Book review: „The Future Earth“ by Eric Holthaus

Few authors of non-fiction books on climate change manage to bring the known scientific facts and an understanding of social change together like Eric Holthaus did with “The Future Earth”. Even fewer succeed in nurturing hope and optimism in the reader that there is a way to develop and implement a common vision for humanity and achieve decarbonization by the mid-century.

By consciously focusing on hopeful visions of the future, we increase the likelihood that they will actually come true.

Eric Holthaus, The Future Earth (own translation from the German edition)

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and climate journalist and has an incredibly encompassing understanding of transformation and social change. His strength is to speak with objectivity and clarity, despite personal concern and fear which he talks openly about in the introduction (he mentions having been to therapy because of climate anxiety). And even though his writing is based on the experience and privilege of being a white American male, he doesn’t let this fact cloud the validity of other perspectives, which is pretty rare for the genre, too. That, and the fact that he presents an intersectoral, social justice-based concept of how people can cooperate to save their habitat has made this a rare reading experience of a climate book: one where I allowed myself to feel excitement and hope.

The method he uses is as simple as it is convincing. He tells the story of how we managed to turn things around since the 2020s from the viewpoint of a historian in the 2050’s. Looking “back”, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the many ambitious plans drafted by governments must be put into action. Further, responsibility for a radical social and economic restart must be assumed – by all of us. Individual actions (going vegan, flying less) are not what he has in mind, though, as these will not yield significant change and thus lead to frustration and, you’re guessing right, more anxiety. He’s talking about nothing less than system change, which we need to demand from the ones in power, and we (citizens, scientists, activists) can do so by talking to everyone, every day, everywhere about why this is crucial.

Foto: Jelka Wickham

His vision does not rely on technological solutions such as geo-engineering or the replacement of combustion engines with electric engines. These technocratic options alone will not be enough to reach decarbonization by 2050. Rather, social change plays a key role here, achieved through common public action driving governments to adopt mitigating policies. Firstly, the risks of geo-engineering are too high, after all, we should have learned how fragile the climate and ecosystems on our planet react to our interventions. Additionally, electric motors ultimately bring forth a new version of the old system, the cause of climate change, exploitation of nature and people, and inequalities in the first place. Lastly, bridging technologies are deemed necessary, but used only temporary and sparsely. Holthaus’ book reads like a welcome counter proposal to the visions of a certain tech mogul, who almost had us believe that clean tech will save the day.

This is even more relevant since a renewal of the old system lead by clean tech companies will eventually lead to new winners and (the same?) losers in the game of escaping the crisis: the wealthy can afford escapism and move to higher, northern regions or, why not, to Mars (via means of private space travel), while those who already suffer most from the impacts of climate change cannot escape it even if they wanted to.

To be honest, some scenarios sound downright fantastic and – for lack of a better word – pretty much like science fiction from today’s standpoint. These ideas should not be entirely dismissed as absurd, though. The next few years will be decisive, we hear that more and more often, and given that we have seen some significant technological progress in the past 10 years (see private space travel again) it is not unlikely that things could turn the way Holthaus anticipates them. After all, his works is based on many talks with leading climate scientists and engineers from around the world, even Greta Thunberg makes an appearance.

A sustainable and just world for the coming century can only be created in community – especially with those who have been excluded from political processes for far too long.

Eric Holthaus, The Future Earth (own translation from the German edition)

The most important merit of this book, however, are the imagination exercises and the encouragement to look at habitual beliefs and attitudes towards what we deem possible. In the epilogue, Holthaus presents a series of group exercises that can be easily implemented with a book club or a group of citizens, such as the citizen’s climate councils that are currently established in some countries and cities. In addition, there are a couple of exercises that can help deal with anxiety induced by climate change.

In the end, fighting the climate crisis is about overcoming paralyzing fear and taking action, and it works best when you dare to allow yourself having hopes for a better future. Begin at the end, that is his guiding principle both for the structure of the book and for the imagination exercises. Where do we want to go? And by wording this question in exactly this way, the book makes a strong case for becoming a “we” instead of an “I” in order to create an irresistible vision for the world.

I do not receive any compensation for this review. This is a book from my local library. I read the German translation by Elisabeth Schmalen (title: Die Erde der Zukunft), first edition published in 2021 by HarperCollins Germany.

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