July 2007

Elizabeth Holden

nonfiction

The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities by Mike Tidwell

The Ravaging Tide by Mike Tidwell is both the bleakest and the most inspiring book I have read this year. In the first half I was disturbed by every sentence. In the second I began to feel optimistic, almost elated. At its close, my emotions were mixed -- hope tinged with fear.

Tidwell’s previous book, Bayou Farewell, detailed the plight that would face New Orleans if conditions weren’t changed: a massive hurricane that would destroy much of the coast, killing thousands. Bayou Farewell was published in 2003, two years before Hurricane Katrina struck, and it was this that initially gave him credibility in my eyes. If he hadn’t predicted a disaster with such accuracy, the first few chapters may have seemed too outrageous to believe, too histrionic. Tidwell’s claim is that the destruction of New Orleans was due to human-instigated global warming and that, as global warning continues, this destruction will be exported to the world. It is a terrifying thought.

Tidwell references five factors that bring about the demise of a society: hostile enemies, climate change, self-inflicted environmental damage, adverse changes in trading partners, and a society’s responses to the other four factors. These forces, he maintains, brought about the destruction of New Orleans just as they brought about the destruction of Easter Island, the ancient Mayans, and others. As global warming continues, ice caps will melt, causing sea levels to rise and threaten our coastlines. The oceans will be simultaneously heating up and the hurricanes that form above them will grow more powerful. These hurricanes will overwhelm already-shrunken coasts. All of this destruction, he says, is liable to occur before the year 2100. To say that he doesn’t paint a pretty picture is an understatement.

There are science books that are written with a narrative thread and science books that read almost like textbooks. The Ravaging Tide is neither of these. More than anything, it is a call to arms, a desperate plea for Americans to bring a halt to the damage our consumption of fossil fuels is causing. After laying out in detail the hideous extent of the harm we’ve done to the earth, Tidwell spends the rest of the book explaining that it is not, in fact, irreversible. It is the coming decade that will be crucial, he says. By using energy more efficiently and switching the energy we do consume to cleaner sources like wind or solar power, we can stop this. He uses his own house as an example. Over the course of six months, with an investment of $7,500, he cut his home’s carbon dioxide emissions by a whopping 90 percent. His own enthusiasm over the ease with which he did this is contagious; it made me wish I was a homeowner just so I could start shopping for Energy Star appliances.

Tidwell makes several points that are particularly striking. The first, which surprised me, is that we currently have the technology to make the necessary cuts in our dependence on fossil fuels. I have been well aware that, for example, fuel cell technology is years from being a possibility to power cars. However, with a combination of using ethanol fuel, which is made from corn, and hybrid technology, emissions from cars can be cut approximately 85 percent. The second point is less shocking, but I believe it is something that will resonate with the American public: it is not terribly expensive to invest in clean energy for your home or vehicle, nor will it change your quality of life. The best part about Tidwell’s energy-efficient house, he says, is that you don’t even notice the changes made to it.

The United States makes up 4.5 percent of the world’s population, yet it generates 25 percent of its greenhouse gases. This means that, as Tidwell puts it, we are ignoring the, “colossal harm we bring to blameless others.” To think of the destruction of other nations, nations that are much smaller contributors to global warming and also far less prepared to deal with the consequences, makes my skin crawl.

Tidwell’s background as a journalist shows through his prose. This is not literature, but it doesn’t need to be. His words communicate an undeniably important message.

The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities by Mike Tidwell
Free Press
ISBN: 0743294718
196 Pages