Cynthia Barnett’s third book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, is markedly different from her first two on water issues. Her personal website is still titled “Cynthia Barnett, Journalist” but in this book she is venturing beyond journalism into new lyrical and personal territory.
The book touches affectionately on all things precipitation but it seems to me that the true heart of Rain is her concern that we are “approaching a climate catastrophe faster than we realize.” She argues, though that the “history of rain offers hope that our political system is capable of overcoming such selfish interests and our divisions to work together on climate.” (Chapter 12)
Barnett draws on diverse scientific, historical, cultural, and literary rainy connections. She starts the story of rain way, way back:
As even-tempered as it grew up to be, Earth started off 4.6 billion years ago as a red-faced and hellish infant. The universe had been unfolding for about 10 billion years. A new star, the sun, had just been born. Its afterbirth—cold gas and dust and heavier minerals and flaming rocks—was flying about, beginning to orbit…..About half a billion years after it started, the blitzkrieg began to wind down. As the last of the flaming chunks fell to the surface or hurtled away, the planet finally had a chance to cool. The water vapor could condense. At long last, it began to rain. (Prologue)
After touching on many other rainy subjects, from Thomas Jefferson’s meteorological record-keeping, to 19th century American attempts at rain-making, to a trip to the Hoh rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula, we reach the penultimate chapter, “And the Forecast Calls for Change.” That change is the climate of the entire planet. Rain is not focused on specific policy recommendations. Here, however, Barnett does quote meteorologist Eric Holthaus, “If anything is to change, it will have to come from individuals taking ownership of the problem themselves.”
The final chapter of Rain recounts a trip to “the rainiest place on Earth, Cherrapunji.” The monsoon is missing during her visit and local scientists fear that rainfall there is changing permanently along with the rest of the Earth. Shouldn’t that matter? If we care enough about rain, we might also realize that the giant fossil fuel experiment now underway needs to be terminated. Otherwise, rain and much else we love will be harmed irreparably.