Reviewed 5/07/2010

Under a Green Sky, by Peter D. Ward

Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future
Peter D. Ward
David W. Ehlert (Illus.)
New York: Smithsonian/HarperCollins, April 2007




ISBN 0-06-113791-X 242pp. HC/GSI $26.95

I've been critical of Dr. Ward's books in the past. I've said they contained annoying self-contradictions and poorly supported arguments, and were riddled with factual and grammatical errors. I've generally recommended them as worth reading for information content, but unconvincing as regards their conclusions.

Not this time.

There is, to be sure, a typically long string of grammatical goofs, and a few factual errors. But it's not clear if Dr. Ward is at fault in all of these.1 Whatever the reason for these goofs, they are easy to overlook here — for this is the best book Dr. Ward has written.

Under a Green Sky hits the jackpot. And the best thing about it is the good doctor's motivation. Like a number of other top-flight scientists, he can no longer confine himself to the standard practices of science. That is to say that the situation he now confronts is, from his informed perspective, so fraught with peril that he must speak out, must do his best to make the public aware of what almost certainly lies ahead if we all of us don't take heed and alter that outcome. That comes through very clearly in these lines from his Introduction (which I've edited slightly.)

From the top of our outcrop a valley spreads out, and in the distance the ribbon of road we had left still carries the endless number of cars toward Vegas and the chance to roll the dice, to hit the jackpot, but some number of them will bust instead, just as the Triassic world did, a bust that meant the death of 60 percent of all species on Earth. And guess what—our world is rolling the same set of dice.

In this book I will marshall the history of discovery, beginning in the 1970s, that has led an increasing number of scientists across a broad swath of fields to conclude that the past might be our best key to predicting the future. [For] if there is even the slightest chance that the carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere of 200 million years ago caused this mass extinction, [...] then it is time for we practitioners who study the deep past to begin screaming like the sane madman played by Peter Finch in the classic 1976 film Network, who brought forth his pain with the cry: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"2

In our case, this cry must be: "I am scared as hell, and I am not going to be silent any more!"

This book is my scream, for here in Nevada, on that day when heat was its usual quotidian force of death, we sat on the remains of a greenhouse extinction, and it was not pretty, this graveyard, the evidence clutched in these dirty rocks utterly demolishing any possibility of hyperbole. Is it happening again? Most of us think so, but there are still so few of us who visit the deep past and compare it to the present and future. Thus this book, words tumbling out powered by rage and sorrow but mostly fear, not for us but for our children—and theirs.

– Pages xiii-xiv

Throughout this book, there are descriptions of Dr. Ward climbing various rock ledges or SCUBA-diving deep in the sea. He seems a bit reticent about relating this type of exploit, but what he does reveal shows him to be an unexpectedly intrepid sort. See the sidebar.

We now know of numerous episodes when a large portion of all life on this planet vanished. The most familiar is the one that took place 65 million years ago at the K-T Boundary (the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods.) That was caused by the impact of a giant meteor off the Yucatan Peninsula; it killed the dinosaurs and granted lebensraum to mammals, leading to our rise. But that was a relatively small and quick extinction event, as such things go. Two others vie for the title of Mother of all Extinctions.

Impact only rarely causes mass extinction. But it is the realization by an increasing number of us of just what did cause the other mass extinctions that should make every citizen stand up. The beauty of dinosaur stories is that no matter how ferocious or dangerous they are in the movies, that is all they are: in the movies. Here, however, we have a process that is very real—mass extinction—and the understanding that conditions on Earth now in some ways seem similar to the causes of the mass extinctions of the past. Carbon dioxide is carbon dioxide, whether it comes from a smoking volcano or a smoking car. The question thus becomes one of whether the rate of carbon dioxide increase in our world is on par with the rate during those times when greenhouse extinctions occurred. Just how much danger are we in, anyway?

– Page 140

It is a fascinating question — the more so because it flows from the data a host of scientists living and dead have assembled, and because it touches on the chances that we will wreck our civilization. Dr. Ward cannot answer it in this book. But what he does do is present the results of his and colleagues' investigations — most valid, some not3 — and hypotheses they have developed. If his writing is less than completely polished, and if it tries and fails to mimic the style of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, it is nonetheless clear, accurate, and quite enjoyably readable.

Hunt Fossils, Not Thompson

It is in the Introduction that this mimicry is most apparent. Indeed, in the very second paragraph he acknowledges Thompson by name. I'm going to quote a little of the opening here, and have some fun with it.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at dawn: Even in the gloaming, a bright, sterile, exceptionally hideous example of twenty-first-century American architectural ugliness seems like a suitable send-off point toward a past even grimmer than our climatic present—but perhaps no more so than our possible future. The waiting lines, the ritual undressing of shoes and belt, the blank scrutiny of identification and tickets, followed by the cattle-like entry into the flying silver tube to find the assigned middle seat between well-stuffed passengers for the supposedly short flight, the giant engines snarling out clear but heat-soaking vapors...

– Page ix

Peter Ward, I read Hunter Thompson. Hunter Thompson was a fave of mine. Peter Ward, you're no Hunter S. Thompson. (And I'm no Lloyd Bentsen. Nor have I claimed to be. I present this as sardonic humor.)

Of course it is the science that I was looking for, and in this area Dr. Ward does not disappoint. He weaves a fascinating tale of scientific adventure, with a good bit of outdoor adventure at dig sites and restaurants all over the world thrown in. Indeed, I rate this as one of the classic first-person accounts of scientific discovery. There's enough talk of ammonites and coccolithophorids, of isotopes and biomarkers to satisfy the most ardent science geek. At the same time there's plenty of local color to keep things from getting stuffy. Some passages even veer perilously close to the poetic.

The land is a desert in its heat and aridity, but a duneless desert, for there is no wind to build the iconic structures of our Sahara and Kalihari.

Yet as sepulchral as the land is, it is the sea that is most frightening. Waves lap slowly on the quiet shore, slow-motion waves with the consistency of gelatin. Most of the shoreline is encrusted with rotting organic matter, silk-like swaths of bacterial slick now putrefying under the blazing sun, while in the nearby shallows mounds of similar mats can be seen growing up toward the sea's surface; they are stromatolites.

– Page 139

This passage is eerily reminiscent of Wells's description of Earth's far-distant future near the end of The Time Machine. Poetry, Doctor? Non-scientific.

Dr. Ward provides a list of sources referenced for each chapter, and there is a competent index. I recommend the book without reservation.

1 It may just be that his style is to dash off a manuscript and then interact with his editors as little as possible, because he's off on the next project.
2 Actually, the line is "I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more.' " The movie is indeed a classic, and incidentally, the IMDB has one hell of a review of it. By "Putzberger" from Chi-town. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_qgVn-Op7Q
3 That invalid research would be by Luann Becker and her group, described in Chapter 3. Note how vigorous is the reaction when her deception comes to light.
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