In 1989, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Three decades later, reading Hope Jahren’s new book, The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, I found myself thinking about Fulghum and his lessons learned. Number one: Share everything. It’s an admonition that reverberates throughout Jahren’s book because, as she makes all too clear, the future depends on it.
Jahren is an award-winning geobiologist and writer, whose studies have taken her across the globe. In 2009, while a professor at the University of Hawaii, she was asked to teach a course on climate change, a challenge, she says, she was not eager to take up. But she did, and “[o]ver the next several years, I catalogued the data that describes how population has increased, how agriculture has intensified, how energy use has skyrocketed over the last half century.” The Story of More is the culmination of her research.
Jahren’s focus on “the last half century” serves a narrative purpose as well as a data-driven one. She was born in Minnesota in 1969, and each chapter contains anecdotes or memories that stand in stark contrast to the statistics and trends that portend future problems. In this way, Jahren ably illuminates, in both relatable and concrete terms, direct links between human activity and our endangered planet.
Much of what Jahren has discovered is, in many ways, a paean to human ingenuity. In the last five decades, as the global population has doubled, we’ve more than tripled food production. From grain to meat to fish, scientific advancements have led to increased yields. We grow three times more grain on farm fields only slightly larger than they were fifty years ago. The United States produces twice as much milk from three million fewer cows. “Every single cow, pig, and chicken slaughtered the world over is, on average, between 20 and 40 percent bigger than it was in 1969.” And with the advent of aquaculture, more than half the fish eaten worldwide is farm-raised not caught in the wild.
Readers will have differing views on the propriety of how we got to this point. But we’re here now, and this growth is running up against the biological limits of plants and animals and fossil fuel reserves. “There is only so much corn that can be hung from a stalk,” Jahren writes, “and only so much meat that can be balanced on a backbone.” A reckoning is coming.
The Story of More is also an indictment of global inequality. Today, despite the world’s bounty, there are more than eight hundred million men, women, and children who are undernourished. (This, as Americans throw away a whopping forty percent—at least!—of the food they put on their plates.) One billion people have no access to electricity. And those living in countries that benefit least from fossil fuels are most at risk of climate-induced damage and destruction. We have reached the point, Jahren says, where consumption by just ten percent of us threatens the planet’s ability to provide the “basics of life for the other 90 percent.”
Jahren believes that even as the situation grows more dire, we can address these inequities, both as individuals and as nations, especially those of us living in the thirty-six OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. As the world’s biggest consumers of food and fuel, adjustments we make to our consumption can have a significant ripple effect worldwide. “It’s not time to panic,” she says, “it’s not time to give up—but it is time to get serious.”
With The Story of More, Jahren provides readers with a methodical look at the whys and ways the earth is imperiled more so today than even fifty years ago. And she calls on all of us to act now to save it for future generations. “There is no magical technology coming to save us from ourselves. Curbing consumption will be the ultimate trial of the twenty-first century. Using less and sharing more is the biggest challenge our generation will ever face.”
Hope Jahren released her first book, Lab Girl, in 2016. I reviewed it then and recommend it today.