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Climate Change Pollyannas

A book review essay by David Orton
February, 2009

Global Warming for Dummies

Global Warming
For Dummies

by Elizabeth May
and Zoe Caron
John Wiley Canada, 2009
362 pages, paperback
ISBN: 978-0-470-84098-6

“Although global warming is connected to scary scenarios featuring soaring temperatures and worsening hurricanes and monsoons, it’s also a link to a better future. Global warming is opening doors for the development of new types of fuels, leading the shift to reliable energy sources, and creating a vision of a greener tomorrow.” — May and Caron, p.1.

“This small band of deep ecologists seem to realize more than other green thinkers the magnitude of the change of mind needed to bring us back to peace within Gaia, the living Earth.” — James Lovelock, The Revenge Of Gaia, p. 198.

“The more you know about both climate change and energy, the less moderate you are.” — Joseph Romm, climateprogress.org

Global Warming For Dummies by Elizabeth May and Zoe Caron contains much information about climate change and offers solutions from an individualistic, “what you can do” perspective. Reading Global Warming For Dummies can raise a person’s general level of knowledge about climate change. But along with co-author Zoe Caron, Elizabeth May has chosen to play the Pollyanna role of promoting optimism in fighting climate change, at a time in which most government and corporate climate change initiatives are at best token greenwash.

Elizabeth May is intelligent, passionate, and hard-working, in touch with a wide range of environmental information. The current leader of the Green Party of Canada and its shadow cabinet spokesperson for climate change, we can look to this book to see the kind of ideas on climate change and related topics advocated by the Green Party. Unfortunately, this book and its published policies indicate that the Canada’s Green Party is in the business of putting forward fudge and “market” or soothing eco-capitalist positions, which do not call industrial capitalism into question or bring about the needed fundamental shift in societal consciousness.

Like other books she has written, Global Warming For Dummies does not espouse any critical eco-philosophical tradition. May and her co-author are both pragmatists: they point the reader to practical engagement with the capitalist industrial society. Yet this industrial society has brought on the climate change crisis that is destroying this Earth. For these two writers, the existing system just needs fixing, not replaced. They do not raise fundamental questions that climate change and diminishing fossil fuel availability bring to the foreground, such as:

  • How do we humans reduce our industrial impact upon the Earth?
  • What are our vital needs as societies, taking into consideration the needs and habitat requirements of all other nonhuman life forms?
  • How do humans become Earth-centred in our many cultures not just human-centred?
  • How do we bring about social justice for all people in a world-wide context so everyone’s full potential may be liberated; and
  • How do we bring about such profound cultural changes for humankind, if we never raise such questions?

May’s career shows that she “works the system”, which means that she accepts and works within the industrial paradigm. May does not seriously threaten the system’s legitimacy with her eco-politics, and society in turn has rewarded her with its accolades.

Arne Naess, the founder of deep ecology (1912-2009) made a distinction in the early 1970s between those who practice “shallow” ecology and those who follow a “deeper” ecological path. Those on the deeper ecological path see the industrial system itself as unsustainable from an ecological and social justice standpoint, and climate change as one manifestation of this.

To deep ecologists and eco-centric greens, addressing climate change means addressing the problem of replacing industrial capitalist society entirely. This book shows clearly that May and Caron follow the shallow path.

Pollyanna optimism

“No one likes the blame game; pointing fingers and making accusations doesn’t solve anything.” (p. 69)

“Governments all over the world at every level, are already doing leading-edge work, moving toward low-carbon technologies and ways of life.” (p. 160)

“Can humanity actually avoid getting to the point of huge, devastating, and irreversible changes in the world’s climate? Of course!” (p. 200)

“Believe it or not, letters to your elected representatives make a difference…. Politicians are eager to know what the people think.” (p. 318)

The Pollyanna title for this review – meaning a false optimism or attitude of looking for the good side of any situation – is perhaps misleading given the situation we face. The basic assumption permeating this book is not that we are facing a civilizational and ecocide crisis of hard to grasp proportions, which require seismic cultural and institutional changes and lifestyle change that are difficult to comprehend and with the outcome very much in doubt; but the promotion of the view that good things are being done around climate change and global warming, that we are moving in the right direction, and only need to accelerate our efforts.

I believe this to be a false, harmful, and very misleading Pollyannaish message. It is totally inappropriate, considering the dire climate change situation generally, and particularly in Canada, which is proud to be the main fossil fuel supplier to the United States. Very little significant work regarding reducing green house gas emissions is being done. Carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, not declining, each year. Climate feedback mechanisms, which introduce an extreme unpredictability into what is going to happen – including a potential acceleration of indicators of climate change – are already underway. There is a fair amount of talk about climate change, but this can always be pushed aside by governing political and economic elites and the bourgeois media when there is so-called bad economic news, like declining economic growth and consumption rates.

