Review of Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World by Bill Nye
Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World
by Bill Nye
It turns out I like Bill Nye’s writing a lot better when he is marshalling arguments in favour of science rather than sharing his life story. Although there is a lot of personal perspective in Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, particularly towards the end, this book falls into the former category. Much like its companion Undeniable, this is a polemic. Whereas that book was about evolution, this book is about climate change. Yeah, Bill Nye isn’t fucking around.
This book offers a primer on climate change but is more about stopping the seemingly-unstoppable effects of climate change. Nye doesn’t mix words, and he levels with us about how challenging this will be (and how we are making it more challenging every minute that we continue to burn fossil fuels). However, this book is ultimately optimistic and hopeful—the kind of attitude I adored about Bill Nye the Science Guy and just what I want to read about this subject. Nye acknowledges that people who accept the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real and threatening us often react with a kind of nihilism. Hence, although he devotes some energy to laying out the basic mechanisms of climate change in the hopes of perhaps explaining it to the curious or the deniers who are on the fence, this book isn’t really here to persuade you climate change is real. Instead, Nye hopes to persuade you that climate change is something we can stop still.
This book expects what I would call a basic, high school level understanding of science, particularly chemistry but a little bit of physics too. You don’t need to have taken a specific chemistry course—some of the language might get a little technical, but you can skim over that without losing what Nye is saying. If you’re not sure what molecules are, if you aren’t up on the difference between carbon, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, this book might be more difficult. Nye’s audience is definitely adults (and teens) and not kids here, which is fine! I hope this is helpful if you’re considering this as a gift for someone but want to know the difficulty level.
With 35 chapters across 300 pages, another point in favour of this book’s readability is its pacing. Each chapter is short with a clear transition into the next. You could easily pick this up and read a chapter, or two, during a break. You can just as easily read a hundred pages in one sitting if you’re feeling sciencey one afternoon. Overall, this book is easily digestible and that’s something I very much appreciate in a science book like this.
So the first 6 chapters are, as mentioned, the basics of climate change with a focus on the physical mechanisms that actual cause warming (and how humans fit into that mix). Then we get into the actual fighting of climate change. First Nye explains some truly out there ideas. I like how he approaches this: he communicates his level of scepticism to us, making it clear that most of these ideas are (at least right now) unworkable or undesirable. These include things like gigantic orbital sunshades. Nye points out that it’s possible we can make breakthroughs that will make some of these ideas feasible. He does this when talking about fusion energy too. In this way, he keeps us grounded while reminding us that our ability to innovate with science is one of the most amazing things about our civilization, and it is going to be key to averting climate disasters.
The bulk of the book focuses on energy: how we generate it, how we store it, and how we use it. He discusses fossil fuels versus renewables and takes you through all the usual explanations of solar, wind, tidal, etc. (Interesting, geothermal energy is omitted—I don’t remember any mention of it in the book, nor is it present in the index.) Again, Nye is realistic with us but also points out the great strides we have made, for example in improving photovoltaic cells (solar panels). Moreover, I learned a lot I didn’t know about things like how rechargeable batteries work!
The final chapters get more personal. Nye chronicles how he has improved his home in southern California. Going to be honest here: I enjoyed and also disliked this portion, and the same feeling triggered this ambivalence. On the one hand, Nye was exciting me, as a homeowner, about all the good things I can do to improve my house’s efficiency. On the other hand, as a single woman living in a house from 1915 on a teacher’s salary, I lament the cost of such upgrading. I am not an engineer like Nye; I don’t have the technical skills to cut holes in my garage like he does or the desire to put a stand thermometer in front of my (non-existent) fireplace to see how much heat it’s throwing off after adding a reflector. I admire Nye’s dedication to walking the walk, and honestly, this book has got me thinking about what improvements I could afford and swing in the near-term (say, 5 years). But it also made me feel a little bad.
That being said, I want to commend Nye for acknowledging that most climate change is not caused by individual decisions. He does remind us towards the end that it can be unwise to throw up our hands and blame giant corporations (or the government) for their inaction on climate change. This, he thinks, is tantamount to defeatism. However, it’s clear from his writing that Nye is not simply advocating for individual solutions. Throughout the book, he is adamant that change must happen on multiple levels of our society, from electricity generation and distribution to urban planning to education. It isn’t quite radical in tone, but it is radical in vision, and I appreciate that.
As I mentioned in my review of Everything All At Once, Nye has lost some of his lustre from childhood. I didn’t enjoy his Netflix show. Nevertheless, I enjoyed and learned from this book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about climate change and how we can stop it. Now, it was published in 2015, so some things have changed (mostly for the worse, sadly), but I still believe this book is useful and relevant in 2021 and likely beyond.