Curiosity, subtlety, nuance—these are casualties of the polarized debate about climate change. The acknowledgment of uncertainty becomes ammunition for the so-called climate skeptics. But Craig Childs, although deeply concerned about anthropogenic climate change, is refreshingly indifferent to eco-etiquette. His book Apocalyptic Planet has an ingenious premise, just shy of being a gimmick: he visits a series of extreme climate locations, each of which represents a possible future for our planet, depending on how climate change and other forces evolve. He begins in the Mexican desert mid-drought, then ventures to the melting glaciers of Patagonia, the monoculture of an Iowa cornfield and so on. His ominous, lyrical chapter titles follow a pattern: “Deserts Consume,” “Ice Collapses,” “Mountains Move,” “Seas Boil.”
Childs is arguably the Ryszard Kapuscinski of environmental writing, with his daredevil adventures taking him to Arctic glaciers and treacherous rapids. He intersperses his personal narrative with history and reporting, and some of his observations might make an activist like McKibben bristle. He quotes Konrad Steffen, a prominent climate scientist with whom he travels to Greenland: “If we’ve done anything, we’ve stopped the next glacial period from happening by warming the earth.” He reports, “We do not live in a particularly impressive period in history for watching sea levels rise.” These statements may be valid, but they are not “on message.” He also gives space to foils, such as his friend Angus, a former Jehovah’s Witness who accompanies him through the “biotic dearth” of an Iowa cornfield and muses that perhaps the earth needs periodic mass extinctions to rest. (Childs takes this notion seriously and presents it to E.O. Wilson, who dismisses it.)
Above all, what sets him apart from other environmental writers is his curiosity. More than dread or hope, he seems to have a burning eagerness simply to find out what might happen: “I wondered if I could trade my own decades for a two-hundred-year life span just to see what page turns next for the earth.” He craves intimate sensory experience of our “twitching, restive planet,” submitting to dry desert heat, walking on barely dried lava, touching glaciers and hearing the explosive sounds of their collapse.
His descriptions of these experiences are evocative. In the desert: “I had sand in every part of me. My molars wouldn’t touch.” On watching melting ice: “Each teardrop shimmered for a moment and vibrated tenuously, then fell. This is how climate works, I thought. Forces push and pull, weather begins to switch back and forth, summer and winter turned upside down, and then the system jumps. The drip falls.”
His humans are neither villains nor heroes. They play a relatively minor role in his account, as do other species. It’s the earth that looms largest in Childs’s consciousness, more agent than victim. As he realized after living through an earthquake, “Humans may have a big hand in carpeting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and dumping every toxin we can imagine into waterways, but when the earth decides to roll, it is no longer our game.” He writes about the planet we inhabit with awestruck deference. Even while lamenting our losses, he wants to take them in up close. As Childs asks in this passage about his trip to Patagonia: “Saving the world? You can always hope. But to be alive in the last geologic moments of ice, wouldn’t you come and put your hands against it?”
Perhaps all environmental writers lie on some continuum from activist to author, their books somewhere between pamphlets and poems. They dream of saving the world; they know that the likeliest outcome is failure. But they write anyway—to bear witness, to make sense of what is happening, to say what’s true.
Back in Patagonia, Childs writes this of the last moments of ice: “As it tinkled and cracked in the sun, I snapped off a tab and crunched it in my mouth. It turned to water instantly, as if it had been waiting a hundred centuries for this moment.”