Book Review:
The Story of More

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here

by Hope Jahren, Vintage Books, 2020. 

(NOTE: The author is interested in readers' feedback on any of the many subjects touched on by The Story of More and/or of his views expressed in the article. Click here to respond to Dee Wilson.​ 

 

By Dee Wilson

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where We Go From Here by Hope Jahren is a short book (208 pages) that packs a powerful emotional wallop. Jahren is a geo-biologist born in 1969 in Minnesota, and who was living in Norway when her book was published in 2019. The Story of More is a fact filled account of economic production and consumption patterns in the U.S. and around the world during Jahren’s lifetime. The book is about climate change and a lot more; in fact, perhaps without intending to, Jahren has written a powerful concise indictment of our civilization in which the many strands of the indictment cohere around just four words: The Story of More. She also makes a strong case that an effective response to climate change will require not just a dramatic change in the consumption patterns of wealthy nations, but a change in the story that drives economies and shapes lives and aspirations. The Story of More, Jahren believes, is not sustainable either for already wealthy nations or for developing countries. It is a story that invites ruin (my word, not Jahren’s), possibly within three generations.

An Environmental Catechism

 

In a concluding appendix, pp. 191-93, Jahren provides the following list of economic, environmental, population and lifespan changes since 1969:

 

  • population (of the world) has doubled.

  • child mortality has decreased by half.

  • average life expectancy has increased by twelve years.

  • forty-seven cities have grown to contain more than ten million people.

  • production of cereal grains has tripled.

  • the amount of crops that can be harvested per acre has more than doubled.

  • the amount of land cultivated for farming has increased by 10 percent.

  • production of meat has tripled.

  • annual slaughter of pigs has tripled; chicken has increased six-fold; cattle has increased by half.

  • consumption of seafood has tripled.

  • the amount of fish taken from the ocean has doubled.

  •  the invention of aquaculture made fish farming the source of half of all seafood eaten today. 

  • production of seaweed has increased tenfold; we eat half of the total as hydrocolloid food additives.

  • consumption of table sugar has nearly tripled.

  • the amount of human waste produced each day has more than doubled.

  • waste of edible food has increased such that it now equals the amount of food needed to adequately feed all the undernourished people on earth.

  • the total amount of energy that people use every day has tripled.

  • the total amount of electricity that people use every day has quadrupled.

  • 20 percent of the world’s population has come to use half of the world’s electricity.

  • the total population living with no access to electricity has grown to one billion people.

  • the number of airline passengers has increased tenfold; while the total distance traveled by rail has declined. 

  • the miles traveled by car each year has more than doubled; there are currently almost one billion motor vehicles on the planet. 

  • global fossil fuel use has almost tripled.

  • coal and oil use have doubled; natural gas use has tripled.

  • the invention of biofuels has grown to consume 20 percent of the annual harvest of grain.

  • the production of plastic has increased tenfold.

  • the invention of new plastics has grown to consume 10 percent of the fossil fuels used each year.  

  • the share of electricity generated using hydropower has decreased to an all-time low of 15 percent.

  • the share of electricity generated using nuclear power increased to an all-time high of 6 percent.

  • the adoption of wind and solar-powered electricity has grown to produce almost 5 percent of all electricity generated every year.

  • one trillion tons of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. 

  • the average global surface temperature has increased by one degree, Fahrenheit.

  • the average global sea level has increased by four inches; half of this rise was due to the addition of water melted from mountain glaciers and polar ice.

  • more than half of all amphibian, bird and butterfly species have declined in population; one quarter of all fish and plant species have declined in population.   

 

It’s possible to read this list of increases in economic production and  human lifespans and be as impressed by the remarkable technological advances of the past 50 years as by the profligate use of limited resources and the social inequality of consumption patterns around the world.  If this is a reader’s first take-away regarding the story Jahren tells, please also consider the lack of moral progress that would have resulted in a more equitable distribution of the benefits of new technologies.  From Jahren’s perspective, the human species does not confront a production crisis as population increases to an estimated 10 billion by 2100; rather, the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population face a moral imperative to Use Less, Share More; and this, it seems, wealthy nations and their citizens are loath to do.