The Pollyanna message also reflects an erroneous but common political organizing belief, characterizing not only May’s (and presumably Caron’s) environmental politics, but running throughout Green Party electoralism in Canada – that is, for social mobilization purposes, one has to be optimistic, non-threatening and non-radical to gain popular or electoral support. However, the kind of institutional, economic and personal lifestyle changes that should be on the climate change table are extremely radical when someone of the scientific stature of climate scientist James Hansen, among others, is saying that carbon dioxide emissions have to be reduced to at most 350 parts per million, from the existing about 387 ppm.

Erroneous assumptions

Clearly system change is needed. The problems cannot be solved by more conservation effort on the part of individuals and firms within consumer-capitalist society. They are being caused by an overshoot that is far too big for that, and they are being caused by some of the fundamental structures of this society. Consequently much of what is said under the heading of ‘sustainability’ is nonsense and much of the effort being made to ‘save the planet’ is a waste of time. Most irritating are the ‘What you can do in your own home’ campaigners. ‘Buy biodegradable wash up liquid, use a low-flow shower head, recycle your bottles, buy a smaller car, etc.’ Such efforts can make no more than a negligible difference to household impact, when we need something like a 90% reduction in national consumption. Nothing remotely like this is possible within a consumer-capitalist society committed to affluent lifestyles and limitless economic growth. It is only possible through dramatically reducing the volume of production and consumption and therefore by changing from such a society to one that is about frugal but adequate ‘living standards’, as little production and consumption as possible and a stable economy.” (Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, p. 117.)

Here are some of the erroneous assumptions we find in the Dummies book:

1) The choice of the tipping point for carbon dioxide in this book, which helps minimize a sense of climate emergency: if one chooses to align with a higher tipping point regarding global warming for carbon dioxide emissions, then immediate emergency action becomes downplayed. This is the situation with the Dummies book. This book in the main promotes 450 ppm as climate tipping point: “Scientists know only that humanity has a choice to avoid it (tipping points) by holding carbon dioxide concentrations to no more than 450 ppm, to keep the planet’s average temperature increase at or below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).” (p. 52) This number is much too high and, as noted earlier, James Hansen says that carbon dioxide has to be reduced to at most 350 parts per million to avoid substantive climate change. The book authors do mention elsewhere, as an afterthought, that “Many scientists are arguing that we must keep carbon at no more than 350 ppm.”. (p. 332)

2) Saying that global population trends should not be basically opposed but have to be accepted in the climate change discussion. While seemingly acknowledging that growing human populations are a consideration in increased green house gas accumulations, May and Caron adapt to a projected world population of nine billion people and do not call for societal policies to reduce human populations on Earth: “Luckily, population growth is slowing and should level off. (The bad news is that this isn’t expected to happen until the Earth’s population reaches 9 billion people) …It all depends on reducing fertility rates, which all depends on improving the economic, educational, and political status of women and girls.” (p. 68) Thus, and with a bow to feminist orthodoxy, there is nothing we can do about population reduction. The position of May and Caron, that with increasing affluence/education/democracy, population rates will fall, presupposes more economic growth and affluence – in other words, more overall consumption of the Earth. Contrast this with James Lovelock’s views in his 2006 book, The Revenge Of Gaia. Lovelock, who is very pessimistic about the possibilities of turning global warming around or seriously mitigating its impact (as anyone who is informed should be), sees the crucial importance of population reduction in the climate change discussion and speaks of aiming for “a stabilized population of about half to one billion, and then we would be free to live in many different ways without harming Gaia.” (Lovelock, p. 181) Arne Naess has called for a world population of 100 million people (Selected Works, Volume Ten, p. 270). But Naess makes it clear that the so-called developed countries’ lifestyle cannot be one of overconsumption, Rather, it must be a lifestyle satisfying only what he calls “vital needs” and such a lifestyle should be attainable for all others in the world.

