Losing Earth: A Recent History

Ep. 4. Losing Earth with Nathaniel Rich

Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich is essential reading for anyone that wants to understand the current political climate of science denial and ineffective actions to address climate change over the last 40 years. The oil companies knew the threats of climate change since the late 70s, which seems so often mentioned as a mere factual detail and nothing more. In Losing Earth, Rich hammers home who knew what and when in great detail casting the characters involved as heroes, villains or victims focusing on ten years ranging from 1979-1989. That the oil companies knew climate change was a threat is an understatement. The oil companies, and also scientists and politicians, understood the severity of the threat and recognized it was more than just a threat but a path towards grim reality if practices didn’t change. 

Practices did not change. In fact, more carbon emissions have been released in the last four decades than all of the previous combined years throughout civilized history. As Rich notes, it wasn’t just the oil companies that knew – everyone knew. The first three parts of the book, which are the bulk of the book, is the detailed history of actions and responses to the science from politicians, scientists and industry interests. But more than just a detailed history of missed opportunities, in the afterword Rich captures something else: the human delusion that puts short-term economic interests or electability concerns above life on earth. 

Rich succinctly expresses why this history matters in the context of today and for the future. It is in the afterword in which I quote from during our interview when Rich notes the human tolerance for self delusion. Delusion may be the best logical explanation to accept where we are today following the history of ignoring, hiding and then denying the science by those that knew. Or maybe it is just my own delusions that make that scenario more acceptable than greed and indifference as being the explanation for ‘stealing our future’ as Greta Thunberg says. 

In our interview, and aligned with the theme of heroes, villains and victims, Rich discusses Greta Thunberg’s message and more than once addresses environmental racism. In Losing Earth, Rich captures everything in a single sentence: ‘The relationship between those who have burned the most fossil fuels and those who will suffer the most from a warming climate is perversely inverted.’ His statement is true both in socioeconomic terms and also in chronological terms. People in poverty and people of color will burden the consequences of climate change before the so-called developed nations, who have the means to better defend and adapt. Those that profited by oil booms will check out before young people cope with the results.

This past weekend I was browsing the environmental section of a used bookstore and was reminded how many books published decades ago were written waving warning flags of different aspects of ecological collapse. Some looked dated, such as books published in the early 70s about protecting whales and harp seals but perhaps those books helped influence the laws that followed soon (ish) after to protect whales and harp seals. Others, like The Fight to Save the Redwoods (1983), were more sad to see because although over 90% of old growth redwoods had already been cut down at the time of its publication, the book is presented as a history of preserving the remaining trees as an accomplishment, without foreseeing that only three years after its publication, the Pacific Lumber Co. would start clearcutting forests at a rapid rate previously unseen. 

My point, hopefully, is much like the point of Losing Earth: everyone has known our actions are destructive to our habitat. John Muir advocated to preserve the redwoods almost as soon as they began cutting them down. Ed Ricketts and his protege John Steinbeck warned of overfishing and a lifeless ocean in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (written in 1940, published in 1951). Some books, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) generated small successes such as banning DDT but eleven years after its publication, Roundup was patented. We seem to care that DDT and Roundup harm humans but based on our actions, we are less concerned that we are poisoning our water and food – to say nothing of the insects the poisons are designed to kill that help keep our ecosystem in balance. I’m reminded of George Santayana’s quote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ that is more often remembered in Winston Churchill’s words, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ and my concern is that the history Nathaniel Rich shares is a reminder of what we have already failed to learn and the consequences of climate change are reaping what we have sown. But perhaps the 3.3 billion people born since the science was clear should be called victims. As Rich states in the afterword about a government that denies the science, it is, ‘guilty of more than merely bowing to corporate interests; it commits crimes against humanity.’ Rich also says the, ‘fears of the young will overwhelm the fears of the old’ and my hope is that we still have the time to see that come true.

Andrew Murphy of Mill Valley Public Library