 

Grain and meat production, waste, cars and air travel, fossil fuels and biodiversity

 

The list above does not do justice to some of the chapters In Jahren’s book, especially her information regarding trends in food production, transportation, energy use and burning of fossil fuels during the past 50 years.  Instead of summarizing this information, I provide quotes from various chapters with page numbers: 

 

Grain and meat production

 

  • “How did we come to be growing three times more food on only 10 percent more land? The answer has to do with gigantic increases in yield …”  “With very few exceptions, every farm field on planet Earth produces at least twice as much food today compared to when I was a kid …” (pp.30-31)

  • “World use of fertilizer has tripled since 1969 and the global capacity for irrigation has almost doubled. … Today more than five million tons of pesticides are applied to cropland the world over … a tripling in the manufacture of pesticides since 1969.” (pp.32-33)

  • “By the time I was a child in the 1970’s America was … producing five billion bushels of corn each year … Today annual corn production in the United States is at fifteen million bushels, a stunning 300 percent increase over the past 50 years … “(p.40)

  • “… human consumption of the corn harvest uses up only 10 percent of the U.S. annual harvest … half of the remainder (that is 45 percent …) will never be eaten by any living creature. Out of the other half, more than one billion bushels – enough to feed one hundred million people for an entire year- will be converted directly into manure.” (p.41)  

  • Jahren emphasizes the many costs of meat production at current levels. “The production of meat requires a tremendous investment of resources; … A full 30 percent of the fresh water used by humans on planet Earth is spent in the production, maintenance and slaughter of meat animals.” …  “As of 1990, two thirds of the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to meat animals. …  The main thing that you must pump into an animal …   to produce meat, however, is grain – a veritable mountain of grain. More than sixty million bushels of grain, mostly corn, soy- beans and wheat, are fed to meat animals every single year.” (p.48)

  • “In the world today, a billion tons of grain are eaten by humans while at the same time, a different billion tons of grain are offered to animals as feed. From all this feed, we get about one hundred million tons of meat and three hundred million tons of feces.” (p.49)

  • Jahren has much to say regarding the scale of the human slaughter of animals for meat production. “As a species, human beings will slaughter six times more animals for their meat this year than they did back in 1969.” (p.49) “About one million animals are slaughtered for food every hour in the United States.” “Thirty million cattle are slaughtered each year in the Great Plains.” “A whopping nine billion chickens are slaughtered each year across the Feather Belt that stretches from Arkansas to Georgia. One hundred and twenty million pigs are slaughtered each year in the upper Midwest states that surround Iowa.” (p.43)

  • In Austin, Minnesota, Jahren’s hometown (pop. 25,000) “Between Fourth and Eighth streets Northeast, thirteen hundred people kill nineteen thousand hogs every single day.” (p. 44) 

  • “If every American cut their red meat and poultry intake by half – from four to two pounds a week – it would free up 150 million tons of grain.” And “if the thirty-six countries of the OECD (including North America, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan) decreased their meat consumption by half, the world’s food grain supply would get bumped up by almost 40 percent.” (pp. 49-50). Jahren’s chapter on meat production and consumption begins her challenge to readers: Use Less, Share More, not in a hypothetical future in which serious steps are being taken by governments to control climate change, but immediately.

  • Jahren asserts that “Starvation is caused by our failure to share what we produce, not by the earth’s ability to provide. Even with meat production siphoning off one-third of the world’s edible grain supply, we still produce twenty-nine hundred calories of food for every one of the seven and a half billion people on Earth, every single day …” (p. 50) And, “Sooner or later we will have to reconsider the fact that every year, we actively waste 90 percent of the grain we feed to animals in exchange for a little meat and a lot of manure.” (p. 51)

 