3) Assuming that new energy sources are out there waiting to be utilized and can replace fossil fuels, and hence the existing industrial ‘civilization’ can switch over to these sources and just continue: “Fortunately, a wide array of energies is waiting to take the place of oil, coal, and gas. Some of these energy sources aren’t yet ready for modern civilization to use them on a grand scale, but if businesses and governments commit to developing these energies, they soon will be.” ( p. 21) This book is oohing-and-aahing over clever new energy innovations, which do not change the overall constant picture of ecosystem degradation, while climate change intensifies. Deeper Green thinkers, like Ted Trainer in his 2007 book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society have shown that the line of argumentation here retains a commitment to affluent living standards and economic growth, through a belief in supposed technical advances which will rectify the problems of climate change. In addition, through a complex and erudite discussion in his book covering wind energy, solar thermal electricity, photovoltaic solar electricity, liquid and gaseous fuels derived from biomass, the ‘hydrogen economy’, storing electricity and why nuclear energy is no answer, Trainer has the position, which I support, that the “very high levels of production and consumption and therefore of energy use that we have in today’s consumer-capitalist society cannot be sustained by renewable sources of energy.” (p. 2) There is one additional point made by Trainer which is vital to understand, namely that, in a growing economy, which is clearly being promoted in the Dummies book, “whether or not renewable energy can sustain consumer-capitalist society is not a matter of whether it can meet present demand. The crucial question is can it sustain the demand generated by growth of the economy?” (p. 115)

4) Assuming that carbon emissions trading and the use of “market” mechanisms is the way to go for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as does the Kyoto Protocol. This position was also advanced in May’s 2005 revised edition of At the Cutting Edge: The Crisis in Canada’s Forests. As she says in the forestry book “Assigning dollar values to carbon is essential in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases. We can give it value through carbon taxes, or allow the market to set carbon prices.” (pp. 64-5) (Elizabeth May seems to be a promoter of the forest industry. In her book and in her role as Green Party leader, where, presumably under her authorization, the February 2009 Convention of the federal Green Party, in Pictou, Nova Scotia, has outrageously invited Avrim Lazar, President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada to address the Convention.) May and Caron explain well the intricacies of carbon emissions trading or cap and trade, but whatever their criticisms, they both support this in the Dummies book. Coming into a new relationship with the Earth, which should be on any deeper Green agenda, means seeing the atmosphere as part of the global commons and something which cannot be privatized. From this philosophical position, emissions trading is a continuation of the ongoing enclosure movement, the attempt to assert private property rights – rife with fraud and speculation – over the atmospheric commons by governments and industries.

5) Promoting so-called sustainable development as something desirable. A section of the book is called “Choosing Sustainable Development” (p. 192), where it says, “Climate change and sustainable development are linked.” The 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, which birthed the widespread acceptance in some quarters of the sustainable development scam, ties environmental protection to continued economic growth, increasing consumerism, human-centredness and an expanded human population. This was a concept which enabled the business class to reinvent itself as environmentally virtuous while expanding or growing their firms. May has helped build her career on the promotion of sustainable development, so this Dummies book is in character. We need sustainable retreat, as James Lovelock has called for, not sustainable development.

6) Assuming that making money and reducing greenhouse gases can go hand-in-hand, and that this path should be promoted, e.g. business and industry “can cut back on their greenhouse gas emissions and make money, to boot.” (p. 3) This implies industrial growth can continue, notwithstanding climate change and peak oil. This leads the authors to non-critically promote more economic growth, throughout this book, and to speak positively about countries which reduce greenhouse gas emissions but increase their economic growth. The following three examples are among several in this book:
“Many European countries have benefited with continued GDP growth because they started acting on climate change decades ago.” (p. 133)
“Germany cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17.2 percent while watching its GDP rise 28.6 percent in that time frame.” (p. 133)
“Sweden has seen 44-percent economic growth while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 8 percent below 1990 levels.” (p. 69)
Given the existing overshoot impact of humans upon the Earth, promoting more economic growth in any form in industrialized countries, is fundamentally opposed to basic deeper green thinking.

7) Two further assumptions in the Dummies that are not directly related to climate change concerns are bird kills by wind turbines and Forest Stewardship Certification. Bird kills by wind turbines are minimized and the frivolous attitude, e.g. “wind turbines are far from a bird’s worst enemy” is well conveyed by the title given to this discussion “A big flap over wind power.” (p. 210). Bat kills by turbines are mentioned only in passing. The potential ecological concerns coming from the disruption of wind flows by turbines are not discussed. What also comes through is that these two authors are prepared to let the countryside be despoiled, i.e. by becoming industrialized in the placement of wind turbines. Also, landscape aesthetics are not a concern. The placement of wind turbines, usually on the highest ground around, in the name of generating alternative energy is becoming more common in rural Nova Scotia, as where I live. The only human concern granted some small legitimacy in their placement usually concerns the noise of wind turbines for those who live close to sites. On the forestry issue, this text promotes the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification stamp as both an example of “steps” taken by the forest industry, “to ensure that forests are sustainably managed” (p. 239), and as some kind of guarantee that “the forests are grown and harvested without soil damage or clear-cutting.” (p. 297) This is an erroneous or false claim which an internet search could verify. (See for many examples of FSC perfidy the internet posting “This-week-in-trees”.) FSC certification can still mean the cutting of old growth forests, clear cutting, plantations, and the use of forest spraying – in other words, the continuation of the industrial forestry model. When major pulp and paper companies can become FSC approved, as in Nova Scotia and across Canada, then clearly this forestry standard is basically meaningless, except for promoting green wash sales.


