books climate change lifestyle

How to be a Humankind Superhero, by Harold Forbes

I was sent a copy of this book to review, and my first thought was ‘what on earth is going on on the front cover?’ Is it a man wearing a bear suit? Is he being hugged by a lion, or attacked by it? Maybe the creature is trying to prevent the man from stealing the world.

Better to move swiftly on to the contents of the book. How to be a Humankind Superhero: A manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate is a twelve step programme for engaging in climate change. It aims to show the reader a broad set of actions, some lifestyle change, some campaigning or lobbying. “My intention” says Harold Forbes, “is to provide a focus for action that will allow you to make an impact where it matters and avoid getting sidetracked by tokenism or unfocused good intentions.”

After a brief introduction to the underlying problems behind climate change – fossil fuels, and accounting that doesn’t factor in the environment – we begin the tasks. They include transport, waste, energy generation, food and shopping. Once our own households are in order, there is work to do writing to MPs, and writing either to chastise or to thank corporations which are moving in the right direction. If you were to do all the actions, says Forbes, you’d cut your CO2 emissions by between 20 and 50%, and you’d have helped others along the road as well.

There are a few missteps, like the section that equates Fairtrade with sustainability, something the Fairtrade Foundation makes no claim to, and the supermarkets get off very lightly. But there are also some nice ideas here. For example, there’s a code at the end of the energy chapter that will get you £50 off your first bill if you switch to Good Energy. The shopping chapter points out that services are generally less energy intensive than goods, so “if you feel like a little retail therapy, head to the spa instead of the shopping centre.”  Most environmental writers would lambast the idea of retail therapy, but Forbes just puts a twist on it and sends it in a more sustainable direction. Ultimately, that’s much more realistic for those who are not fully paid up greenies.

Among the little ideas however, is one big one that serves as the structure for the whole book: the legend of the labours of Hercules. According to the legend, Hercules was set 12 quests that would make the earth safe for humankind. Most of them involved slaying or capturing some hideous beast, which Hercules had to do as much through cunning as through strength. There are parallels to climate change, not least that for many of the challenges, “we cannot hope to defeat the opponent, but must find an alternative way to win”. Assigning each of the specific quests to the climate change tasks is tenuous, (‘Plant trees – the labour of the Erymanthian Boar’, ‘Using your house as a generator and keeping it warm – the labour of the Apples of Hesperides’) but it is imaginative and playful, and sets the book apart from the many other books on what you can do about climate change. George Monbiot’s Heat starts each chapter with a quote from Faust, so why not?

Having read the book, I now realise that the cover depicts Hercules, robed in the pelt of the Nemean Lion. By why is there no indication of this either on the front cover, or on the back? Why doesn’t the title mention Hercules or Herculean tasks in some way? Structuring the book around the labours of Hercules is the book’s biggest distinctive, and there is no reference to it anywhere. The book hides its light under a bushel. Perhaps the editor was afraid it was too conceptual and would put people off, but then they should have followed that through and not put such a strange illustration on the front.

30 comments

  1. Great points about Hercules. It does seem strange the the cover art wouldn’t really be clear to the reader upon reading the book.

    I liked the idea of ‘retail therapy’ on one’s self rather than on consumption. Some may call it pampering, but I think it’s more appropriately named: “taking care of yourself.” It is highly important that one take care of themselves and if spending money is what does this for some people, I think it’s best that they spend the money on things that are going to make them *truly* happy. A massage, a facial, or other things that are important for cleansing the body SHOULD be much more valued than a diamond bracelet.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  2. That cover illustration would have made me think that the book was not going to be worth my time — although I do like the typography (it’s very Indiana Jones). And, to be fair, I usually pick up books with pink covers. Thanks for the great review — maybe I’ll pick this one up for my parents. They’re closet greenies who hate Al Gore. So cute.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

  3. I know what I want to say. But it rests in the realm beyond words. The reason being that most humans don’t think about the environment or what their actions do to it. It never enters their mind, and they are oblivious to the consequences of their actions. How can one really place that in meaningful words ?
    We are all consuming vasts amounts of un-renewable energy. The Eater Islanders did that too, in the erection of their Moyai, till they ran out of wood, for building fishing boats, homes, and for cooking. What happened in Easter Island is a microcosm of the probability happening to most other counties in the world, sooner, hopefully later.

  4. Obviously, the artisit of the cover can’t quite differentiate between Heracles and Atlas. Tsk tsk! What do they teach kids in schools these days?!

    One of the challenges of Heracles is to hold the world for Atlas. By the way, I’m 22, what did they teach you in your school days?

