Monday, June 23, 2014


Nathaniel Rich has a fine sense of the apocalyptic absurd--its comical as well as its dark side.  Odds Against Tomorrow sets us in the not-so-distant future, in a world where the threat of global climate change has become all too real.  His hero, Mitchell Zukor, is a professional worrier, a paranoid obsessive whose mathematical genius multiplies every possible gloomy scenario to its extreme.  His counterpoint is his idealized love interest, one Elsa Brunner, a young woman with a heart condition that threatens to take her life at any moment, but who dares to challenge this danger by founding a remote commune far from the reach of medical attention.  The risk she takes is, for Mitchell, at once exemplary and incomprehensible...

From college, our fear-driven hero drifts with all the innocence of a Candide--I thought a lot about Voltaire's celebrated literary joust with philosophical optimism as I read this book--into the field of corporate risk management, where he soon discovers that vast profits are to be made from the exploitation of fear, and where he is valued precisely for his skill in making dire projections of disasters to come--including the one that broods over the first part of the story and comes to fruition in the second.  I won't spoil it for others who read the book, but suffice it to say that Rich's descriptions of the cataclysmic results of the neglected signs of climate change are more powerfully persuasive than most of the disaster movies with which we entertain ourselves each summer.  I can't help but mention that the conclusion to all this mayhem reminds me, once again, of Voltaire's final injunction in Candide: il faut cultiver son jardin--we must cultivate our garden; or, more broadly, we need to take care of our own affairs.

In this gripping, post-Hurricane Sandy parable for our times, Rich confronts us with the truly frightening prospect of what awaits us in consequence of our failure to address the issue of climate change.  And yet his touch is light, essentially comedic.  His nightmare scenario makes a mockery our gullibility, our ovine submission to the profit-motivated will of powerful corporate interests, our abject refusal to move beyond denial into action.  At the same time, his Mitchell is an Everyman--an Every American, perhaps--a quasi-innocent duped by the dual forces of his own greed and fear into actions that inevitably plunge his world into the disaster that awaits it.

"Odds Against Tomorrow" is an excellent, entertaining romp through much that ails our present-day America.

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