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The best books on Global Warming

recommended by Rosamund McDougall

The policy director for the Optimum Population Trust, the environmental think-tank, discusses books on Global Warming. Includes a volume on the wildlife of Borneo alongside DH Lawrence's The Rainbow

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The first book you’ve chosen is Wild Borneo by Nick Garbutt. Why has it been so important for you?

Well, I suppose I had two childhood influences which made me particularly concerned about environmental issues: Borneo and Wales. I spent time in both places. This one, of course, is about Borneo and I think it’s a particularly good choice for anyone who wants to see what landscapes looked like hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The book has a preface by David Attenborough, who is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, and it has the most beautiful photographs. It shows a vast tropical island, the rainforests, the bits that are left untouched, and the human beings and the various other species that live within the forest, sometimes in very ancient and self-contained ways. So if you take a look at this book, I think it will show you what sort of balance there was between humans and other species a long time ago and what has been lost.

Can you tell me a bit about your childhood in Borneo?

My memories of Borneo as a child are very tied up with being near what we called jungle and is now called the rainforest. It was just teaming, throbbing with life, ranging from the most glorious birds to orang-utans. The word orang-utan is actually Malay for man of the forest. So it brings you close to the idea that humans are animals living in this environment. But sadly a lot of the area has been destroyed because of logging and the rainforest is threatened.

Your second book is The Rainbow by D H Lawrence.

I chose this for two reasons. The first is because it takes you into the 20th century and it shows how the encroachment of industrialisation had an affect on the English landscape. D H Lawrence was the son of a miner and knew about all the workings of mines. But perhaps more importantly, it’s about a family. The men in that family are still close to the land while the women look outwards for knowledge, and look towards the future. Lawrence writes the most wonderful passages, even in the opening pages.

‘Heaven and earth was teeming around them, and how should this cease? They felt the rush of sap in spring, they knew the wave which cannot halt, but every year throws forward the seed to begetting, and falling back, leaves the young-born on the earth… Their life and interrelations were such; feeling the pulse and body of the soil…’ ‘So much warmth and generating and pain and death did they know in their blood, earth and sky and beast and green plants…’

So here, you see, we have the rawness of nature and the complete interdependence of humans with the land.

What sorts of things does Lawrence feel led to changes in the relationship between humans and nature?

Well in The Rainbow it was the encroachment of mines, iron works and the early industrialisation process on the land. In fact the family’s farm is eventually cut off completely, by a canal and they are left isolated. And the book takes you through the next 20 years or so of their lives.

How are the themes of the book reflected in your own life and what you do for the Optimum Population Trust?

Once you have lived beyond the age of about 45 I think you can see what has happened to the landscape – you can feel what has happened to the atmosphere and the weather. So you can actually see the changes within your own lifetime. And of course the changes since the time of D H Lawrence have moved even faster.

Your first two choices are all part of what influenced you to do your campaigning work. But your next book, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, is directly to do with your work.

Well this book was originally written in the 1970s by a group of people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is when I was first involved in family planning campaigning in the early 70s. Books like this predicted that there would be famines in the future due to the rising population. They also drew attention to the beginnings of atmospheric global warming. This particular book takes another look at what was said 30 years ago, so you can see how things actually did turn out.

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In terms of famine the timing was wrong because food technology postponed chronic shortages. But for the last few years we have actually seen an increase in the number of people starving. It’s now over a billion people going hungry in the world today. So these predictions may well still prove to be right, although 20 years later than they originally thought.

And what kind of things did they get right?

They got right the projections about carbon emissions and the fundamental point that there are limits to growth. And this has been proven through the economic and population growth that has taken place since then which is now pushing us to the very limits of sustainability.

You first read this book when it came out in the 1970s. How did you feel about it when you were reading it then?

When I read the original version there was a lot that chimed with my own personal feeling about what was happening with nature, and there were things that alarmed me.

Such as?

Such as the predictions of severe food shortages, and of course this didn’t actually happen. But the rest of it was pretty well right.

The whole issue of population control is seen by some as controversial. What kind of comments were made about the book when it first came out?

It was taken very seriously by a lot of people at the time. But then several things happened, and this brings me to the next book I would like to talk about: The Ultimate Resource 2 by Julian Simon.

When Simon wrote his book there was a trend starting for free market economics and a belief in the development of technology. People thought that technology was going to solve all these problems and in some ways it helped. Simon was part of a group of people called the Cornucopia economists. The Cornucopia idea is that earth will provide infinite resources and it’s simply a question of supply and demand and pricing, human ingenuity and technology. Well, we now know because of all the things that have happened, that Cornucopia economics has no connection whatsoever with reality or serious modern science.

But there are some schools of thought which still think that technology will provide the answers.

We need technology to help solve the problems we have, but to place faith in technology to the exclusion of other methods is crazy.

So books like these should come with a health warning attached? Have they had some kind of detrimental effect in this debate?

I think the ascendancy of free market economics and excessive faith in technology has had a detrimental effect, because these knowledge systems have taken precedence over physics and the environmental sciences – such as geology and the history of what has happened to our climate in the past millennia.

Your fifth book is Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas.

First of all, I would like to say that the Optimum Population Trust has been making dire predictions like the ones in this book for quite some time. And my fellow policy director David Nicholson-Lord has written some excellent things on environmental population threats. But this book by Mark Lynas is a must-read, I think, for anyone who has any doubts about what is at stake. It’s a very fast-moving explicit scenario about what might happen on earth to all of us, with each degree of global warming temperature rise. And it’s based on a lot of scientific research.

For example he has looked at each of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios. The latest one projected, I believe, a rise of up to six degrees in the next hundred years. And we are already at nearly one degree over pre-industrial levels.

Mark Lynas takes us very eloquently, as Virgil did descending through the Dante’s circles of hell, through what might happen at each degree of warming. A rise of two degrees is the point of no return; the tipping point at which nothing can be done to reverse the warming. And very frighteningly Lynas concludes (as do many others) that we have in fact got just seven years to stop emissions raising temperatures to this two degree threshold.

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Seven years from now?

Seven years from now – yes.

But looking back to one of your books, Limits of Growth, do you think that there’s a possibility that these are dire predictions that might not come to anything?

Of course there is always doubt. Let’s hope everybody’s wrong [laughs]. But I think we should act under the precautionary principle that everyone now agrees with, that action must be taken very fast.

June 8, 2009

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Rosamund McDougall

Rosamund McDougall

Rosamund McDougall is a co-chair of the environmental think-tank now known as Population Matters, which was established in 1991 to examine the impact of human population on its environment. She has been campaigning on population issues since the 1970s. She believes that if we don’t reduce our impact on the environment by population control, the results will be catastrophic.

Rosamund McDougall

Rosamund McDougall

Rosamund McDougall is a co-chair of the environmental think-tank now known as Population Matters, which was established in 1991 to examine the impact of human population on its environment. She has been campaigning on population issues since the 1970s. She believes that if we don’t reduce our impact on the environment by population control, the results will be catastrophic.