Any reader who makes it through Jahren’s chapter on meat production and consumption will appreciate that she offers a  relentless uncompromising  challenge to readers to reconsider our consumption patterns, not just in regard to meat consumption but in practically every dimension of life; and she does so by steadily adding factual information which considered as a whole is devastating. For example, Jahren asserts that “The more we eat, the more we waste.” (p.76) Currently, “Twenty percent of what American families send to the landfill each day is, or recently was, perfectly edible food.” (p. 77) Furthermore, “the magnitude of our global waste is in many ways equal to our need … The amount of total grain that is wasted is close to the annual food supply of grain available in India.” And “Every day, almost one billion people go hungry while a different billion people intentionally foul enough food to feed them.” (p.77) Jahren claims that “we throw 40 percent of everything we just accomplished (in food production) in the garbage.” (p.78) 

 

Energy

 

According to Jahren, “The total amount of energy that people currently use every day is three times greater than when I was a kid in the 1970’s, despite the fact that the total number of people on the planet has only doubled.”   “… the total amount of electricity that people use each day has more than quadrupled over the last fifty years.”  (p.83) “Our pursuit of convenience, diversion, repose or whatever has driven us to live this way is yet another type of more…” (p.84)

 

Considered globally, “Thirty years ago there were more than one billion people … who had no access to electricity. Today, there are still more than one billion people … who have no access to electricity.” (p.83) Jahren acknowledges that there has been a large reduction in poverty globally during the past 50 years. Nevertheless, because of a 40 percent increase in the human population “the population that suffers from want is still very large; one out of ten people on planet Earth still lives in abject poverty.” (p.83) According to Jahren, half of the people who live without electricity live in sub- Saharan Africa.  Jahren maintains that “India and sub-Saharan Africa are similar, in that both regions consume very little of the world’s energy. Together, they make up one-third of the world’s population but consume 10 percent of the world’s electricity.” (p. 87) 

 

Jahren maintains that the 15 percent of the world’s population living

in OECD countries “consume about 40 percent of the world’s energy and almost half of all the electricity …” (p.88) Jahren asserts that “all of the want and suffering in the world – all of it- arises not from the earth’s inability to produce but from our inability to share.” (p.89)

From Jahren’s perspective, the solution to the suffering resulting from economic want is simple: Use Less, Share More in the wealthy countries of the world.   

 

Transportation

 

Jahren informs that “Today, a global fleet of twenty-five thousand airplanes touches down thirty-five million times each year onto the runways of the world’s forty thousand airports; these planes move almost four billion passengers away from home and back again.  Ten times the number of people will be long-hauled by airplanes this year (2019) compared with 1970.” (p.92)

 

Jahren admits to a bias against cars, the intensity of which she compares to the way “the Devil hates Jesus,” (p.94) though the reasons she offers (as with most biases) do not seem compelling.

Jahren writes that “it doesn’t make me happy to tell you that the world currently contains one billion passenger vehicles.” (p.94) She adds “every day and on average each American spends one hour in a car,” and “there is one passenger car for every two people of driving age in the United States …” (pp.96-97). Jahren asserts that “today, they (Americans) travel twice as far by car each year as they did in 1970. As a result (and here is one of the book’s surprises) America’s twenty-first century dependence on foreign oil is higher than it has ever been … (p.99) In car travel, Jahren writes, “Americans recommitted ourselves to the Story of More.” (p.99) Furthermore, since 1990, the peoples of China and India have become wed to cars, especially in India where the population “have added a staggering three hundred billion miles behind the wheel per year, since 1990, to their annual total.” (p. 99) Developing countries understandably want the economic benefits wealthy developed countries take for granted. One of those benefits is virtually unlimited car travel.

