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November 2023

Jeff Goodell's "The Heat Will Kill You First"

I'm going to be honest with you: I could only read Jeff Goodell's book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, a few pages at a time. I also could not read it for an hour before I went to bed. It was just that depressing.

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet - Goodell, JeffGoodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and has written several other books, among them Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (2007) and The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (which I reviewed back in 2017). His prose reads like good magazine prose: it's thoughtful, but it's easy to read; gives you a lot of information, but is very readable and you don't really have to struggle your way through it. 

Which I appreciate, these days, because increasingly my attention span and brain both seem to be shot.

Now, if only the subject matter could have been cheerful.

It's not. Goodell talks about how heat affects humans, animals, and plants; what sorts of lethal heat waves people have endured in the last decade; how cities (where increasingly everyone lives) are becoming dangerous "heat islands"; how heat encourages wildfires and mosquitoes; how heat is affecting world crops and food supplies; and how hot water in the ocean is becoming hotter, faster, than anyone guessed it would.

Let's put it this way: As I've been reading it, I've been feeling a lot less anxious about other areas in my life. Namely because, well, who cares about what grades the kids are getting, the world's about to explode.

I can't decide if this is a good development for my anxiety level, or a bad one.

It doesn't help that not only do I believe most of the science and sources in this book, but I also feel the truth of this book in my bones. For nearly ten years now I have felt increasingly uneasy because the weather I can observe seems deeply wrong. For better or for worse, I've lived in the same region for nearly fifty years, and I have a history of paying more attention to weather than most, because I grew up on a farm and the weather is inextricably tied to your financial well-being when you live on a farm. So when I say the weather I can see is changing and is making me deeply uneasy, I say this with somewhat more seriousness than many people might.

So I got shivers when I read Goodell's chapter on agriculture and found this, in his interview with Andy Cruz, a farmer in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas:

"...the seven hundred acres of aloe have been a world of trouble for Cruz. For one thing, a plant that's well adapted to heat is not necessarily well adapted to the lack of heat. A cold snap in the valley in the winter of 2020 killed half the plants on the seven hundred acres. 'It was bad,' Cruz told me. 'We were out here for two days and nights with burners trying to keep things warm. This climate change thing is making the weather like a Ping-Pong ball--you never know where it is going to bounce.'...

'Up until five years ago, things were fairly predictable,' Cruz told me. 'But now, you never know what's coming. It's different. Something's changed.'" (p. 134.)

The book was interesting. Whether or not you'll be in the mood to read it right now, when other more cheerful news to balance it out seems lacking...well, I just don't know.