In some ways, the Dummies title seems appropriate, because climate change ideas are really dumbed down by the two authors. Climate change is important in its own right, but it is a reflection of the larger issue of humankind treating Nature as a commodity. I believe a very misleading picture is presented of what trying to address climate change means for the fate of industrial capitalist societies. The authors refuse to say that we need to move to a post-industrial age, where the old ways of economic activity go to the dust bin and an Earth-centred all species spirituality is embraced by those seeking a way out of the climate change crisis.

As Naess has said “The earth does not belong to humans.” This basic position means that it is only by human-made social conventions, which should not be supported, that humans acquire “ownership”or private property rights over the Earth. This means that from a deep ecology point of view, with regards to climate change, opposing carbon emissions trading both within and outside the Kyoto Protocol, because this is putting a price on the atmosphere. Asserting that the Earth does not belong to humans, is also a stand against treating other life forms, living or dead (like fossil fuels), as “resources” for human or corporate utilization. All life forms have value in themselves, independent of any human valuation. All life is ultimately one, so there are no absolute distinctions between living and non-living ecosystem components.

Given the importance of fossil fuels, clearly they should not “belong” to corporations. If they do, as in Canada, they should be taken back by the appropriate collectivity, here the Canadian state. Fossil fuels, in today’s world of ever increasing carbon dioxide emissions, should only be minimally further exploited in our country, and only as a transition to a non-fossil fuel, post-industrial economy. All fossil fuel exports should be ended, NAFTA notwithstanding. A national oil and gas pipeline should be built, in order to have some national self sufficiency, as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, in moving to a post-industrial, ecocentric, carbon-free economy. In Canada, deeper Greens should be calling for the end of the Alberta tar sands’ exploitation, oil and gas wells off the East Coast, and the projected Mackenzie Valley pipeline. We have to get out of the “business” of fossil fuels in Canada. Also, in order to have international moral authority in climate change negotiations, Canada must be seen as walking the talk within its own national boundaries. The long term economic direction is to a much more bioregional or localized self-sufficient world, as globalization starts to unravel with the “peaking” of oil and natural gas. Masses of people have to relearn basic life skills of survival in place. Ted Trainer in his book Renewable Energy calls this “The Simpler Way” and outlines what he sees as some basic principles for low ecological footprint and energy use and Earth-bonding lifestyles. Elizabeth May and Zoe Caron in Global Warming For Dummies unfortunately do not support this kind of perspective in their book.

This book is “Pollyanna-=ish” and non-threatening regarding fundamental changes to life styles. As May and Caron say in one memorable remark, “You can use a dishwasher without guilt.” (p. 292) What is very worrying is that this book is now being promoted by the federal Green Party as a “Green” view of climate change. It is not.

Climate change, the growth of industrial societies and the expansion of human populations (now approaching seven billion persons), are directly linked to the exploitation and consumption of fossil fuels. These same fuels have not only contaminated the atmosphere but, when worked into biocides, fertilizers, and plastics, have contaminated large areas of the Earth – people, wildlife and increasingly the oceans. The kind of climate change debate set forth in Global Warming for Dummies is clearly inadequate from any deeper perspective. Greens need to set their sights on transforming popular consciousness, in order to build a base for the needed revolutionary change, not dumbing down climate change and other ecological messages in order to gain parliamentary seats. For industrial capitalism to commodify the Earth, its spirituality had to be undermined. Greens who are influenced by deep ecology see the necessity for a new spiritual relationship to the natural world. This means that we come to see the Earth as alive and part of ourselves. We need to extend our sense of personal self-identity to include the well being of the Earth, if we are to seriously engage with climate change.

[Editor’s note:] This is an edited extract from the full article, which can be found online at Green Web.

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1 comment

1 Anna-Maria Galante { 04.07.09 at 8:40 am }

If I run for the green party I will mention

1. the mathematical problem of “doubling” (even at 1% growth – in 70 years)

2. that it is no coincidence the economic collapse is happening on side of environmental collapse.

3. that the recreational use of fossil fuel ought to be outlawed outright.