Rhapsodies in Green, from Graphics to Greta

By Stuart Mitchner

Green energy! Even though those two words underscore issues like climate change and sustainability, my first thought is of the green energy of poetry, of the “goat-footed balloon man” of e.e. cummings “blowing far and wee when all the world is mud-luscious and puddle-lovely” and of Dylan Thomas’s “force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” From there, primal word-association brings forth comic strip images of the superhero energy of The Green Hornet reincarnated in DC comics’ Green Lantern (“Beware My Power”), which inspires in turn fantasies of Henry David Thoreau as a graphic super hero, the Wizard of Walden, and Melville’s Moby-Dick reduced to the energy-efficient size of a Save the Whale comic book.

In fact, a British graphic artist named Nick Hayes has produced The Rime of the Modern Mariner (Viking), a green redo of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s immortal Rime. In an article on the Sierra Club website (“4 Thought-Provoking Graphic Novels About the Environment”), Chelsea Leu notes that Hayes has the mariner shoot the albatross with a gun rather than a crossbow and uses Coleridge’s “naturalistic ideas to illustrate (literally) the frightening 21st-century environmental issues we face” in a world Hayes calls “detached from consequence.” After killing the albatross, the modern mariner “sees all manner of horrors — a North Pacific drilling barge leaking a ‘glossy thick petroleum slick,’ swaths of polystyrene bobbing in the heart of the North Pacific gyre, and nylon netting in the body of the albatross itself — all rendered in precise but nightmarish line art.” During a “lavishly illustrated dream sequence, the mariner comes to an understanding of his place in nature, a sort of rebirth that has him feeling truly interconnected with life on earth.” Hayes also manages to work in jawbreakers like “polymethyl methacrylate” and “Themisto gaudichaudii,” presumably without undue damage to the original meter and rhyme scheme. Whole pages of “painstakingly detailed” drawing are devoted to a single elegant line of verse, accomplished with art that is “streaky and ragged or simple and clean-cut in all the right places.”

Another graphic adventure is Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science (Harry N. Abrams), a 480-page novel in images about the author’s quest to educate himself on the basics. As “meticulously researched as it is illustrated,” Climate Changed is, in Leu’s words, “a crash course on the science, explaining everything from how the emissions in our atmosphere contribute to warming to the benefits and pitfalls of our renewable energy options.” A starred review in Publishers Weekly credits Squarzoni for taking on “one of the most important topics of our time” in a form “that is dense but comprehensible, informative and fascinating.”

The other two graphic books on the Sierra Club list are John Muir, Earth – Planet Universe, by Julie Bertagna with illustrations by William Goldsmith, and I’m Not a Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison.

“Green Thinking”

In Spirit of Green: The Economics of Collisions and Contagions in a Crowded World (due in May from Princeton University Press), Nobel Prize–winning economist William Nordhaus suggests that solving problems — such as climate catastrophe and pandemics, wild fires and corporate malfeasance — requires coming up with new ways to manage “the powerful interactions that surround us.” For carbon emissions and other environmental damage, the task depends on ensuring that those responsible pay their full costs rather than continuing to pass them along to others, including future generations. Cass R. Sunstein, author of Averting Catastrophe, says “The Spirit of Green is the best book I have ever read on environmentalism — on its foundations, on what it means, and on what it doesn’t mean. If you’re looking for a guide for humanity’s future — and that of our planet’s other species as well, … this is it.”

According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Nordhaus    “shows clearly and eloquently that we have the reasons, economic tools, and technologies to achieve a Green Earth. He writes with great wisdom and insight on how we can achieve a ‘well-managed society,’ one that advances the well-being of current and future generations. And he demonstrates the power of economic tools, many of which he has designed or honed, to achieve our global green goals.”

Debating Wind Turbines

Shaun A. Golding’s Electric Mountains: Climate, Power, and Justice in an Energy Transition (coming in July from Rutgers University Press) draws on several years of research to make sense of how wind turbines have divided a community of environmentalists, as well as several communities. Besides casting light on the roadmap for energy transition that northern New England’s ridgeline wind projects demarcate, the book outlines how ridgeline wind conforms to “antiquated social structures propping up corporate energy interests, to the detriment of the swift de-carbonizing and equitable transformation that climate predictions warrant.” Jesse Goldstein, the author of Planetary Improvement: Cleantech Entrepreneurship and the Contradictions of Green Capitalism, finds Electric Mountains “well-written, incredibly informative, and sharply argued.”   

A Mayor’s Plan

In Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis (University of Toronto Press), former Toronto mayor David Miller argues that cities are taking action on climate change “because they can and because they must.” Having served as mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010, Miller is responsible for supporting nearly 100 mayors of the world’s largest cities in their climate leadership and building a global movement for socially equitable action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In his introduction, he points out that at least 35 cities can now say they have “peaked emissions,” while estimates show that as many as 50 major global cities will have climate plans “consistent with the goals of the Paris Accord by early 2021. Unlike national governments, cities don’t just talk — they act.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agrees: “Reading this treasure trove of climate solutions, I kept thinking, ‘what works in practice should work in theory.’ We are so bogged down by nay-sayers, inertia, and fossil fuel propaganda that transformative climate action in cities is being ignored. Thanks to David Miller for pulling together success stories from all around the world.”

Climate Justice

At the 2019 U.N. climate change conference, activists and delegates for groups representing youth, women, and labor rights were among those marching through the halls chanting “Climate Justice, People Power.” In The New Climate Activism (University of Toronto Press), Jen Iris Allan looks at why and how these social activists came to participate in climate change governance while others, such as those working on human rights and health, remain on the outside of climate activism.

Through case studies of women’s rights, labor, alter-globalization, health, and human rights activism, Allan shows that some activists sought and successfully gained recognition as part of climate change governance, while others remained marginalized. The New Climate Activism explores why and how these activists brought their issues to climate change, and why some succeeded while others did not.

A Poem for Greta

A teen-age climate change activist from Sweden succeeded on the grand scale, as TIME’s choice for 2019 Person of the Year. Greta Thunberg is green energy embodied and articulated. Collins Dictionary named her pioneering idea, climate strike, the word of the year, and on Thunberg’s birthday, January 3, 2020, Patti Smith posted a poem with a photo on Instagram:

This is
Greta Thunberg, turning
seventeen today, asking
for no accolade, no gifts,
save we not be neutral.
The Earth knows its kind,
just as all deities, just as
animals and the healing
spring. Happy birthday
to Greta, who stood today,
as every Friday, refusing
to be neutral.”

Greta Thunberg’s speeches have been collected in No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (Penguin).