Eugene Linden
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Tiny Country That Tells a Big Story

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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endangered animals
rapid climate change
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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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TheBigMeltdown

As the temperature rises in the Arctic, it sends a chill around the planet
BY EUGENE LINDEN/CHURCHILL


Monday, Sep. 04, 2000
Here's a tip for anyone trying to figure out when and whether global warming might arrive and what changes it will bring: hop a plane to the Arctic and look down. You'll see that climatic changes are already reworking the far-north landscape. In the past two decades, average annual temperatures have climbed as much as 7[degrees]F in Alaska, Siberia and parts of Canada. Sea ice is 40% thinner and covers 6% less area than in 1980. Permafrost--permanently frozen subsoil--is proving less permanent. And even polar tourists are returning with less than chilling tales, one of which was heard around the world last week. Back from a cruise to the North Pole aboard the Russian icebreaker Yamal, tourists told the New York Times that a mile-wide lake had opened up at 90[degrees] north, with gulls fluttering overhead, and they had the pictures to prove it. The newspaper declared that such an opening in polar ice was possibly a first in 50 million years, though that claim was dismissed by scientists who nonetheless see other serious signs of Arctic warming (see box, page 56). On a less cosmic level, Mike Macri, who runs nature tours in Churchill, on the western shores of Hudson Bay in Canada's Manitoba province, has had to rewrite his brochures. The old ones encouraged tourists to arrive at Churchill in mid-June to see beluga whales, which migrate up the mouth of the Churchill River following the spring ice breakup. The new brochure encourages visitors to arrive as early as May. The ice also forms as much as two weeks later in the autumn than it used to in Hudson Bay, creating a bewildering situation for some of the local wildlife. Polar bears that ordinarily emerge from their summer dens and walk north up Cape Churchill before proceeding directly onto the ice now arrive at their customary departure point and find open water. Unable to move forward, the bears turn left and continue walking right into town, arriving emaciated and hungry. To reduce unscheduled encounters between townspeople and the carnivores, natural-resource officer Wade Roberts and his deputies tranquilize the bears with a dart gun, temporarily house them in a concrete-and-steel bear "jail" and move them 10 miles north. In years with a late freeze--most years since the late 1970s--the number of bears captured in or near town sometimes doubles, to more than 100. Humans are feeling the heat too. In Alaska, melting permafrost (occasionally hastened by construction) has produced "roller coaster" roads, power lines tilted at crazy angles and houses sinking up to their window sashes as the ground liquefies. In parts of the wilderness, the signal is more clear: wetlands, ponds and grasslands have replaced forests, and moose have moved in as caribou have moved out. On the Mackenzie River delta in Canada's Northwest Territories, Arctic-savvy Inuit inhabitants have watched with dismay as warming ground melted the traditional freezers they cut into the permafrost for food storage. Permafrost provides stiffening for the coastline in much of the north; where thawing has occurred, wave action has caused severe erosion. Some coastal Inuit villages are virtually marooned as the ground crumbles all around them. And as the ice retreats farther from the coast, Inuit hunters are finding that prey like walrus has moved out of reach of their boats. These isolated dramas play out far from the mid-latitudes of the planet, where the vast majority of people live, but they could soon have serious implications for all of us. What is really at risk in the Arctic is part of the thermostat of the earth itself. The difference in temperatures between the tropics and the poles drives the global climate system. The excess heat that collects in the tropics is dissipated at the poles, about half of it through what has been nicknamed the ocean conveyor, a vast deepwater current equivalent to 100 Amazon Rivers. Much of the rest of the heat is conveyed as energy in the storms that move north from the tropics. If the poles continue to warm faster than the tropics, the vigor of this planetary circulatory system may diminish, radically altering prevailing winds, ocean currents and rainfall patterns. One consequence: grain production in the breadbaskets of the U.S. and Canada could be in jeopardy if rainfall becomes less steady and predictable. Already, severe and unpredictable storms across the northern hemisphere may be a sign that the global system is changing. Even greater climate change could be on the way. Growing numbers of scientists fear that the warming trend will so disrupt ocean circulation patterns that the Gulf Stream, the current that warms large parts of the northern hemisphere, could temporarily shut down. If that happens, global warming would, ironically, produce global cooling--and bring on a deep freeze. Such