  5. It takes Herculean effort to do something for a cause. The cover depicts that. Sometimes I hear people talking about Cycling to go to a place nearby instead of opting for bikes or cars. But rarely some people do that. Smokes emitted from cars, vehicles and automobiles causes pollution and is one of the many reasons behind Global Warming, many people in the world are aware of this fact. Ice Caps are melting, man people are even aware of this. An idea should pop out and practically implemented to atleast see a 1% of change. Challenges and opponents will definitely be there but it will not stop an idea to flow as you had already mentioned – ““we cannot hope to defeat the opponent, but must find an alternative way to win”.

  6. I was hoping the cover was some sort of Burt Reynold’s tribute (his mustache alone could have been one of the booms to clean up the oil spill)…but it looks like an interesting, and most importantly accessible book that manages to both challenge the reader without making it overwhelming. The fairtrade mistake bummed me out, and indicated that this book was for a rather specific audience and not concerned Americans as a whole, which is sort of hwere the climate debate needs to be…nonetheless, appreciate the review

    1. Just like 1998 – you need to look at 2007 in its full context. It was a record year, and we don’t know yet if the ice is recovering or not. In June this year it was melting faster than 07, and then slowed with the cooler weather in July.

      Rather than quote Anthony Watts, who denies that earth has warmed at all, try looking at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/). Their words on your points above:

      “Yes, the data show that Arctic sea ice really is in a state of ongoing decline.”

      “Even though the extent of Arctic sea ice has not returned to the record low of 2007, the data show that it is not recovering. To recover would mean returning to within its previous, long-term range. Arctic sea ice in September 2008 remained 34 percent below the average extent from 1979 to 2000, and in September 2009, it was 24 percent below the long term average… In addition, ice extent is only one measure of sea ice. Satellite measurements from NASA show that in 2008, Arctic sea ice was thinner than 2007, and likely reached a record low volume.”

      “Before 1953, the historical record is less reliable. Shipping records go back to the 1700s, but only for limited areas and dates, and they do not always provide information about Arctic sea ice conditions. However, scientists do know that the Arctic was generally cooler up through the 1950s compared to recent years; the exception is a period during the 1930s and 1940s that was warmer than surrounding decades but still not as warm as recent years.”

      For graphics, see here: http://nsidc.org/sotc/images/arc_antarc_1979_2009.gif

    2. Robin Guenier: The last link opens CricInfo. The first four were really interesting to go through on some graphical information.

  7. I followed your link to the book’s website and looked in particular at its claim that “the science of climate change is neither new nor disputed“. Well, the science is not new – although it’s developing rapidly. But there are major and important disputes about it: for example, about the impact of feedbacks on global temperature.

    The summary provided is embarrassingly simplistic and one-sided. For example, it says this about scientists who dissent from the so-called “mainstream” position:

    There are a few isolated scientists who claim that climate change is not a problem at all, that global warming does not exist. They are given a surprising amount of media coverage but that is probably because they use words like “scam” and “con” to describe the orthodox science and the media finds that controversy gets more attention than collaboration.

    But they do not say that climate change is not a problem – mankind has been struggling with it since he walked the Earth. Nor do they say that global warming does not exist – the record is clear: temperatures have been increasing for at least 250 years. The debate is about the causes of that increase. Moreover, informed sceptics are given remarkably little media coverage. And anyone using words like “scam” and “con” is not a scientist.

    If that’s the level of the author’s understanding of those who are sceptical of the dangerous man-made global warming hypothesis, I suggest that the book is very unlikely to be worth reading.

  8. SinhaG:

    Re my post (still in moderation as I write this) re your misguided claim (above) that the ice caps are melting, I see that my final link is nonsensical – I’ve no idea how that happened. Apologies. As a substitute see this: http://wp.me/P7y4l-5Kc. As you see, it provides a wealth of data about the true state of polar sea ice. There’s a lot there: enjoy it.

    My intention, incidentally, was to link to the final graph.

  9. Jeremy:

    Re your reply (above), my point was simply that SinhaG was wrong to suggest that the ice caps are melting. They are not.

    Anthony Watts (your ad hominem comment is unworthy of you) has usefully gathered in one place a compendium of the world’s leading indicators of polar ice – without comment or spin. It includes NSIDC N and S data. This shows that the Arctic has recovered (albeit slightly) from the 2007 low and that the Antarctic is at record levels. Overall (this is the key indicator), despite a downward Arctic trend, an upward Antarctic trend has meant that polar ice is much as it was in 1979 – when satellite measurements started. In other words, it’s not melting.

