Book Review: The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet by Jeff Goodell

[1] On the jacket, Al Gore calls this book “entertaining”—which stunned me.  Al, didn’t you rattle our cages fifteen years ago—inconveniently!—to the dangers of climate change?  So what are you thinking now?  Should we be seeking to be entertained when reading about extreme heat, which kills almost half a million people a year worldwide—twice as many as die from guns?  Isn’t such an accolade….obscene?  But then I realized, how else is an author to communicate a deeply disturbing truth without losing the audience, without sending them to seek entertainment elsewhere?

[2] This problem is familiar to Lutheran preachers.  Our core proclamation is that we are all self-centered sinners, dooming ourselves to separation from God.  Who is likely to feel entertained by that?  So we have a homiletic solution. Classically, we articulate law, but then answer it with gospel.  Where would we be without the good news that we are redeemed by grace not of our own effort?  The good news of grace is hardly entertainment, but it certainly provides us an escape from existential despair.

[3] Readers of JLE therefore are well-positioned to appreciate Goodell’s argument.  He has taken on the unwelcome task of explaining what extreme heat is doing to our globe, but not as a Jonathan Edwards, lambasting sinners in the hands of an angry God.  Rather, he tells stories to draw us in and connect us with victims as well as people working on the problem.  As the unavoidable consequences of extreme heat sink in, we might despair, but at the end he drops in a wee bit of grace in the form of hope.

[4] Goodell echoes a  classic pattern for communicating terrifying truth.  He begins with a “cautionary tale”, a disturbing account of how a young California family came to perish of heat stroke while hiking only a few miles from home.  The point, of course, is to draw in the reader, and it worked with me.  I’ve prided myself on my ability to tolerate heat while building rock dams in the Sinai and hiking around Phoenix.  I thought my skinny frame was immune to extreme heat if simply supplied with enough water.  But Goodell shows up the fragility of such confidence.  Extreme heat doomed this family before they realized what was going on.  I realized it could doom me on some overambitious exposure to heat next summer.

[5] Subsequent chapters also feature relatable individuals.  This is not simply a journalistic roadtrip, for he has a problem of devastating global import to explain.  We might ask why he thinks he is qualified to write on the subject.  Like a good preacher, he invokes a higher authority to show where we are and where we are headed.  This higher authority is not God, of course, but science—relatable scientists, to be more exact.  Their experiences serve as focal points through which to understand rising heat in its broader trends and consequences.

[6] Goodell here absorbs and adopts the mindset of a scientist, explaining how sentient (and nonsentient) creatures respond to heat by adapting, rather than simply tolerating it.  Chapter 2 offers an array of examples, from elephants to ants.  Even plants also adapt, as do we humans, by moving around (chapter 4).  Such adaptations have limits, while rising levels of heat may not.  To make this point, chapter 5 takes up heat waves and asks if there is any limit to how hot our environment might get.  He tracks the history of scientific efforts to explain what heat is in order to show that there indeed may not be any upper limit.  By this point, a rising sense of doom already is inescapable.  The reader is being locked into the inexorable danger of a threat that cannot be evaded.

[7] An appropriate response would be to put the book down.  To avert reader burnout, Goodell retains reader interest by ranging far and wide, expanding the scope of his argument in all directions.  He visits frontiers of heat-driven changes both visible and invisible to the ordinary eye.  Chapter 6 shows the declining productivity of growing food and explores some adaptive strategies by farmers.  Chapter 7 reports on the “blob” of overheated ocean that swam up the west coast and outlines how oceans drive the overall climate system.  Then he turns to the threat posed by outdoor work.  He follows a single immigrant farmworker to expose the unequal vulnerability of rich and poor (Chapter 8).  Chapter 9 finds Goodell on a ship headed towards a melting glacier in Antarctica, while chapter 10 reports the threat of migrating mosquitoes, ticks and other bugs.  Chapter 11 details the history of air-conditioning as a tool of inequitable heat redistribution, an invention that by now has become a global addiction.  Chapter 13 focuses on the effort by the city of Paris to redesign itself for extreme heat.

[8] How do all these elements hang together?  They are loosely coupled around one jarring theme: the rising inevitability of extreme heat.  Don’t think the absence of God from his argument gets us off the hook.  The science he brings in cuts off any escape routes; the heat problem will simply get worse, and we are responsible.  He interweaves the lives and work of scientists and victims to humanize this argument.  He protects the reader from the dull thudding impact of relentless facts and statistics, but offers no escape from the growing threat.  Indeed, Goodell caps his narrative by taking the reader on a hike through the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas, where massive reefs were destroyed in the geological blink of an eye by a surge in global vulcanism some 250 million years ago.  We are headed towards the same fate, only our fate is anthropogenic.  We are providing our own volcanic disruption of the earth.

[9] Where is the moment of grace in all this?  Extreme heat offers no reprieve, after all.  At this point, unfortunately, the argument thins out into platitude.   Goodell’s word of grace is slender at best.  On the last page—literally–he seeks to comfort us with the assurance that we are all on the same journey into extreme heat.  The journey is rendered encouraging by the scientists and others who are “fighting for the future” even though we have no map to guide us.  This tiny word of  comfort deserves more than a page.  After all, it dovetails neatly with another idea very familiar to Lutheran preachers: vocation.  The scientists Goodell follows around clearly are motivated by some concern for the future of the planet.  For us there is a solidarity in knowing that others are devoting their work lives to understand and cope with this peril.  “Wherever we may be headed, we are all on this journey together”, concludes Goodell.  This fits Lutheran theology.  Just as we invoke God not to solve our problems but accompany us on our perilous journeys, we are comforted by the fact that others are involving themselves.  Vocation is not simply a matter of accepting individual responsibility but recognizing that all are called.   We indeed are not alone in this call.  Our comprehensive and universal vocation could have used more development.

[10] The book is not a failure.  Goodell entertains us in the minimal sense by virtue of its familiar strategy.  It is a bestseller, after all, and succeeds (as far as I am concerned) by showing some elements of a classic pattern for communicating terrifying truth.  Goodell tells stories to draw us in, invokes the authority of science to show where we are and where we are headed, cuts off any escape from a sense of responsibility, and drops in a wee bit of grace at the very end.  Perhaps that is the most solid encouragement we might expect given current trends: the assurance that we are all in the same fix, and that many of us, in different ways, have the capacity and will to do something about it.  Given the prospect of relentlessly increasing heat on this planet of ours, could he offer any better news?

[11] To underline the point, there is one enormous difference between classic Lutheran preaching and Goodell’s argument.  The difference concerns agency.   Lutherans believe that only God can redeem us—that our human efforts count for nothing in terms of redemption.  For Goodell, there is no divine rescue on the horizon; only determined human effort can keep heat from killing us.  How sharp a wedge climate change drives between theologies of redemption and creation!  There is no easy hope for rescue through divine intervention.    So indeed, in the end there really is nothing entertaining about the lethal heating of our planet. I suspect Al Gore would agree.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.