Skip to main content

Climate Change Begins at Home – Dave Reay ****

There surely are fewer and fewer ordinary people who dismiss climate change, leaving the head-in-the-sand attitude largely to big business (and politicians under the business thumb), where short-termism is an inevitable consequence of focus on the share price. This wonderfully readable book by Dave Reay brings home just how real the problems of climate change are. But, as he points out, there’s no point waiting for governments to do something – we can, and should, take individual action to cut emissions. Much of the book then looks at the different ways we use energy, and gives simple suggestions on approaches to do something about it.
It would be easy for this turn into a knit-your-own-sandals-from-spare-beard-hair tract, but Reay manages to steer away from this as much as possible (even making jokes about people who wear sandals with socks). His language is down to earth, and easy to understand (at the start of the book he thanks his editor for steering him away from academic speak, and she’s done a great job). Instead Reay gives us a simple, frightening picture of the consequences of climate change, then pulls apart our lifestyle and looks at the practical possibilities of doing things differently.
Oddly, one of the few complaints here is that the style is just a bit too light. If there’s spectrum running from dull to flippant, this book comes somewhere between breezy and flippant. We’re always complaining about academic authors who can’t get away from jargon and dullness – there’s no sense of that, but if anything Reay has gone a bit too far the other way with his relentless jokiness.
The book also seems to occupy a strange land, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. This is reminiscent of something that has happened in a few children’s films over the years. We’re not talking simple biological ignorance, as when the live action 101 Dalmatians gives us racoons and skunks in the UK, or when the Mary Poppins designers clearly had no idea what a British robin looks like, but the strange hybrid USengland of The Borrowers or the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an intentional fantasy environment containing stereotypical elements of both cultures. In CCBaH, Reay makes a brave attempt to appeal to the US market by making his example family American, but the context usually reflects British lifestyle (for example in his description of a new housing estate).
Realistically despite Reay’s jokes, it’s impossible for a little worthiness not to creep into a book like this. Doing meaningful things for climate change is a bit like making careful decisions about pensions – very sensible, but not exactly thrilling. This is perhaps most obvious in the comments about cars, which a UK reader can imagine setting Jeremy Clarkson spinning in his chair – while Reay is right that a nice little hatchback is so much more sensible for most of us than a four wheel drive, cars really aren’t about being sensible for many people. And comments about the wonders of using LPG and similar fuels slickly avoid the practical difficulties and sometimes dangers of these alternative fuels. Reay’s solutions can be a bit too black and white – for example he suggests it’s better not to buy a new house due to the emissions that result from making materials, but if that new house was necessary to meet rising population, it would have been built anyway, so we can ignore that part of the equation.
BUT, whatever you do, don’t be put off. This is one of the most easily readable popular science books I’ve seen in several years, it’s practical rather than ridiculous, it puts the case without being preachy – it really is a wonderfully effective description of the realities of climate change, how it will effect us and our families, and what we as individuals can do about it. So go out and buy one. (In fact, buy two and send one to the world leader or large company CEO of your choice.)
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…