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A Review of Atlantic Council and Guggenheim Fellow and Nice Guy Jeff Goodell’s "The Heat Will Kill You First"
Jeff Goodell, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2023).
In the current conjuncture, it is easier to imagine and end to the world than to imagine an end to capitalism.
- Frederic Jameson, Seeds of Time, 1994
One of the rules of lucrative success in American “public intellectual” circles is that you must avoid full frontal engagement with the reigning socioeconomic and political order that is actively destroying life on Earth at a lethally escalating pace: capitalism-imperialism.
Take the bestselling author and Atlantic Council and Guggenheim Fellow Jeff Goodell’s latest elegant and highly personable book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. What better time to dive into this highly readable volume, as I did, during the summer of 2023, when one heat record after another was broken, with killer wildfires, storms, floods, and heat waves naturally accompanying the historic hotness?
To say that the topic is relevant is an understatement. Global warming is arguably the biggest issue of our any time. Nothing else humans ought to care about is going to matter much if it isn’t reigned in. There’s no social justice, democracy, revolution, exploration, beauty, wonder, music, poetry, ballet, basketball, philosophy, historiography, painting, science, and love on a melted planet.
Goodell is a first-rate storyteller who excels at making much of the climate mess we’re in comprehensible to people without earth science backgrounds. Not that the science behind our dangerously warming planet is complicated. It isn’t and it brings a very simple message: start keeping fossil fuels in the ground today and global temperature will cease its ever more deadly upward drift tomorrow; wait a half century to do that and much of the world will be uninhabitable:
“So far, thanks to 250 years of hell-bent fuel consumption, which has filled the world with heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2), global temperatures have risen by 2.2 degrees since the preindustrial era and are on track to warm by 6 degrees or more before the end of the century. The more oil, gas, and coal we burn, the hotter it will get…for the last three million years or so, while humans evolved, the climate has been relatively stable…enough that our ancestors could migrate, adapt, and thrive…But those days may be over. The last time the Earth was hotter than it is today was at least 125,000 years ago, long before anything that resembled human civilization appeared. Since 1970, the Earth’s temperature has spiked faster than in any comparable forty-year period…The eight years between 2015 and 2022 were the hottest on record…Extreme heat is remaking our planet into one in which large swaths may become inhospitable to human life…”
The problem is that decent human life and civilization cannot co-exist with this runaway planet cooking:
“Life on Earth is like a finely calibrated machine, one that has been built by evolution to work very well within its design parameters. Heat breaks that machine in a fundamental way, disrupting how cells function, how proteins unfold, how molecules move…yes, we are remarkable creatures with a tremendous capacity to adapt and adjust to a rapidly changing world. But extreme heat is a force beyond anything we have reckoned with before. It may be a human creation, but it is godlike in its power and prophecy. Because all living things share one simple fate: if the temperature they’re used to – what scientists sometimes call their Goldilocks Zone – rises too far, too fast, they die” (Goodell, The Heat Will Kill You First, p. 20),
The devastating “godlike” history and power of heat and the question of what to do about heat’s current “human-created” attack on humanity’s “Goldilocks Zone” – the temperature zone within which decent human life and civilization can exit – is the subject running through each of Goodell’s expertly crafted chapters. Goodell tells the “cautionary tale” of a young Californian family that perished during a normally modest hike in August of 2021 after two fit, young, and middle-class parents underestimated the killing power of heat (Chapter 1). He relates how human evolution relied on centuries of adaptation to planetary heat conditions that are now being transformed by “a world that is changing…far too fast for evolutionary selection to keep up” (Chapter 2).
He explores lethal “heat islands” – urban areas and shantytowns plagued by deadly extreme heat thanks to the removal of tree cover, over-paving, concentrated poverty, isolation, poor water management (Chapter 3). The problem is not socially neutral: “As cities grow and the heat rises,” Goodell notes, “the future of Phoenix and Chennai [in India] and many cities like them, is a kind of temperature apartheid, where some people chill in a bubble of cool and others simmer in debilitating heat. This is not how to build a just, equitable, or peaceful world” (p.80).
