April 2008

Graeme Allister


Judging a Book by Its Cover: When Environmental Catastrophes Go Adorable

It's probably not all Graydon Carter's fault, but he's a fun one to blame. Having decided he was an environmentalist after all, Carter deftly combined the world's favourite eco-hero and an indecently cute baby polar bear in an Annie Liebowitz shot cover for Vanity Fair's latest wheeze, the annual Green Issue. And so, with a little help from Leonardo DiCaprio, Knut went stratospheric. With a new found love for polar bears the, to quote George W Bush, "global warming folks" had their image. Since then polar bears have been perching perilously on ever decreasing chunks of ice – a sign of a world heating up and hearts melting. And where the magazine shoots and news footage went, book covers followed.

The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King
Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 0747593957

Recently published is Sir David King's guide to climate change, The Hot Topic. For the uninitiated King is like Al Gore without the Nobel or Oscar (but with a knighthood). In his capacity as science advisor to the British government he convinced Tony Blair of the perils of a warming planet and managed to wind up the neocons by claiming climate change was "the most severe problem we are facing today -- more serious even than the threat of terrorism." As many books on the state of the planet are, The Hot Topic can be heavy going, which is where the polar bears come in. Not just one but three of the beauties adorn both the British and American covers. Perhaps it’s misplaced national pride but for sheer cuteness, the British cover wins -- it's got momma bear and two baby bears (and not a green-conscious Hollywood star in sight). Also, lawyers may need to be called given the similarities between the American cover and this rival book.

Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction: How Passion and Politics Can Stop Global Warming by Eban Goodstein
ISBN: 1584656573

Meanwhile the bear turns up in the bizarrely titled Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction. It sounds like a dating guide for the end times ("Stock up on canned goods! How to make your nuclear bunker romantic," etc). They've missed a trick with the cover as well -- that's one old bear. Everyone fell out of love with Knut after his six month birthday. As with fashion, it's all about youth and no amount of airbrushing can save this cover star.

The Life Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills to Stop Climate Change -- or Live Through It by David de Rothschild
Rodale Press
ISBN: 159486781X

The polar bear also appears on the companion book for Live Earth, this time in cartoon form. I'm assuming the cover is showing a polar bear having to use a flotation device because all the ice has melted but to me the bear looks pretty languid; on vacation, perhaps? Or, as it paws towards that floating bottle, maybe that's the look of a bear with a drink dependency. It's a tricky business this design lark.

Those less aware of Knutmania have opted for the penguin, briefly Hollywood's favourite Arctic animal with the successes of Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. With the exception of Time Magazine’s guide to the warming climate, these tend to kid-orientated, like Dr Richard Cheel's Global Warming Alert! and Anne Rockwell's Why Are The Ice Caps Melting?, both featuring penguins in peril. I haven’t read the latter, but I hope the questioned is answering with “Because your selfish parents insist on driving an SUV.” There are happier images, you just need to believe global warming was invented by pinko liberals who hate America (step forward, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming, complete with a dancing penguin wearing a lei. You see, those penguins don't need no tundra, they'd be much happier when things warm up a bit). 

Elsewhere the covers go for post-apocalyptic imagery so bleak and unremitting it makes The Road look like a feel-good beach read. Wild weather, rising tides, arid landscapes, pollution and turbulent skies all loom large. The sense of doom tends to render them all a bit similar; there’s a clear look to an “environment book,” from the imagery to the colour scheme (usually icy blues and whites, sometimes with a dash of screaming red). For something more striking, try the hardback cover of Mark Lynas' Six Degrees. It’s since been replaced by an almost submerged Big Ben amidst turbulent waves and lightning. Not subtle, I grant you, but effective and at least it isn’t quite as literal as this one. More crashing seas with Fred Pearce's With Speed and Violence, but then with a title and theme like that, perhaps a polar bear cub doesn't quite fit.