GRN Reports

Paul Fleischman’s new primer on climate change and global pollution, Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines, manages to be both a complete survey of the key issues and highly readable.

Somehow, Fleischman gets his arms around all the angles. But once he’s deconstructed the topic — which is a rangy one with its chain-sawed forests, superbug-spewing factory farms, disappearing tuna and climate-degrading industries — he deftly selects his core points and anecdotes.

EYES WIDE OPEN pix

What could have been a tome, make that tomb, of dense detail, instead emerges as a surprisingly breezy read. Eyes Wide Open, with the help of ample graphics, photos and fun, ironic advertising images, carries us easily from page to page, while maintaining a fittingly serious tone. A masterpiece of concision, it is not snarky (such a relief) or political, though it never pulls its punches. When the facts look bad, for say, the fossil fuel industry or suburban sprawl, Fleischman doesn’t try to rehabilitate or pretty-up the picture.

He doesn’t let us regular folks off the hook either. “What used to be luxuries – garage-door openers, dishwashers, cell phones – came to feel like necessities. It’s easy to go up the lifestyle ladder but painful climbing down,” he writes in “Never Retreat,” a chapter on rising consumption. Here, he suggests it would be easier to maintain our lifestyles if we switched to renewable power sources that didn’t destroy the planet. He also asks what we, the readers, would be willing to do. Could we ration goods? Can we adapt to new ways? Throwing the question to the room is a hallmark throughout Eyes Wide Open, and makes the book feel like a cozy class discussion, a collaboration instead of a lecture.

And by sparing us the hysteria that afflicts so many environmental works, Fleischman enables the reader to truly focus on the facts, and the spin behind the facts, and the forces behind the spin, which is a large part of this work. Fleischman seeks to expose the human behaviors, frailties and facilitators driving the destruction of our atmosphere, waterways and land.

“The book focuses on the human side of the issues because those are where the causes are,” Fleischman said in an interview with Green Right Now this week. “Science explains how CO2 causes ocean acidification, but you need history and politics and economics and psychology to understand why we’re putting all that CO2 in the atmosphere. That human side is also where the solutions lie, I think.”

Fleischman, a California-based author, has written dozens of books for children and young adults over the past 30 years. He’s a Newbery Medal winner (for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices), a National Book Award finalist (for Breakout) and was shortlisted for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Seeing a dearth of environmental books aimed at young adults, and also believing that climate change is the most important issue of our time, convinced Fleischman to write Eyes Wide Open.

His aim, he says, was to help young adults, or adults who want a basic education in environmental issues, think about these matters critically. He wanted to survey the crumbling landscape and thickening greenhouse gas cover, but also point to emerging solutions.

“I actually went through at one point and rewrote it,” he said. “I had read that if you just give people facts, but don’t give them some proposed action, they leave depressed and they’ll tune you out. And suddenly, I remembered that happening to me. I was in college and I took a class on the media, and it was one long procession of all the problems our mass media has, and two-thirds of the way through the class I stopped going. It was too overwhelming. So I didn’t want to do that to my readers.”

“And it’s (a list of problems) actually not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on. Yes, there are all these problems. That’s true. It is also true that people are working on them, and they’ve come up with all kinds of solutions. So that’s part of the picture too.”

Eyes Wide Open would be a great book for high school environmental classes or clubs, or for passing around from child to parent. Here’s hoping schools, with their tightly conscripted curricula, can make room for it. It would work well as a supplement for science classes (a break from the textbook!) but also for social studies or current events classes, because Fleischman so thoroughly fleshes out the economic and sociological forces eating away at our planetary well-being.

These issues may not be on the test, yet, but they’re looming larger every day in our lives.

  • Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines (Candlewick Press) is available starting Sept. 23, 2014.