Tuesday 10 November 2020

The Best of Times The Worst of Times by Paul Behrens - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

This is technically an adult book, but I thought any older teens interested in climate change would find it really helpful and interesting.The author, Paul Behrens, as well as being an environmental expert, is also an award-winning science communicator, and I think that really comes across in the book. It's very readable, even for non-sciency people (I know nothing about science and even I understood it), and he manages to make it not only understandable but fascinating. 

The structure of the book is also really clever. Behrens says he wrote it because when you tell people at dinner parties that you're an environmental scientist, the first thing they ask you is 'How long have we got?' or 'What's going to happen?' This book is his answer to that question and it's laid out in alternating chapters of 'Hope' and 'Pessimism'. 

It's broken down into sections like 'Food', 'Energy', 'Population' etc, and then each section has a 'Pessimism' chapter that explains what will happen if we do nothing to remedy these problems, and a 'Hope' section explaining what is possible if we act now. 

With the result that it's really a roller-coaster of a book! I finished each Pessimism chapter feeling truly worried, but with each Hope chapter I was amazed by all the possibilities we actually have already at our disposal. 

I think it's a really comprehensive introduction to the subject for anyone. It doesn't dumb down the science, it doesn't sugar-coat things, but it also offers possibilities that we can work towards, and, most importantly of all, inspires the reader to go and do something about it, which is what all those Hope chapters are kind of dependent on.

So I'd recommend it for any adults who want to read about climate change but are sick of doom-laden newspaper articles, fake news Twitter feeds, or just the sheer absence of the subject from political discussion. And if you have a teen who's thinking about all this, I'd recommend it for them too. The only chapter I found a little hard to get my head around was the one on the economy (but who understands the economy anyway?), the rest were a really fascinating and enjoyable read and I finished the whole book in a few days. It's not a list of dry facts and science, it's full of stories, but still, every other page contained a fact that just blew my mind, to the extent that I started writing them down so I could launch them at my husband over dinner. 

For example, did you know:

  • Flygskam is a Swedish word meaning ‘flight shame’. It refers to the sheer embarrassment at being seen using air travel in a climate emergency. Sweden reduced their air travel by 8% in 2019.
  • The total number of deaths globally each year from air pollution are fifteen times more than all wars and other violent deaths combined.
  • The WHO say it would cost less to meet climate change targets than it costs for healthcare for the damage done by air pollution. 
  • The average US fridge uses seven times more electricity than the average Ethiopian uses per year in total.  
  • When you fill the fuel tank of your car, the energy flowing through your hand per second is equivalent to the peak physical labour of 62,500 people.
  • In the US, the richest 400 families pay a lower tax rate than any other income group, including the working class. There is likely somewhere between $9 and $36 trillion sitting in tax havens around the world. The cost to address climate change by completely decarbonizing the global economy by 2050 sits at around $19 to $23 trillion.
  • Each litre of petrol burnt in a car melts over a tonne of glacial ice.

And did you know that a third of the UK public are already suffering from eco-anxiety? I imagine a lot of them are young people. I don't think burying our heads in the sand is a helpful response to this anxiety, I think that just makes it worse. This book is ultimately a hopeful one because it gives the reader the information they need to understand the situation and how it can be changed. And it makes it clear that, although we have a role to play by reducing our carbon footprint, the problem won't be solved by blaming us or making us feel guilty about not filling our blue bins. It's about the government, the big polluting companies, the culture of consumption, the mega-wealthy tax-dodgers. I thought it was a great read and I really recommend you put it on your Christmas list!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page





Penny Dolan said...

Not an easy read, but this sounds like a book that's definitely needed now. Thanks for this review, Kelly.

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