A Physicist’s Plea For The Environment

Terracide
Hubert Reeves
translated by Donald Winkler
Toronto, ON: Cormorant Books Inc. 2008, 200 pages

Hubert Reeves was born in Montreal, but is a household name in France, where he once directed a national research centre and appears regularly on television. He is one of many scientists (an astrophysicist, to be precise) who has switched gears recently in order to sound the alarm about climate change. His most recent publication, Terracide, was first written in French (Mal de Terre) in 2003, but has been updated for this newer translation in English.

Reeves’ overview of our ongoing environmental crises may seem a little over-generalized to some readers, and Terracide could be criticized as too ‘quick’ a read for the breadth of subject matter it covers. The book basically provides a bullet-point list of global environmental issues and concerns, with interspersed comments on solution scenarios and future projections.

Reeves does have plenty of experience ‘popularizing’ science to a layperson audience, and with Terracide he was compelled to convey the true extent of the environmental crisis to the wider public. This is a worthy endeavour, but there is certainly no shortage of these attempts to choose from.

What Reeves brings to the table is a credible discussion (especially coming from a world-renowned physicist) of the controversial option of nuclear energy. That he sides with many renewable energy advocates in denouncing nuclear energy, it should give pause to some environmentalists who see it as part of a stop-gap strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Reeves then links the thorny issue of nuclear storage with the heaps of waste and pollution generated from military sources. Connections between war and major environmental concerns around the world, linked in both cause and effect, have not often received due attention from either scientists or environmentalists. From dangerous land mines and nuclear test sites, to toxic leaks from chemical and biological weapons, the earth is littered with the refuse of war, and Reeves offers some fresh insight into this.

But perhaps the most telling section in Terracide is Reeves’ short reference to NIMBY and NIMTO (“not in my backyard” and “not in my term in office”) that brings his overarching ideas down to the real bottom line. This seemingly innocuous discussion is profoundly worrying in contrast to the long list of earthly abuses offered throughout the rest of the book.

In other words, only an unprecedented and collective commitment from the citizens of this world will result in the changes required to stem the tide of ecological destruction he reports. It’s a sobering thought, because we have not seen much ‘collective action’ (at least globally) to give us hope so far.

Terracide is not overly groundbreaking or original, but it is an important book. Hubert Reeves is a world-class physicist, schooled in the art of skepticism and objective scientific analysis, whose dispassionate inquiry into the health of the earth led him, in this case, to a passionate call for urgent action. That says a lot in itself.

*This book review was written by Fraser Los, originally posted on thegreenpages.ca

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