Goodell tells how the climate crisis is fueling “life on the run” – a mass movement of species, including humans, to “higher latitudes or higher elevations” (chapter 4). He learned from the group No More Deaths that an estimated 9000 people trying to migrate north have so far died from dehydration and heat exhaustion in “the Devil’s Highway” – a stretch of desert in Arizona. “Here,” Goodell writes, “heat is not so much an engine of migration as a migration barrier, a thermal wall that blocks or kills anything that attempts to cross it, just as warm water in a river is a migration barrier for spawning salmon in the Pacific Northwest” (p. 94).
In his fifth chapter, Goodell dives into the history of climate science and the new discipline of “extreme event attribution,” which connects climate change to incidents like the severe heat waves that killed 70,000 in Europe in 2003, more than 61,000 in Europe in 2022, 50,000 in Russia in 2010, and more than 1000 people in the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2021. Goodell ominously notes that scientists have no idea how much hotter the planet can get in coming years and suggests that future heat waves will bring “the question of who burned the fossil fuel” that is killing people (via the Greenhouse Effect’s creation of extreme weather events) into courts of law. This could lead, a Dutch climatologist told him, to giant settlements in which “a company like ExxonMobil is held responsible for the deaths in an extreme heat wave” (p.121).
Goodell skillfully tackles global heating’s devastating impact on agricultural productivity (chapter 6), ocean life (chapter 7), and outdoor workers (chapter 8). He shows how global warming threatens to collapse Western Antarctica (chapter 9), leading to the flooding of major cities, and how it deepens our susceptibility to pandemics by increasing our exposure to bat-, mosquito- and other animal-born pathogens (chapter 10).
In his excellent eleventh chapter, Goodell tells the story of how the air-conditioning industry arose to create the US American Sunbelt and transform humanity’s relationship to heat in lethal, disparate, and viciously circular ways. “Globally,” Goodell notes, “air conditioning accounts for nearly 20 percent of the total electricity in buildings…The hotter the planet gets, the more air-conditioning feels necessary…And as long as some portion of that electricity is generated by fossil fuels, that means more greenhouse gas pollution – which further heats up the climate.” To make matters worse, air-conditioning sucks heat out of building interiors and blows it out into the street, making it “not a cooling technology” but rather “a tool for heat redistribution” (p. 231).
Goodell relates two other problems with the now globally ubiquitous technology of “cheap cold air”: the danger of deadly electricity blackouts “when everyone cranks up their air conditioners” and the insidious way in which AC becomes “a technology of forgetting” by erasing long accumulated knowledge on how to build structures in ways that grasp “the importance of shade, airflow insulation” and “light colors” for reducing human heat exposure (p. 233). “The rise of air-conditioning,” Goodell notes, “accelerated the construction of sealed boxes, where the building’s only airflow is through the filtered ducts of the air-conditioning unit.” Those sealed boxes easily become death traps during blackouts and for people who can’t pay their air conditioning bills.
Goodell completes his elegant narrative with reflections on: the movement to give heat waves names (like hurricanes) to overcome the problem of extreme heat’s invisibility (chapter 12); efforts to build cooler and greener cities with urban foresting, roof gardening, structural retrofitting and the like (chapter 13); the disappearance of Arctic ice and efforts to re-cool the climate through geo-engineering, including carbon capture and “solar radiation management” (chapter 14); the uncertain fate of humanity amidst an unfolding catastrophe that can only worsen as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels (Epilogue).
Goodell’s book merits close reading with appreciation for Goodell’s engaging and highly readable presentation of key conflicts between (a) humanity and life’s evolutionary requirements and (b) the all-too “invisible” and thereby more lethal, fossil-fueled cooking of the Earth.
