I wanted to like Daniel Sherrell’s new paperback Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World more than I did; indeed, I expected to like it and, more importantly, to be more affected by it than I did. Part of the problem stems from some marketing and early reviews that tout it as a cri de coeur of the Millennial Generation in the face of the mortal threat of what the author calls The Problem, i.e., climate change. My expectations had thus been primed for insight into a ferocious passion being brought to bear by the younger generation in the face of an imminent threat, with some thoughts about the failings of earlier generations to do so.
I did not get that. I did get a well-written, heartfelt meditation on living with the confusing, complicated, frightening and infuriating physical, emotional and intellectual impact of climate change. I did get a nuanced meditation on the struggle to carry on and fight on in the face of grief and despair. But in the end, I was left with that depressing, hackneyed old sense of ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ Which in turn infuriated me, because things can’t remain the same, not with the imminent threat and accelerating disruption of climate change.
To his credit, author Daniel Sherrell gets all this. His working through these contradictions is always interesting and is one of the book’s strengths. He repeatedly steps back to place his observations within a greater context, comparing them to periods of history when humanity felt the world was on the brink, or with refugees facing the loss of everything, or with the AIDS epidemic. He never shies away from the awareness that much of what enables his education, his activism and his writing is a direct result of the advantages bestowed on him by the very fossil fuel lifestyle that has brought us to the brink. The heart of his book is a passionate attempt to get to the root of how hard it is to wrap our minds around the enormity of it all. Still, it all just felt so...familiar.
My illustration at the top of this review superimposes the book cover over the New York Times’ front page coverage of the first Earth Day in 1970. I did this because in Warmth, Sherrell relates his sense of wonder and pride at the turnout in New York City for a demonstration he helped organize coinciding with the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014:
It’s September 21, 2014, and half a million people have gathered on Central Park West. I’ve never seen this many people in one place, enough to clog all the side streets, to completely obscure the pavement. “Throng” seems too small a word for what is happening….
And though we’ve spent months calling them here, it’s still impossible to believe they’ve arrived. We frankly don’t know where they’ve all come from, but here they are anyway, hundreds of thousands of strangers gathered on a street that was empty just this morning….We’ve billed it as the largest ever march against the Problem, and within twenty minutes of the start time it is clear that this is true by a long shot, maybe even by an order of magnitude….
And at least on that day, our work works—the story is ours. On the front page of The New York Times, right there above the fold, are four pictures of the rally. We wake up to them sitting in coffee shops and bodega windows, the headlines as triumphant as we could have asked, though what this amounts to is not immediately clear. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)