 

Fossil fuels

 

 In Jahren’s view, the use of fossil fuels is at the heart of the Story of More. She writes: “ … the last fifty years is a Story of More- more cars, more driving, more electricity, , and more manufacturing; because of this it should come as no surprise that it is also a Story of More fossil fuel. During the past five decades, global use of fossil fuel has nearly tripled.” (p. 104) Jahren admits that known oil and gas reserves have doubled since 1980, “but global fossil fuel consumption doubled right along with it.” (p. 105) Jahren believes that “humanity’s infatuation with fossil fuels may represent the greatest resource-based love story of all time.” (p. 106) During the past 50 years, the U.S. has met 90 percent of its energy needs by burning fossil fuels, Jahren asserts. She maintains that “In today’s post 9-11 world, one third of the total amount of oil America imports still comes from OPEC nations: exactly the same situation as before the 1973 oil crisis.” (p. 106)

 

Jahren comments that “America has left no stone unturned and no promise unmade in its desperate and luckless search for a way out of dependence on foreign oil, well, except one: burning less fossil fuel” (p. 106) including what Jahren describes as “the most absurd

environmental innovation of the twenty-first century: the conversion of food for people into fuel for automobiles.” (p.107) The production of ethanol requires that “tens of million acres around the world are planted, irrigated, and fertilized , pesticides and herbicides are applied, picked and processed – all for the purpose of mashing and fermenting the harvest into fuel.”  (p. 107) And “the whole process has been subsidized to the tune of $40 billion, just to make the farmers’ ends meet.” (p. 107) Jahren is furious that “Today, 20 percent of the grain grown on planet Earth is converted to bio-fuel …” (p.109) in a world with 800 million starving people.  “We are addicted to our cars and our cars are addicted to oil …” Furthermore, “today’s cars are mostly made of oil. The bumpers, the doors, the dashboard, the casing for much of the engine, and the tires are all made from petroleum based “polymers,” Jahren asserts.

 

Jahren writes at length about the production of plastics, currently more than three hundred metric tons per year, almost all of which is manufactured from oil, she maintains. (p.112) “Making plastic accounts for 10 percent of all the fossil fuel burned on planet Earth every year,” Jahren asserts. 

 

Jahren comments that the global percentage of the world’s energy needs met by burning of fossil fuels has declined from 94% in the late 1960’s to about 85% in 2019. However, “the total amount of fossil fuels we burn has increased substantially over the same time period,” doubling in 50 years “while the total amount burned in both the United States and Europe has increased by one-third.” (p. 114)

 

Is increased use of solar power and wind energy the solution to climate change? 

 

Jahren begins to diverge from many other experts on climate change in her discussion of the potential of wind and solar power to substitute for reduced use of fossil fuels. In 2019, Jahren asserts, wind and solar power provided less than 5% of the world’s electricity, even after a large increase in the use of these alternative “green” sources of energy in recent years. Also, twenty percent of the electricity in the U.S. “is generated by the country’s one hundred or so nuclear plants.”  (p.120)

 

Jahren maintains that it will be next to impossible to increase the percentage of electricity produced by wind and solar power from 5% to 50% in the next couple of decades. Jahren asserts that at current rates of electricity consumption, a modest sized U.S. city of 100,000 people would require one thousand wind turbines or one million solar panels. (p.121) She adds “Powering America using only wind power would require more than one million wind turbines, or one every mile or so across the whole continental United States. As for solar energy, a land area the size of South Carolina would have to be sacrificed to solar panels (in order) to generate America’s annual diet of electricity.” In Jahren’s view, the limitations of solar and wind power apply to renewable energy sources considered as a whole. She argues that “Entirely switching to renewables at their present rate of efficiency is, unfortunately, a pipe dream.” (p. 122)

 

Jahren acknowledges that greatly increased use of renewable “green” energy sources is highly desirable and a part of the solution to climate change; but not, in her view, the obvious solution to all our problems some experts believe is at the ready. I am not as convinced by this part of Jahren’s argument as by other parts of her book. Anyone who has taken a lengthy road trip across the Western U.S. in recent years understands that the West contains vast expanses of unused land.  I do not buy the argument that geographic limitations or the vast numbers of wind turbines needed to vastly increase the production of electricity generated from these renewable sources is impossible within a decade. Once most Americans have a deeply felt understanding that “Everything is at stake” (as Jahren argues) then what currently seems impossible will be viewed as necessary and as a goal worthy of the technological prowess and organizational capacity of the United States.