Still, The Heat Will Kill You First is plagued by some serious flaws. It lacks historical specificity on the causes of the unfolding and accelerating catastrophe, attributing it to fossil fuel use in general (which dates from the early industrial revolution in the West) when –- as the Canadian Marxist and eco-socialist Ian Angus has shown --- its real emergence came after the spectacular increase in fossil-fueled world capitalist economic activity that took place between 1945 and the 1970s.
Goodell omits the problem of the modern mass livestock industry, a major source of potent, carbon-intensive methane release.
His book lacks a single index reference to the problem of melting permafrost (if there is a textual reference, I have missed or forgotten it).
The role of the internal combustion engine and the construction of whole ways of life around automobile and truck transportation and the need for green public transportation seems largely missing in Goodell’s diagnosis.
But the biggest and core problem with The Heat Will Kill You First is that the author is just too damn bourgeois. I’m not talking about his obviously comfortable socioeconomic and professional class status, which is evident from his personal stories of traveling to Antarctica (see chapter 9) and the northern Arctic (see chapter 14) and hobnobbing with elite scientists, corporate foundation officers, and financiers. I am referring rather to his world view, his related touchy-feely super nice guy “we’re all in this together” tone, and his related failure to confront the real taproot of this little problem that I call “the greatest crime in history – turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber.” That taproot, as I have argued (with no special claim to originality) here and elsewhere again and again, is capitalism, a word that you will not find in Goodell’s index. Yes, capitalism, the system of class rule and constant inter-firm and inter-imperial competition that is hopelessly addicted to and invested in fossil fuels to power its profit-driven reliance on constant expansion, commodification, and accumulation. It’s an anarchic global economic and world state system devoid of any real capacity to sustainably re-orient social relations and humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.
Let’s dig into a key paragraph from Goodell’s epilogue:
“The heat that propels us out of our Goldilocks Zone will not be accidental heat, the equivalent of an asteroid slamming into Earth. It will be deliberate heat. Premeditated heat. We plead guilty to first-degree heat, Your Honor. We have known for more than a century about the climate consequences of burning fossil fuels. And it wasn’t just the scientists who knew. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson was warned, as have many presidents after him. By 1977, Exxon (now ExxonMobil) not only knew that decades of burning fossil fuels would heat up the atmosphere, but developed in-house climate models that projected those changes with remarkable accuracy. Despite that knowledge, we have not only continued burning fossil fuels, we have continued burning them with reckless abandon. In a sense, you could say we have built a heat-fueled rocketship that is taking us, for better or worse, on a trip beyond the Goldilocks Zone.”
There are five things wrong with this passage. First, how does Goodell (a) earlier – in chapter 5 as we have seen – bring up the question of ExxonMobil’s potential criminal/ civil liability for weather damage resulting from the climate change produced by the burning of fossil fuels and (b) here in this passage mention that ExxonMobil scientifically predicted the contemporary catastrophic global warming that it helped create without (c) adding that ExxonMobil suppressed their own science and joined with other leading fossil capitalist firms to undertake and fund a powerful and effective “public relations,” that is propaganda, campaign to fuel mass skepticism about the warnings of climate scientists?! Hello? How F’ing criminal was that?! (An indispensable source here is Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s brilliant book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change).
Second, what’s with “for better or worse”? In what world could “a trip beyond the Goldilocks Zone” – beyond the realm of thermal fitness for decent human life – be anything like “better” and any other than “worse”?!
Third, who exactly is this “we” that has “known for more than a century about the climate consequences of burning fossil fuels?” Not humanity as such, just a relatively small section of the species with access to scientific knowledge and understanding, including vested fossil fuel interests and others who have criminally suppressed this knowledge and sold the public eco-cidal lies about climate change!
Fourth, who exactly is this “we” that should “plead guilty” to reckless “first degree” and “premeditated” global cooking? Not humanity as such, but rather fossil fuel companies and investors and the vast swath of related capitalist interests tied in with fossil fuels. As the Marxist ecologist Jason W. Moore points out, it’s not really anthropogenic climate change, it’s capitalogenic climate change. Humanity per se didn’t set up the modern coal, gas, oil, livestock, automotive and airline industries or the giant global militaries (with the US far in the lead) and war industries that rely heavily on fossil fuels. Capitalists and imperialists did that while most of humanity has struggled to keep its head above water and make a living in the world capitalist rat race.
