books climate change

Book review: Fragile Planet

Fragile Planet: The impact of climate change is a little different from the books I usually review here. It’s a book of photos showing the unfolding effects of climate change, drawn from all over the world. It’s also a book that gave my son the fear, and so it’s not going to be one that gets left out on the coffee table.

As the fires on the front cover make clear, this is a fairly unflinching set of images. We are presented with flooded slums and inundated highways, satellite imagery of cyclones and scenes from their aftermath. There are duststorms, droughts, rising seas.

Some images show before and after scenarios, such as side-by-side images of shrinking glaciers, evaporating lakes or desforested regions. There are fleeting cameos from the animal world, though the focus is on landscapes, both human and natural. Out of 200 images, only one or two feature people in close up, presumably a deliberate editorial decision to avoid personalising things too much.

There are iconic examples in the book – a flooded Venice, Australian bushfires. Other pages show the effects of climate change at the margins, places easily overlooked – abandoned homes collapsing under melting permafrost, cattle crossing the dry and sandy bed of Lake Amboseli in Kenya.

Each photo is from a specific place, with a couple of sentences explaining what we’re looking at. As I turned the pages I found I was constantly moving from the specifics to the global context and back again. Each local crisis reflects a global crisis – this lonely patch of snow in the Cairngorms stands in for all the mountains losing their ice and snow. Moving the other way, the global crisis is located in real places and real lives. Changing rainfall patterns and creeping desertification affect this village, these people planting hedges in Morrocco.

What the book doesn’t do is explain, and if there’s anything you don’t understand – like why there are images of record snowfall for example – you will need to look that up elsewhere. The limited copy in the book does not tie the images in to global trends or connect the effects and the causes. It simply confronts us with the change, documents it.

As such, I’m not entirely sure who needs a book like this. Libraries maybe. It’s not a book you would pick up to understand more about climate change, or to look for answers and solutions. But that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. In a culture that specialises in distraction and conspiracies of silence, there is something very powerful about simply bearing witness.

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