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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Global Warming Slips on Its Ski Mask


Wednesday August 09, 2006

Climate change is going to creep up on us. The assault might have started already. By Eugene Linden (7/30/06) I've written a good deal about global warming over the years, but like most people, I still have a hard time envisioning how we will know when the apocalypse arrives. Nobody will ring a bell to announce that a climate-change event has begun, and it's easy to ignore the signals that climate is changing. After all, we've always had extreme weather, and it's possible that what signifies the point of no return will not be in the realm of weather anyway but rather a derivative effect such as a financial crisis or crop failure. That's not to say that some future dramatic event such as the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the ocean won't happen, but it's more likely that global warming will creep up on us as the weather gradually unmoors from its normal patterns. Single events will be explained away. But at some point, the frequency, severity and ubiquity of the unusual weather will produce a sense of foreboding, a sense that something is happening beyond our control. What with killer heat waves, killer hurricanes and killer droughts, it's arguable that we've already passed that point. Indeed, I had that feeling of foreboding in the last week of June, as Washington gradually surrendered ground and the routines of daily life to incessant rain: Cars floated down ordinarily meek Rock Creek, government buildings flooded, the Metro was disrupted and roads were closed. You may have had the same feeling last week as the power dimmed and temperatures surged in Southern California and beyond. That said, the real, more insidious scenario might be that climate change will intrude on our lives like an omnipresent and ever more confiscatory taxman. Where they can, insurers and banks will pass weather risks to individuals and the government, making the costs of daily life more expensive. In some areas, housing might become uninsurable and unsalable, which in turn could cause a financial crisis. Municipal budgets and government safety nets will gradually succumb to the ever-increasing burden imposed by windstorms, floods, droughts and other weather extremes. Infectious diseases will thrive. The middle class will slowly find its savings and creature comforts stripped away, and the ordinary details of living, such as eating fresh vegetables and traveling to see family and friends, will become more expensive and uncertain. At some point it will dawn on us that the weather is making us poorer and sicker. Whether we are in Act 2 or Act 4 of a five-act climate drama, we are not the first to live out this play. At some point, for instance, the Moche elders, who lived in Peru 1,400 years ago, must have begun to wonder whether torrential El Niño-related rains were going to spell the doom of their civilization. Sometime during a 10-year stretch of intensely cold winters and short, cool summers, the Norse living in Greenland in AD 1350 must have begun to feel a sense of dread. In fact, that period was one harbinger of the Little Ice Age, which persisted for several hundred years. NOW IT'S our turn. Like fugitives who must worry about every knock on the door, we can no longer dismiss events such as the late June rains and the July heat wave as just another instance of wacky weather. There's a distinct difference, though, between us and the Moche and the Norse, not to mention the Mayans, the Anasazi, the Akkadians and other players in previous episodes of climate chaos. All of them were victims of natural cycles; the evidence suggests that we wrote the script for this latest episode of climate roulette. It's easy to be condescending about past civilizations. They didn't have the science and technology that have enabled us to understand how climate works or to determine the role of climate in the collapse of their cultures in South America, the American Southwest and the Middle East. If only they knew what we now know about climate, maybe they would have adapted and survived. Then again, maybe not. We do know what we know, and still we do nothing. That's going to have future historians scratching their heads.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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