Fifth, what’s all this (here and in chapter 5) about court cases and “pleading guilty” and so on, anyway? We can’t sue and/or prosecute our way out of the eco-exterminist capitalist mode of production (to use Karl Marx’s key phrase) and the political and ideological superstructure conditioned by and subservient to that mode of production.
Goodell’s Epilogue includes a curious passage:
“Maybe twenty thousand people dying in a [future] sudden heat wave in St. Louis or New Delhi will spark a revolution. I met people while researching this book who believe that the political and economic systems that go with them are unsalvageable. You might be able to retrofit the buildings of Paris, they argue, but you can’t retrofit the politics of Paris – or anywhere else, for that matter. The solution is to burn it all down and start over. So the sooner we get on with that, the better.”
Well, here’s a news flash : “the systems” are the evil twins of capitalism and imperialism – or, if you prefer (as I do), the system is capitalism-imperialism and yes it must be overthrown and radically replaced with an ecologically sane revolutionary socialist mode of production where the common good and not private profit is the higher power. That is radical transformation and levelling up to historical-material sanity, not “burn[ing] it all down and start[ing] over.”
In light of the remarkable, dead-on research and writing on and against capitalogenic climate change (and capitalogenic ecological ruin more broadly) produced by numerous anti-capitalist eco-socialist thinkers like John Bellamy Foster (the author most recently of Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution), Andreas Malm (the author of Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, and How to Blow Up a Pipeline), Ian Angus (author of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System), Herve Kempf (the longtime environmental editor of Le Monde and author of The Rich Are Destroying the Earth), Joel Kovel (author of The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?), and Jason W. Moore (editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? and author of Capitalism in the Web of Life: Capitalism and the Accumulation of Capital) and climate progressives like Naomi Klein – the Canadian social democrat who wrote a book titled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate – among many others, it is depressing to see Goodell write a highly informed book on climate change without having the word capitalism in his index or in his text.
Goodell’s intended audience, clearly, is that section of humanity with power and privilege within those leading capitalist-imperialist states – de facto capitalist class dictatorships — that he mistakenly calls “rich democracies like the US” (p. 313). That explains both his failure to mention by name radical anti-capitalist social and natural scientists, authors, and texts and his largely positive references to various top-down efforts at tinkering within the existing class rule order.
A revealing comment that most readers would likely miss comes in Goodell’s acknowledgements section, where he refers to Kathy Baughman McLeod as “a climate warrior like no other” (p.320). Seriously? Ms. Baughman McLeod is a former Bank of America officer and Nature Conservancy director, and onetime director of the ruling class Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (“Arsht-Rock”). She has used her elite posts to advocate for the official naming of heat waves (to increase their public visibility) and to “test…an innovative micro-insurance program that compensates women in the Global South for lost income during extreme heat events” (Goodell, The Heat Will Kill You First, pp. 249-59). Talk about small-scale neoliberal fiddling on the deck of a ship being sunk by capital! 
So Goodell did not include among his many interview subjects the remarkable young and actual climate warrior Greta Thunberg, who has in recent years quite properly called for the end to the capitalist system. He did not make it up to North Dakota to interview the Indigenous leaders of the heroic Standing Rock struggle against the eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline in 2015 and 2016.
A “climate warrior like no other”? Apparently Goodell did not visit the federal women’s prison in Waseca, Minnesota, where the Des Moines Catholic Worker Jessica Reznicek is serving eight years on absurd “terrorism” charges for highly defensible acts of equipment sabotage she committed in a noble attempt to block construction of the “long black snake” (the DAPL)
Full disclosure: I participated in the Iowa campaign against the DAPL and met Ms. Reznicek, an actual climate warrior like few others, on at least two occasions.
