Hope Jahren’s The Story of More marries personal reflection with science to trace the narrative of climate change
In an informative new book, Hope Jahren demystifies the combination of sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate events, choices and passing of the reins of power in the last 50 years or so that have over-taxed the planet while still leaving more than 800 million people starving.
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
I watch a science-fiction show called The Expanse. In the show’s universe, it is the 23rd century and humans have colonised other planets, moons and asteroid belts in our solar system. The Earth has become too polluted and depleted to support its growing populations. Over time, humans have migrated to Mars, the Asteroid Belt and space stations for better lives and work. A common theme in the series is the scorn, disbelief and resentment with which immigrants treat those who still live on Earth. For non-Earthers who often grow up in zero gravity developing weak bones and who have never seen blue skies or the ocean or known clean air or rain, the Earthers and their ancestors represent a squandering they cannot imagine.
I am reminded of the confusion of the Belters and the Martians as I read Hope Jahren’s The Story of More: How we Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here (2020).
Generalisations aside, how did we get here? In her informative new book, she demystifies the combination of sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate events, choices and passing of the reins of power in the last 50 years or so that have over-taxed the planet while still leaving more than 800 million people starving.
Jahren is a geochemist and geo-biologist currently based at the University of Oslo in Norway and the recipient of numerous honours such as three Fulbright awards, the Donath Medal and the Australian Society for Medical Research Medal and a Leopold fellowship at Stanford. She is also a writer whose first book, Lab Girl (2016), was a fascinating memoir about a scientist’s love for the natural world, her journey in establishing and running her own lab and her navigation of friendship, family and mental health.
The Story of More is less personal. It grew out of a university class Jahren teaches on climate change. The topic is vast, and The Story of More is ambitious in scope as it takes us through a recent history of farming, the origins and capacity of fossil fuels, our disproportionate consumption of food that is bad for us and our disproportionate producing and purchasing of food we do not end up consuming, the ways in which we use electricity, over-loaded waste management systems, the co-existence of mass wastage with prevalent hunger and more. I stepped away from the book ever so slightly dazed by the amount of information I had received.
There isn’t an easy way to summarise all that The Story of More holds. It sets out to tell a complex, multifaceted story which is written accessibly but challenges the reader to follow multiple threads.
As she recaps our recent history, she highlights our astounding innovation and progress as a people on the one hand and our failure on a staggering number of fronts on the other.
Every step forward — improvements in farming efficiency and medical science for example — was marred by unforeseen environmental costs, monopolies and inequitable distribution. Jahren points out time and time again that the planet has enough resources to feed and support modern life, but that we (the first world, the privileged, the urban rich) must be willing to use less so that electricity and food may be redistributed to where they are needed rather than where they are luxurious additions after necessities have already been met.
One of the examples of our over-reliance on electricity that she invokes is air conditioned sports stadiums in the States. It is comfortable to be in the air-conditioning — there is no denying that. I recall performances in sweltering weather, when the discomfort annoyed me. It’s a (mildly embarrassing) pattern within myself I bring up to consider Jahren’s suggestion seriously — what if embracing effective change is a matter of pushing aside pessimism (a feeling of which I am guilty when it comes to the environment) and adopting the levers around which I can be most effective?
The final section of The Story of More is a series of questions for readers to answer for themselves depending on the circumstances of their lives and the values they espouse. It’s an interesting and potentially action-spurring exercise to engage in after the historical account one has waded through. I was struck that Jahren would rather people choose one detail of their lives to alter than ambitiously set out to change several at the outset. There is ample scope within that section for a person or family of relative privilege to begin contemplating one change they’d like to make — though the practical application of that initiative (eliminating or reducing plastic usage, reducing electricity usage, advocating for institutions in their circles to adopt these practices et cetera) would require additional research.
The bulk of Jahren’s book is, however, very much a look back into the past rather than a contemplation of the future. She maps change the way we all do — by observing what has changed in familiar surroundings. Most chapters include a personal anecdote (at times of her childhood in Minnesota, at times of conversations with friends) that tie into the moving story of the world whether it be the rarity of a Coca-Cola in the 1970s or the improved odds that babies have in the present day. She connects those seamlessly with the story of our increased sugar consumption and increased wastage and the story of the population boon. I had turned to The Story of More precisely because I had admired Jahren’s ability to marry personal reflection with scientific writing.
Like many people, I feel an impending sense of doom as we lose forest cover and destroy wetlands, species disappear, pollution soars and natural disasters exacerbated by human activity abound. I also feel, as I have mentioned before, a sense of anticipatory defeat. At the end of The Story of More, Jahren suggests a different approach – that “we…refrain from overestimating our likelihood of failure” and try not to “underestimate our capacity for success”.
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