    Of course, 30 years is too short a period to establish a trend. Unfortunately, we do not have many good records pre 1979. But we have some: there is, for example, good evidence that around 1930/40 Arctic ice declined at least as much as today – for example, see Polyakov et al., 2002. Indeed, Polyakov suggest that Arctic temperatures are out of sync with global temperatures, which would seem to be confirmed by this: http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/meant80n.uk.php. (You can use this chart to do your own research – I don’t think you’ll find August temperatures lower than 2010 in any year since 1958.)

    It may also be relevant that researchers from the Norwegian Component of the Ecosystem Studies of Sub-Arctic Seas said earlier this year that: “The dramatic changes in the extent of Arctic sea ice in recent years have mainly been caused by atmospheric circulation patterns that have tended to reduce ice cover, combined with a slow process of climate change. Variations in the circulation patterns are part of the natural fluctuations in the weather.”

    Significantly, they say the extent of the ice cover around the North Pole should not be used as a barometer for whether climate change is affecting the ice coverage, and whether climate change is occurring in the Arctic at all. Interesting.

    1. Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree, despite apparently looking at exactly the same graphs. Sure, the Antarctic sea ice is healthy, but it’s increase does not offset the decrease of the Arctic. Neither is is recovering, according to the NSIDC.

      Of course it’s complex, and there are more factors in play than climate change alone. But the quote you’ve inserted above says that there are both ‘dramatic changes’ in the Arctic and that climate is a factor.

      As for Watts, he has an agenda, and while he doesn’t comment on the graphs on his site, he doesn’t give a complete set either. They focus on extent, for example, rather than mass. And it’s all sea ice. If you factor in Antarctic land ice, SinhaG would be quite correct in saying that the ice caps are melting.

  10. Jeremy:

    Yes, we’re going to have to disagree. The NSIDC is but one authority of many – and, even it, shows the health of Antarctic ice. As for your claim that it does not offset the Arctic increase, this makes the offset clear: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/global.daily.ice.area.withtrend.jpg

    But, yes, it’s complex and the long-term picture is necessarily uncertain – although it can be seen from proxy data (and historical records) that it has been warmer (or as warm) in the Arctic in the not so distant past.

    In 2004, K R Wood of the Arctic Research office and J Wood of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory examined explorer’s logs from large naval expeditions from 1818 to 1859 and found that ice thickness and navigation channels were surprisingly like today. Explorers encountered both warm and cool conditions and came within about 90 miles of completing the North West passage. The passage was navigated by Amundsen in 1905.

    BTW a 2004 Norwegian study covering 100 years in the Arctic, confirmed the Polyakov (see above) findings by showing the temperature was generally increasing up to the 1930s, decreasing from the 1930s to the 1960s, and increasing from the 1960s to 2000. The temperature level in the 1990s was still lower than it was during the 1930s.

    So, in my view, SinhaG is almost certainly wrong re the short term and certainly wrong re the medium and long terms. And it’s the latter that are relevant.

    Two things are obvious: (1) the amount of ice at the poles varies markedly over time (indeed for long periods of the Earth’s history there was no ice at all); and (2) there’s no evidence that current changes have anything to do with Mankind.

    PS 1: Watts may have “an agenda”. But so what? So do you – and so do I.

    PS2: Watts has posted some interesting stuff about ice mass – see this for example: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/07/11/sea-ice-news-13/

  11. strong>Jeremy:

    BTW talking about people having “an agenda”, how about this? Mark Serreze (senior scientist at the NSIDC – see above – and therefore a public servant) seems to think it’s part of his job to issue hairy-scary press releases. Thus, in the National Geographic of 12 December 2007 – just after that year’s summer ice low, he speculated that summer sea ice “could be gone in five years” (i.e. by 2012). “The Arctic is screaming” he said. Then a New Scientist headline in April 2008, quoting Serreze (no longer, it seems, content with 2012), shouted “North Pole could be ice free in 2008“. (Which didn’t happen in 2008 or in 2009 and is most unlikely to happen in 2010) And, in September of that year (2008), he told the National Geographic that Arctic ice is in (omigawd) a “death spiral“.

    None of this is very helpful to the NSIDC’s reputation as an impartial organisation – hence some scientists’ doubts about, for example, its comments on ice mass.

    1. Sure, one man in an organisation, and guess who the media go to for the scary quotes. That’s not the tone of their website and I have no doubts about their scientific credibility.

    2. Yes I agree – and there’s some useful data on their website. But, rather than tolerate it, the NSIDC would be wise to tell Serreze to calm down (preferably to keep quiet): especially when his predictions are shown to be inaccurate within months. This sort of behaviour from a public servant if bound to raise doubts about the organisation’s credibility. Imagine the warmists outrage if, say, Watts used equivalent headlines (on a personal website).

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