 

Jahren’s view is that no amount of production of any energy source will ever be enough to satisfy the Story of More. What makes Jahren’s book challenging is her insistence that consumption patterns, indeed an entire lifestyle, in wealthy nations must radically change, beginning immediately. Jahren recommends that citizens of wealthy countries scale back their use of meat, cars, air travel and electricity to levels that existed in Switzerland in the late 1960’s:

 

  • Reduce meat consumption by half (at least); concretely this would mean that Americans would eat no more than 2 pounds of meat per person per week     

  • Reduce the number of gas-powered cars by at least thirty percent

  • Reduce air travel by 80%, meaning that affluent Americans would have to forego 4 out of 5 trips they have been taking (on average) each year for either business or pleasure

  • Reduce use of electricity in homes by 70%; Jahren devotes several pages of instructions for how to achieve this goal.

 

Among recent books on climate change, Jahren’s emphasis on radically altering patterns of consumption that underlie the Story of More stands out. She asserts that “Down the road, it won’t matter what we do as much as it matters what we all do.” (p.170) This view would lead most authors into a discussion of the politics of climate change, but Jahren is different. She is distressed by the level of rancor of political debate around climate change; and has limited patience with the idea that political views (for example, support of the Green New Deal) are a substitute for changes in personal behavior.  Jahren asserts: “Even if you consider yourself on the right side of environmental issues and a true believer in climate change, chances are that you are actively degrading the earth as much as, or more than, the people you argue with.” (p. 170)

 

These are harsh words that suggest Jahren’s distaste for political debates about climate change in the United States.  Jahren is from Minnesota where being “nice” in discussions of controversial issues is a social norm, the violation of which may elicit immediate social disapproval. I was raised in a different part of the country where blunt “pull no punches” political discussions were part of the social ethos. In my view, the time for “nice” in discussions of human caused climate change is long past; though it will always be important to discuss controversial subjects without raised voices, personal insults, name calling and ad hominem attacks on the motives of those with whom we disagree.

 

It is pointless in my view to engage in rational discussions with climate change “deniers” who have little or no interest in evidence.  However, there is an urgent need for discussion and debate with conservatives and a few liberals (for example, the novelist, Jonathan Franzen) regarding the economic costs of climate change and whether it is already too late to act in an effective way. During the past few years, a handful of books with a doomsday perspective have appeared (e.g., We’re Doomed. Now What? By Roy Scranton); and there will be more of the same if the developed nations of the world continue their current course.

 

Jahren discusses various idea for removing carbon from the atmosphere, or reducing its warming effects on the atmosphere through technological fixes such as carbon capture and storage, grinding, transporting and spraying millions of tons of rock dust, by stimulating plant growth and planting millions of trees or by fertilizing plant growth on the ocean’s surface. Jahren argues that some of these technological strategies would themselves require vast amounts of energy; or have minor effects on climate at best.   Some ideas such as blocking incoming sunlight would be extremely

risky, in her view. (p.166)  Currently, many of these ideas sound like science fiction, but in future decades, desperate governments which have waited too long to take necessary steps in conservation and reduction of use of fossil fuels  may opt for one or more of these strategies, with impossible to predict results.   

 

The politics of climate change

 

When I first read The Story of More, I was impressed by Jahren’s

grasp of so much factual material regarding production and consumption patterns during recent decades, but critical of her lack of discussion of the politics of climate change. After all, if it’s true (as she argues) that what each of us does (to combat climate change) is far less important than what all of us do, how could she avoid the discussion of political policy? After a month of reflection, and a second reading of Jahren’s book I have changed my mind. I do not believe that heads of state in any developed country today could advocate for the drastic changes in consumption, indeed a whole way of life, that Jahren believes is necessary. A Biden Presidency will not change this reality. 

