Saturday, March 14, 2020

Book Review: 'The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here' by Hope Jahren

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down is a concise description of The Story of More. Hope Jahren  has written a passionate, direct and searing indictment of what Man has made of this planet in just her lifetime (She repeats at least 20 times she was born in 1969). And yet, every chapter (there are 19) begins with a nostalgic look at her childhood in Minnesota, her parents, family rituals, and life at that time. She had a pet chunk of ice she named Covington that she kicked all the way to school and back all winter. The book is a wonderfully odd combination of warm, fuzzy memories and stark, fraught trends and stats, that do not portend good things to come.

Minnesota and her later home in Iowa have changed dramatically over her lifetime. The increased amount of corn per acre is stunning, but pales before the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used to get those better yields. She says we have pushed plants to produce as much as they physically can, and where we go for more is unfathomable. Not that we make good use of it. About 20% is simply burned up in biofuels, and most of it goes to feed domesticated animals for meat. The amount actually consumed as food comes dead last. She backs it up with figures, both global and American, that demonstrate the really poor connection between then and now. (She lists them all again at the end, because frankly, it's all very hard to believe one at a time.)

Americans eat 15% more food today. It shows. They throw out 40% of the food they buy, enough to feed all the undernourished in the rest of the world. By 2004, Americans were consuming a pound and a half of sugar - a week. In sum,  Americans, who make up  4% of the global population, consume 15% of the food, 15% of the energy and 20% of the electricity in the world. If the rest of mankind were to the rise to that level - the world could simply not work.

Already, half the fish we eat are farmed because there aren't enough left in the wild. The amount of excrement they produce is way more than the oceans can deal with. Similarly, cattle and our other domesticated animals produce 300 million tons of feces a year, far in excess of the amount humans produce as a result of eating them. It's not a beneficial tradeoff. To make that manure,  those animals consume a billion tons of grain, in order to give consumers (just) 100 million pounds of meat. This math leads nowhere good, and Jahren soon switches from dispassionate scientist to frustration:
"The amount of fruits and vegetables that is wasted each year exceeds the annual food supply of fruit and vegetables for the whole continent of Africa. We live in an age when we can order a pair of tennis shoes from a warehouse on the other side of the planet and have them shipped to a single address in less than 24 hours; don't tell me that a global food distribution is impossible."

All this overconsumption seems to have done Americans no good. They are no happier now that they work more, eat more, drive more, fly more and consume more. Quite the opposite, according to the figures. She says we need to consume less and share more. But neither of those are American values any more, and she has no stats for trends in sharing - just aspirations. More is a one way street, an addiction and a plague on the planet. Americans have yet to notice.

Meanwhile, there are (still) a billion people with no access to electricity.

Her 19 chapters cover the gamut from plastics to cars to species extinctions, passing through global warming and greenhouse gases. She has unkind words for both deniers and alarmists; neither is doing any good. She is all about reducing consumption, and concludes with how each individual American can reduce consumption and actually make a difference. "If we want to take action, we should get started while it still matters what we do."

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.