Four Takes:Earth Day, 50 years of celebrating the planet, The Boston Sunday Globe


Bill McKibben is the author of “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP/file

April 25, 2020


The author’s longstanding fascination with 18th-century explorer James Cook draws these disparate locations together. For Lopez, Cook represents the brutal forces of human exploitation but also the global perspective required in the current moment.


Anxiety over our collective future pervades these pages, but so does gratitude. Moments in which the author experiences “an uncomplicated love of the world” are plentiful. Recollecting what he found in Antarctica, he writes of his wish to give away his astonishment, “to whoever might need it.”

Some 30 years earlier, in “Arctic Dreams,” Lopez predicted that the importance of the ice-bound north would one day come sharply into focus. In his exhaustive study of Greenland, Jon Gertner sees himself as picking up where Lopez left off.

The Ice at the End of the World” may be read as much for its adventure stories as for its explication of climate science. Among the more memorable early explorers was Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian zoology student, who in the 1880s became obsessed with crossing the island from coast to coast. Gertner recounts how Nansen’s expeditionary party wound up on an ice floe drifting from shore, and nearly failed in this historic first.

Other early forays were equally perilous. Readers will find out who lost a foot, who wound up eating sled dogs, and who never returned.

Though feats of daring primarily drove the early explorers, they were also able to define the characteristics of the Greenland ice sheet, providing important information for scientists. By the 1940s, researchers were focused on the ice as a record of geological time. (They were also able to receive fresh radishes and wine by airdrop, a considerable improvement over the sardines and rye crackers packed by their predecessors.)

Adventure gave way to the harvesting of ice cores for study, and a different kind of drama. At one point, seeking to dodge international tensions over research rights, James White, a young American, sneaked vials of 12,000- year-old ice into Paris using carry-on luggage. Gertner also chillingly reconstructs the moment, in 2012, when scientists first realized the entire surface of the Greenland ice sheet had melted.

As Gertner underscores, Greenland has proved vital to our understanding of climate change. Absorbing its warnings along with many others, Bill McKibben has been one of our ablest translators of the vast human experiment now under way. With “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” he analyzes why, still, so little action has been taken.

McKibben is unsparing toward the monied class. The unprecedented leverage of a very few, he argues, is determining geological history. McKibben lumps tech moguls in with fossil fuel titans for what he regards as a destructive libertarian ethos. (In his view, Ayn Rand has much to answer for.) He cites Exxon’s years-long disinformation campaign regarding climate change, as well as US politicians’ embrace of scientific “uncertainty,” as unforgivable drivers of our paralysis.

Yet despite worsening conditions, McKibben still sees hope. He points to the growth of solar power, and the potential of nonviolent movements. After all, the original Earth Day unleashed an unprecedented era of environmental policy victories. Why not again?

Though equally battle-hardened, the economist Robert H. Frank echoes McKibben’s cautious optimism. His “Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work” explores how ideas and behaviors spread through populations, in ways that demonstrably have greater force than laws.

One reliable predictor for solar-panel installation, for instance, is whether the neighbors are doing it. Conceivably, all kinds of energy wasters (outsize houses; long commutes; meat-heavy diets) can be altered by the kind of social contagion that reduced smoking and smashed opposition to same- sex marriage.

Frank’s sobering chapter on climate change might be the most important in the book. Like McKibben, he acknowledges the difficulty of circumventing entrenched political power. But just as your neighbor switches to a more plant-based diet, so might you. Before long, both of you might even find yourselves knocking on voters’ doors.

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