     

Furthermore, it is likely that any U.S. President who wants to take meaningful action to reduce climate change will emphasize an increase in use of renewable energy sources and avoid discussion of large-scale sacrifices for as long as possible.  In other words, as long as the Story of More remains the spiritual underpinning of American life, political leaders will have to advocate for new policies that require little or no change in patterns of production and consumption, with the exception of how electricity is generated or cars are fueled.  Jahren is right to argue that until the Story of More is held up to scrutiny,  not just in the U.S. but around the world, there is no possibility of stopping climate change before it’s too late to avoid wholesale destruction of human civilization, and possibly a mass extinction of other species as well. As a friend of mine from college has suggested, something akin to a religious awakening will be required before a Story of Less can be substituted for the Story of More. A religious awakening does not mean a revival of any or all world religions, or a belief in a supernatural being or spirit realm. A religious belief or value associated with resistance to climate change is a life altering, life shaping commitment to preserving the human species and other biological species, and a belief in the transcendent value of future generations. There is a small percentage of people in the world today who embody this sensibility, but until many others follow their example, (merely) rational calculation and enlightened self-interest will not be enough to motivate the sacrifices required in coming decades to ameliorate climate change.         

 

Reflections on the Possible    

 

The fact that wealthy developed countries around the world have greatly increased their use of fossil fuels during the past 50 years, despite overwhelming evidence of climate change and its effects on global warming,  indicates the power of the Story of More.  A civilization whose population could watch news of apocalyptic fires  burning out of control in Australia,  locust plagues in Africa, and after experiencing three ‘one in five hundred year’ floods in three years in Houston, Texas (center of the U.S. oil industry), without being motivated to take dramatic steps to combat climate change is stubborn beyond belief.  Why continue to believe that the countries of the world can still muster the determination to take dramatic action in the next decade to combat global warming?

 

 Jahren asserts that “Fate has placed you and me squarely at the crossroads of environmental history.” (p. 141) Jahren warns readers: “Do not be seduced by lazy nihilism. It is precisely because no single solution will save us that everything we do matters.” (p. 172) Jahren reminds readers that “All measures of conservation, as well as all technologies meant to wean us from fossil fuels, are worth pursuing.” (p.179) However, she does not answer the question her book puts front and center: How does a civilization whose deepest aspirations involve the Story of More become committed to the Story of Less?

 

Consider the odds 

 

When everything is at stake, and the odds of taking effective timely action seems lottery like, it is worth remembering some unlikely events in the past century which shaped human history:

 

  • England held out in 1940 after the defeat of France and the rest of Europe by Germany; and fought on alone until the U.S. entered World War II in Europe in March 1942.    

  • The Soviet Union rebounded from near certain defeat after taking at least a million casualties in the German invasion during the first six months of WWII on the Eastern front; and then defeated Germany at the cost of 27 million dead soldiers and civilians. To this day, there has been no adequate explanation of this miraculous turnaround in the fortunes of war.     

  • A nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was avoided during the Cuban missile crisis and during the early months of 1983, when Soviet leaders believed that the U.S. was about to launch a first strike on their country.  It is quasi-miraculous that anyone reading this article is alive today, though few people know much about the events that saved the world from nuclear war and (probably) nuclear winter during the cold war.

  • The Soviet Union collapsed during a few years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, not because of (as some conservatives claim) Ronald Reagan’s defense build-up, which nearly led to nuclear war; but mostly because of Michael Gorbachev’s determination to fundamentally change the way the Soviet Union was governed, whatever the cost.

 

It is important to remember that human beings have a limited ability to predict the future; and just as important to learn from the current pandemic that it is reckless to ignore clear and obvious threats to humanity when there is still time to prevent them or reduce their impact.  There can be no ‘throwing in the towel’ regarding efforts to combat climate change when everything is at stake.

 

The Story of More has other dimensions

 

Jahren’s book is focused on economic production and consumption patterns since 1969. She does not consider other facets of the story that reflect cultural influences on human psychology and spirituality. There is a passage in one of Elizabeth Strout’s early novels, The Burgess Boys, in which a character asks the question, “What do Americans want?” to which the answer is “Everything”.  I will discuss the theme of “Never Enough” as it applies to everything valued by human beings in a subsequent essay.  

 

© Dee Wilson

May 25, 2020    

 

deewilson13@aol.com

© 2020 by Dee Wilson Consulting. Proudly created with Wix.com