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The Heat Is On

For Writer-Turned-Activist Mike Tidwell, Soon Is Too Late To Start Worrying About Global Warming

By Ralph Brave | Posted 9/6/2006

For many Americans, Sept. 11, 2001, is the moment that defined their understanding of the central conflict and contradictions of the modern world. But for writer Mike Tidwell, the revelatory instance arrived nine months earlier, and showed a different version of the coming apocalypse.

On a morning in January 2001, the Takoma Park-based writer opened his Washington Post to see a front page story on the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This story detailed the report’s major finding: the planet was heating up, due in considerable part to emissions from the continuous and rapidly increasing combustion of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. Tidwell, who at the time was writing a book about his travels through Louisiana and that state’s fragile, disappearing coastline, writes that had a vision, "with terrifying certainty," of what this global-warming report meant for the future. "I could vividly picture the catastrophic heat waves and crop failures and sea-level rise and massive storms because I had seen, with my own eyes, the giant watery runway" of the collapsing Louisiana coast.

Recounting this experience in his new book, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities (Free Press), with his cereal spoon still in hand on that morning, Tidwell understood that he could not continue living as he had been. "I became a dedicated global warming activist," he writes. "I devoted myself, right then, to being an agent of change."

Since then, Tidwell has been an impressively successful agent of change, with much of the focal point of his activism here in Maryland. Founding the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, he and his staff have helped propel the state to enact a law forcing utility companies to get an increasing amount of electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar power. In April 2006, against the wishes of Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the power industry, Tidwell and company organized to pass the Healthy Air Act, which mandates that Maryland join a group of Northeastern states organized to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. When Hurricane Katrina arrived last year, Tidwell received national media attention as a prophetic environmental observer and writer for his 2003 book, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.

Tidwell’s unfortunately mistitled new book--it is as much a manifesto about global warming as an analysis of coastal risks--tells the story of the risk facing America’s coastal lands, including Maryland’s 4,000-plus coastal miles, due to global warming, and relates his transition from writer to activist. Even as recent events, the growing body of scientific evidence, and his success as an organizer justify his personal choice, it was not an altogether easy transition. "I didn’t want to be doing this, to be a full-time activist and organizer," the 44-year-old Tidwell explains in an interview at his Takoma Park office during the late morning of the final day of July’s East Coast heat wave. "I wanted to be a full-time creative writer. And I was at the top of my game as a writer. I could call an editor and say that I wanted to backpack across the island of Sicily and write about it, and receive a contract to do it." Tidwell had also moved from smaller publishers to the prestigious Pantheon imprint. He had achieved every writer’s dream--independence, income, and recognition.

But all that meant near to nothing when he had his vision, and his new book shows it. For The Ravaging Tide is not some witty, heartfelt anecdotal romp in exotic environments, nor is it a dispassionate sifting of the science. Rather, Tide is a scream of protest against planetary suicide, a grief-stricken cry about the passivity of individual and social responses to the human-caused destruction of the earth, a sermon and personal vouching for what an individual joining with others can do to try to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of the global warming now underway.

The first half of Tide expertly explores the new reality for America’s coastal lands and cities through the lens of Hurricane Katrina. In his rapid-fire prose, Tidwell details the storm’s devastation and the appalling tragicomedy of the human responses. Most appalling of all, Tidwell writes, is that "[t]he calamity of Katrina . . . was probably the most widely predicted ‘natural’ disaster in human history." How can we so clearly know a human-made disaster is on its way and do nothing to prevent it? This is the essence of the crucible in which Tidwell lives, into which he invites the reader to climb.

The book’s second half chronicles Tidwell’s journey from writer to activist. He first reduces his personal energy consumption and "carbon footprint," and then explores and organizes all the ways and means that climate change might be combated. He weaves together personal action and policy options--in one section Tidwell inventories alternative energy options and in the next explains the significance of installing the corn-kernel stove that now warms his house. Responsibility for combating climate change is confined neither to the personal realm nor corporate and governmental entities.

In seamlessly intermixing the personal and the political, Tidwell offers up one of the most significant installments of the spiritual autobiographies of his generation. The author turned 18 in 1980, the moment when Ronald Reagan was elected president. While many members of his generation found their identities at that time in junk bonds, cocaine, and conservative ideology, Tidwell went into the Peace Corps after college and tried to help Zaire villagers learn how to fish farm. His desire to make a difference has always been in competition with the writer.

His memoir of that experience, 1990’s The Ponds of Kalambayi, and subsequent books revealed a writer who knows a good story and how to tell it. With a keen eye for the intriguing detail, an exquisite sensibility, both scenic and scientific, for his surroundings, and a continuous calculus of the human dimensions of every situation, Tidwell brings his readers along on every journey he makes. In nearly every one of his sentences there is something at stake. Not rarely, it’s the soul itself, of both writer and reader--and not in some abstract metaphysical sense, but in how we concretely connect and act with others and ourselves.

While all of these qualities are evident in The Ravaging Tide, here they are put into the service of a cause: the survival of the human species. The book, subsequently, is not an argument. Instead, it’s a conclusion and a call to action. If you are looking for a careful scrutiny of the evidence for global warming, there are other works to seek, most particularly Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers. If you are looking for images and charts and factoids about climate change, Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth is the place to go. But if you are a reader who wants to break through the fog of media-driven debate and grasp what global warming might mean for yourself and your community and the world, there isn’t a better book than The Ravaging Tide.

The next governor of Maryland, for example, would do well to spend time with the pages detailing what’s at risk locally. "‘You’ve got a crisis situation, certainly, for everyone who lives near the Chesapeake Bay,’" Tidwell writes in Tide, quoting University of Maryland marsh ecologist Court Stevenson. "‘The buffering landforms that are the enemy of hurricanes will be gone [due to continued erosion]. And the high water [due to global warming-induced sea-level rise] that is the best friend of big storms will be here in abundance.’" With hundred-year storm surges now predicted to occur every 50 years, Tidwell suggests that floodgates along the upper Patapsco and Potomac rivers are needed to protect Baltimore and Washington. Sounds a bit fanciful, perhaps, until Tidwell cites London constructing just such a floodgate on the Thames after a 1953 storm took 300 lives there.

The problem confronting global-warming activists, Tidwell contends, is that there are no everyday victims. Instead, it is our children and their children who will suffer the worst consequences from the greenhouse gases put into the air today. How can we, particularly as materially besotted Americans, be made to care and make changes out of concern for future generations?

"When soldiers go into battle risking their own lives for others, they are able to do so because they see others doing the same," Tidwell says. "They’re shoulder to shoulder in facing the danger and making sacrifice." The same goes for movements, he suggests, and Tidwell wonders what it will take for masses of people to join the global-warming crusade.

"Every important movement has a trigger event," he says. "What it will be, how it comes about, when it happens, no one can predict or control." With The Ravaging Tide, Tidwell has sought to make that trigger event for the global-warming movement more likely to arrive one day sooner.

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