Goodell creepily writes this in a footnote on page 249 of The Heat Will Kill You First: “Full disclosure: I am a senior fellow at Arsht-Rock. The fellowship is unpaid, but I do sometimes indulge in a free glass of wine at Arsht-Rock’s annual meetings.”
Goodell is hanging out with the wrong people and barking up the wrong tree if he’s serious about helping save livable ecology. As the brilliant Frantz Fanon admirer Andreas Malm writes in his forthcoming book Fighting in a World on Fire:
“To say that climate change warning signals have been ignored by the ruling classes would be an understatement. If these classes every had any sense, they have lost it all by now. They are not angered by the smell of burning trees. They do not worry at the sight of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of the approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered crops; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to eat. To appeal to their reason and common sense would be pointless. Their commitment to the endless accumulation of wealth, power, and possessions wins out every time. After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are inherently incapable of responding to the climate catastrophe in any other way but by speeding it along. Of their own accord, propelled by their inner drive, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end – their end and ours” (Malm, Fighting in a World on Fire, uncorrected page proofs, pp. 9-10).
Compare Malm’s shining, radical, and properly anti-class-collaborationist prose with Goodell’s nicey-nice final words at the end of The Heat Will Kill You First: “For me, the big surprise in writing this book has been discovering how easily and quickly heat can kill you, but what a powerful reminder it is of how deeply connected we are to one another and to all living things. Wherever we may be headed, we are all on this journey together.”
Excuse me, but F that. Sorry, but no, we are NOT all on this journey to (on the current trajectory) hot climatological Hell together! Malm’s “ruling classes” are leading us towards extinction, and they are doing so from gated enclaves and guarded suites and towers of wealth, power, parasitism, and privilege, where profits trump a livable planet “every time.”
My only difference with Malm’s passage here is that the problem isn’t (as he no doubt knows) the ruling classes themselves but rather the accumulation- and fossil fuel-addicted system of capitalism-imperialism those ruling classes stand atop. I am reminded here of Karl Marx’s line in his preface to the first German edition of Capital (1867): “To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word, I paint the capitalist and landlord in no sense coleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only so far as they are the personifications….[and] embodiments of particular class relations and class interests. My standpoint…can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.”
This aside, young Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ 1848 words seem more prophetic everyday as that system helps (along with the related and rising threat of nuclear war) push the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock closer to Midnight than it’s ever been: it’s either “the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or the “common ruin” of all.
“This,” Goodell writes, “is not how to build a just, equitable, or peaceful world.” No shit, brother. “This” is called capitalism-imperialism, a system strongly aligned precisely against justice, equity, sustainability, sanity, and peace. We need to rise-up and radically transcend and replace that death trip of a system with life-saving/-giving revolutionary socialism if we want to preserve chances for a decent future.
“Easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism in the current conjuncture”? Time to change the conjuncture!
+1. From Ms. Baughman McLeod’s LinkedIn page:
“I am a high-energy leader in the business of building innovative, risk-informed strategies for financing mechanisms and smart policy solutions for climate change and its many impacts on people, communities and economies. Working on climate and related, urgent and complex issues, requires a passion for, and sensitivity to, local cultures. I leverage my passion for people to build and lead teams of policy specialists, humanitarians, marketing and technology experts, and financiers across the world.
Expertise: Broad and deep expertise in global climate change, field-level, national, and global mitigation, adaptation and resilience science, innovative finance, policy, risk and insurance, corporate governance and sustainability & client and stakeholder engagement, public finance, infrastructure, and private investment, public affairs and communications.
Core Competencies: Strategy/Innovation/Climate Change Risk & Opportunity/ESG Policy, Risk & Investing/Fundraising/Corporate Partnerships/Finance/Team Building & Development/Policy Development/Crisis Management/Media Relations/Operations Management/P&L/International Growth & Development/Regulatory Frameworks/Risk Management/Advocacy & Campaigns/Stakeholder Engagement/Applied Science…”