A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World: Tales of Fire, Wind, and Water
- By David Gessner
- Torrey House Press
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Christopher Lancette
- June 23, 2023
The planet is crying out to us. Is it too late to listen?
David Gessner’s latest book, A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World: Tales of Fire, Wind, and Water, isn’t quite a declaration that our planet is doomed. Or that there’s no sense in trying to reverse course at this late hour in hopes of slipping free of the climate-change-slaughtered albatross we draped around our collective neck.
Instead, A Traveler’s Guide is a highway road sign bedazzled with flashing-red lights that command us to halt — and to open our ears to what the earth is saying.
“The end of the world can barely hold our attention,” Gessner writes. “The world is crying out to us but we are not listening. The world is saying, ‘I have changed. I am different. Don’t you see? Can’t you notice?’ I’m busy, we reply.”
Gessner notes that only 3 percent of Americans see climate change as the most important problem facing the country — despite the obvious fact that it alone has the power to render moot all other issues. This begs a number of questions, among them, asks the author:
“Can we — inept, contradictory, self-interested creatures led by compromised, sluggish, corrupt governments — change? Will we change?”
Gessner also wonders what the world might look like when his college-aged daughter turns his age, 60.
Using these three critical questions, he takes us on a tour across America to visit sites under siege and to meet people leading the charge to help us change direction and avoid the fatal exit that sits just ahead.
Our guide escorts us to New Mexico to learn about the Ancestral Puebloans, a civilization that went away in part due to the climate forcing them to migrate. We traipse across the fire-ravaged West and the flood-riddled East, where governments on both sides of the country condone people continuing to build and rebuild homes in areas that everyone knows nature is going to reclaim.
(The pattern drives Orrin Pilkey — an earth-sciences guru and an excellent assistant guide throughout the book — nuts. “It’s such foolishness,” he says. “Societal madness.” Luckily, a new Biden administration report on climate change suggests Uncle Sam may finally get out of the business of rewarding people for stupid decisions.)
We also float down the mighty Mississippi and wade into the bayous of Louisiana. Here, Gessner finds that degrees of recovery are possible. Planet-saving solutions, maybe not, but the start of moving in the right direction. He points to one of a number of intriguing “natural” solutions America is employing to restore land wrecked by climate damage. It’s the ironic story of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement funds financing a project channeling water from the Mississippi to the Barataria Bay and using sediment from the river to regrow wildlife habitat and protect human settlements.
Gessner is at his best when he stops worrying about crossing the line from objectively bearing witness and lets loose his inner preacher. Writing of that same BP spill, he shares his encounter with an oil-soaked pelican:
“Face-to-face with this bird, I was struck by the deal we had made as a culture and a society, surrendering animals and destroying their habitat, all so we could keep living exactly as we do. I didn’t in any way exclude myself from the accused group. I stood and stand accused. But seeing into the eyes of that bird I was reminded: We are not just doing this to ourselves. We are doing it to them. To the animals. To their homes. To everyone and everything on earth.”
He rightfully (and righteously) directs his anger first at our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels. If we stand even a chance of making a U-turn on climate change, “We will need to change the laws of the land with regard to fossil fuel use,” he insists. “Really change them.”
(Gessner misses a critical chance to enhance the itinerary by offering insight on the best solutions for reducing our oil addiction. Such advice is oddly absent.)
Racing to the next destination, Pilkey tag-teams with Gessner to interpret the most sobering stops on the tour — the halls of government. “What we are experiencing, along with the rising sea, is a tsunami of anti-intellectualism,” Pilkey says. “Science is at a new low in the public’s view. Scientists are not respected as we once were, and we are out of our league when we compete with the sharpies, the good talkers and salesman types…I think the coal and oil companies, aided by politicians, have done fundamental damage to science in this country.”
Gessner follows promptly with the knockout punch. Though referring specifically to Tar Heel state legislators, he could just as easily be speaking to lawmakers anywhere in the U.S.:
“It is no coincidence that legislators who deny sea level rise have made it their mission to dismantle the fine public education system that North Carolina spent many decades creating. Because, on a deeper level, it is education, knowledge, and science that are their true enemies.”
This shot across the bow may leave some tourgoers/readers in a state of shock, wondering if our trip is ending on a horrid note. But while Gessner is no rah-rah optimist compelled to conclude his book with an artificially happy finish, he’s no grim reaper, either. So, he leaves us with this before bidding adieu:
“If I were looking for hope, I know where I would find it…I would find it in nature. The living natural world is where I feel, if not hopeful, then whole. It is the origin, it is the source…of so much. So much creativity, so much energy, so much true diversity, so much possibility. And maybe that is the word I want to use here. Possibility. Because, strangely, one of the most reassuring things is the fact that we really don’t know where we are heading.”
Gessner might even believe there’s a chance we’ll eventually heed the warnings of that road sign — the one with the flashing-red lights. When we look around, we realize he’s purposely ended our tour right next to it.
Christopher Lancette is a Maryland-based freelance writer focused on nature and the environment. He has written for some 50 national and local publications, from DC Theater Arts to Salon. He publishes a passion project at EyeOnSligoCreek.com. Follow him on Twitter at @chrislancette.