Kolbert is also writing about something most of us cannot see clearly. Despite reports of melting glaciers, changing ecology, shorter winters and other critical indicators, global warming remains hard to grasp. We can see breast cancer cases on Long Island. We can see high asthma rates in inner cities. And we can see nongovernmental organizations struggling on those fronts. We are not good at seeing big, wide and far away; our sense of scale has not evolved in tandem with the scale of our lives.
And yet. After Katrina, newspapers around the country explored the question of whether there was a link between the ferocity of the hurricane and global warming. (Answer: No one hurricane's force can be attributed to global warming, but trends of increasing intensity might, in time.) Maybe climate change is becoming more personal to more Americans--those in the lower 48.
Kolbert's book contributes more important images for us to personalize. Fairbanks, Alaska, is losing its foundation; as the permafrost melts, huge holes are opening in the earth, under houses, in front yards. Twenty-two English butterfly species have shifted their ranges to the cooler north. The Dutch are busy developing amphibious houses. Burlington, Vt., has tried to reduce energy consumption and has been only modestly successful; without national political will, any one plan hits a wall.
Field Notes has scientific authority as well. Kolbert is not a scientist, but she reports regularly on science, and she may well have talked to every researcher on the planet studying global warming. There are names and characters in Field Notes that even a climate-change obsessive may not have seen in other press articles or books. It can get dizzying at times. Yet the enduring impression is of deep, sober, rooted authority--the same impression Silent Spring conveys. The book is a review of the scientific evidence and of the failure of the politicians we chose. The details are terrifying, and Kolbert's point of view is very clear, but there is no rhetoric of rant here. She is most directly editorial in the last sentence of the book, and by that point, she has built the case.
Other books on global warming have not had much widespread social or political effect. There have been many--and even Field Notes arrives at the same time as The Winds of Change, by Eugene Linden (Simon & Schuster), and The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press). In 1989 the much celebrated The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben, for example, catalyzed debate--is nature really ending?--but not a national movement.
Perhaps Field Notes can't make a movement where there's little concentrated activist juice. But something about this book feels as though it might. For a friend of mine, Kolbert's New Yorker series was an awakening--the first time, she said, she really understood what was happening and why we must act. Let's hope this powerful, clear and important book is not just lightly compared to Silent Spring. Let's hope it is this era's galvanizing text.
This article was originally published with the title What Makes a Revolution?.