothetical decisions and taking the hypothetical lead in making positive change.
While the book does include specifics, such as a reference to the 26,500 independent signs of climate change that now exist, or the explosive populations of jellyfish in warming oceans, in many cases the descriptions of the future were frustratingly opaque. I was holding out hope for more prescriptive answers. But when I asked Holthaus about this, I found his honesty on this point refreshing: “I have to use vague language, because I have no idea what it’s going to look like.”
The collective project of remaking the world needs to be approached with care for—and active consent from—everyone.
Holthaus doesn’t purport to have all the answers. He’s not a White man preaching a new gospel. What he brings to bear is an analytical mind that helps to combine and constrain these imagined realities based on how social movements work, how change happens, what’s necessary to not cross the tipping point, and what feels like it has a good chance of happening.
Here’s how he framed it for me: The collective project of remaking the world needs to be approached with care for—and active consent from—everyone, because everyone is working together on a project that will be better than anything that currently exists.
He points to the Twin Cities as being at the forefront of this intersectionality, where he describes the justice-seeking movements of climate, of immigration, and for Black lives to be intimately connected. For example, the Minneapolis City Council passed an urban policy in 2019 that rezoned every single family lot to support a triplex. The aim was to create a denser urban area, a lower carbon future, and to work toward housing justice by addressing the harm of redlining.
When I asked him what made Minnesota unique, his answer surprised me. He pointed to the seasonal cycles in the Upper Midwest. He says people here are forced to adapt to weather extremes—historic temperatures in the state range from -60 degrees F to 114 degrees—and as a result have a deep appreciation for seasonal change. Whether conscious or subconscious, he says Minnesotans think more in ecological terms, which helps them connect with each other and the world around them.
Shared grief is what will give way to shared hope, courage, and imagination.
Such an approach is both localized and universal. And it’s in sharp contrast to the escapist attitude Holthaus says is the most dangerous reaction to have in response to the climate crisis. The rugged individualism that defines the existing White, capitalist construct could be society’s undoing.
He says the connection and collectivism he’s seeing in his community is critical. Shared grief is what will give way to shared hope, courage, and imagination. The ultimate goal is what one of his sources calls “catastrophic success.”
The idea of having billions of people come together for the collective good is what drives Holthaus’s theory of change. It’s what keeps him going on days when hurricane reports or the morning’s headlines try to prevent him from getting out of bed. It’s what everyone is going to need to get through the destruction that will precede a new version of the world.
“This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done—that any generation of people has ever done,” he tells me. “It’s going to feel like we can’t do it.”
But Holthaus proposes a metaphor in his book that somehow makes the sacrifice and risk-taking feel worth it: “The next few decades are going to feel like falling in love—setting aside everything you thought you knew and trusting that you’ll end up in a radically different place you never could have achieved on your own.”
Interested in Eric Holtaus’ new book, The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming? Read an excerpt here.
BREANNA DRAXLER is the climate editor at YES! She covers all things environmental.