a calamity could be self-inflicted. Many scientists believe that the current warming is related to the increased burning of fossil fuels, such as gasoline and coal, which overloads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That's why 160 countries signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires industrial nations to reduce their greenhouse emissions to an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012. But even that weak treaty remains controversial, and governments have made little progress toward implementing the pact. The U.S. Senate hasn't even considered ratifying it. Opponents seize on the possibility that the warming we're seeing may not be our doing but just part of the natural variation in climate. Partly in response to this deadlock, NASA climatologist James Hansen last week unveiled an alternative strategy. Instead of pursuing the politically unpopular goal of drastically reducing consumption of fossil fuels, he suggests going after other greenhouse gases, such as methane, which he thinks has accounted for as much warming as carbon dioxide in the past century, even though it is present in the atmosphere in much smaller quantities. Without action, major changes appear inevitable. Should surface water temperatures in the high Arctic rise just a few degrees, the sea ice could disappear entirely, but even a partial melting could devastate the northern hemisphere's climate. A combination of melting ice, increased precipitation and runoff from melting glaciers on land could leave a layer of buoyant freshwater floating atop the denser salt water, at a point in the North Atlantic where water ordinarily cools and sinks. The lighter freshwater wouldn't sink, interrupting the vertical circulation at a crucial point in the cycling of heat through the ocean--as if you're grabbing a conveyor belt and slowing it down. So how would that produce cooling? Ordinarily the conveyor is propelled by the pull created by masses of water sinking in the North Atlantic. When this pull diminishes, the movement of warm water north in the Gulf Stream could slow or stall, driving down temperatures in Europe and North America, and possibly elsewhere. It has happened before. Roughly 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, a natural warming sent freshwater from melting glaciers flowing out of the St. Lawrence River into the North Atlantic, all but shutting down the Gulf Stream and plunging Europe into a 1,300-year deep freeze. The more that becomes known about this period, named the Younger Dryas (after a tundra plant), the more scientists fear that the rapid melting of sea ice could cause the same catastrophe again. Only next time, writes geophysicist Penn State's Richard Alley in a forthcoming book, Two-Mile Time Machine, the effects would be much greater, "dropping northern temperatures and spreading droughts far larger than the changes that have affected humans through recorded history." Would this be "the end of humanity?" he asks rhetorically. "No," he replies. "An uncomfortable time for humanity? Very." A sudden chill would shorten growing seasons, and the resulting changes in precipitation could be even more damaging. Colder air is dryer air, and Alley points out that during the Younger Dryas, the monsoon weakened in Asia and the Sahara expanded. Harvey Weiss, a Yale archaeologist who has studied the role of climate in human history, notes that it's not changes in temperature that bring down civilizations but changes in precipitation. Protecting civilization is the goal of the Kyoto Protocol, but the treaty allows 12 more years for implementation, on the assumption that climate change will be gradual. That assumption looks shaky. Studies of deep underground ice layers in Greenland, which reveal a record of climate changes over hundreds of thousands of years, show that major climate shifts, like the onset of the Younger Dryas, can come very abruptly--within a few decades. It probably won't be possible to avoid some climate change this century, up or down--and there's still a chance that the earth's systems will compensate for any that occurs--but the possibility that climate turns rapidly and unpredictably should spur us into doing whatever is practical to turn from fossil fuels--fast. If done right it can be a boon. Energy conservation usually increases profits. In developing nations it's often cheaper to use alternatives like wind power to electrify new areas. At the entrance to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a base for investigations of regional climate change, a rusting rocket is a mute reminder of the complex's earlier life as part of defenses against Soviet nuclear attack. That threat never materialized, and now, belatedly, scientists venture from the base to study a threat that has materialized but against which no adequate defense has been mounted. Despite the danger that climate change poses, the resources currently devoted to studying this problem--and combatting it--are inconsequential compared with the trillions spent during the cold war. Twenty years from now, we may wonder how we could have miscalculated which threat represented the greater peril.

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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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