Book review: ‘Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life’

The case for why tackling climate change should be a labour of love.

‘Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale’ by Matt Hern and Am Johal, with Joe Sacco (MIT Press, £14.95, ISBN: 9780262037648) is a book like no other – one of the most peculiar I have read in a while.

There’s a plethora of books on global warming – the most dangerous phenomenon of our times and one that Hern and Sacco choose to refer to as ‘the climate change’. Those include the works that are purely scientific and scholastic, political pamphlets, social histories, philosophical treatises, focused travelogues and so on. This work, however, is unique in combining all of the above – plus drawings and comics by cartoonist Joe Sacco – in one slim volume. On top of all those, this is also a passionate 200-page paean to the much neglected and overexploited, yet still breathtakingly beautiful, natural environment of British Columbia and Northern Alberta.

The unorthodox bits jump at you from the book’s opening chapters, which carry unusual transcription of some of the habitual ‘Western’ place names to convey to the reader how they sound in the indigenous languages of the area – a kind of embedded pronunciation guide. This deviation from accepted spelling norms is highly significant – in the authors’ view the issues of ecology are inseparable from those of decolonisation. “The vast majority of land... in British Columbia... was brazenly stolen [from indigenous tribes],” they claim in the chapter on East Vancouver, before saying that decolonisation must be put in the centre of thinking about land.

As the authors proceed to the tar sands – the large deposits of heavy crude oil also known as oil sands around the boomtown of Fort McMurray with its own “share of corporate pillagers and sociopaths in suits” – their angst over the energy-intensive and near-barbaric methods of turning bitumen into oil – environmentally hostile technologies that pollute the air and the rivers with toxins and turn farmland into wasteland – grows exponentially. It reaches a crescendo in the condemnation of the oil industry, to which the whole of the Canadian economy “is so deeply wedded that the routes to disentanglement are bewildering”.

So what are the solutions – if any – to the climate change issues, both local and global? Like many of us, the authors do not have direct answers and choose to delve into philosophy instead. From the very first pages and throughout the book, they do not try to conceal their fondness for the ideas of modern Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, with his speculative use of the famous Italian idea of la dolce vita, the sweetness of living, which in the philosopher’s view underlines a wholly different modern attitude to the future and to the preservation of the environment by prompting the situation where humans are dominated by other humans and not by technology.

At the end of the book, the writers bring in Agamben’s philosophical idea of human “uselessness”, which implies a form of humility, but also minimises human activity and makes inoperativeness a factor of environmental protection. “Difference demands humility” and “uselessness is only useless if it retreats into passivity”, they claim.

In the end – and here I am in complete agreement with the writers and their illustrator – the most important thing in battling global warming is to love the land we live on, by which they mean not just spectacular landscapes, but humble, messed-up and often unattractive spaces in which we routinely spend our days.

The book ends on a challenging and optimistic note: “This project [battling global warming] cannot be seen as work – by necessity, it must be a love affair.”

A highly intelligent and inspiring read.

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