Bill McKibben on ‘Eaarth’ Day

We have created a new planet. Not entirely new. It looks more or less like the one we were born into; the same physical laws operate it. But the changes that have already happened are large enough that if you were visiting our planet in a spaceship, this place would look really different from the outside than it did just decades ago “” call it “Eaarth.”

Bill McKibben co-founded This Wonk Room repost excerpts his new book,EAARTH: Making A Life in a Tough New World.” .

I wrote the preface to my new book EAARTH on a gorgeous spring afternoon in 2009, perched on the bank of a brook high along the spine of the Green Mountains, a mile or so from my home in the Vermont mountain town of Ripton. The creek burbles along, the picture of a placid mountain stream, but a few feet away there’s a scene of real violence a deep gash through the woods where a flood in the summer of 2008 ripped away many cubic feet of tree and rock and soil and drove it downstream through the center of the village. Before the afternoon was out, the only paved road into town had been demolished by the rushing water, a string of bridges lay in ruins, and the governor was trying to reach the area by helicopter.

Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote the first book for a general audience about global warming, which in those days we called the “greenhouse effect.” That book, The End of Nature, was mainly a philosophical argument. It was too early to see the practical effects of climate change but not too early to feel them; in the most widely excerpted passage of the book, I described walking down a different river, near my then-home sixty miles away, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Merely knowing that we’d begun to alter the climate meant that the water flowing in that creek had a different, lesser meaning. “Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence, the rain had become a subset of human activity,” I wrote. “The rain bore a brand; it was a steer, not a deer.”

Now, that sadness has turned into a sharper-edged fear. Walking along this river today, you don’t need to imagine a damned thing “” the evidence of destruction is all too obvious. Much more quickly than we would have guessed in the late 1980s, global warming has dramatically altered, among many other things, hydrological cycles. One of the key facts of the twenty-first century turns out to be that warm air holds more water vapor than cold: in arid areas this means increased evaporation and hence drought. And once that water is in the atmosphere, it will come down, which in moist areas like Vermont means increased deluge and flood.

In our Vermont town, in the summer of 2008, we had what may have been the two largest rainstorms in our history about six weeks apart. The second and worse storm, on the morning of August 6, dropped at least six inches of rain in three hours up on the steep slopes of the mountains. Those forests are mostly intact, with only light logging to disturb them but that was far too much water for the woods to absorb. One of my neighbors, Amy Sheldon, is a river researcher, and she was walking through the mountains with me one recent day, imagining the floods on that August morning. “You would have seen streams changing violently like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “A matter of minutes.” A year later the signs persisted: streambeds gouged down to bedrock, culverts obliterated, groves of trees laid to jackstraws. . . .

Global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways. And these changes are far, far more evident in the toughest parts of the globe, where climate change is already wrecking thousands of lives daily. In July 2009, Oxfam released an epic report, “Suffering the Science,” which concluded that even if we now adapted “the smartest possible curbs” on carbon emissions, “the prospects are very bleak for hundreds of millions of people, most of them among the world’s poorest.”

And so EAARTH is, by necessity, less philosophical than its predecessor. We need now to understand the world we’ve created, and consider urgently how to live in it. We can’t simply keep stacking boulders against the change that’s coming on every front; we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations. There’s nothing airy or speculative about this conversation; it’s got to be uncomfortable, staccato, direct.

Which doesn’t mean that the change we must make or the world on the other side will be without its comforts or beauties. Reality always comes with beauty, sometimes more than fantasy. But hope has to be real. It can’t be a hope that the scientists will turn out to be wrong, or that President Barack Obama can somehow fix everything. Obama can help but precisely to the degree he’s willing to embrace reality, to understand that we live on the world we live on, not the one we might wish for. Maturity is not the opposite of hope; it’s what makes hope possible.

From the Book EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Copyright (c) 2010 by Bill McKibben. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

15 Responses to Bill McKibben on ‘Eaarth’ Day

  1. It is not a new planet or even a very different planet when you compare it to the others in our solar system. It is the same old one. It has been hotter and wetter at times in the distant past before we came aboard. Continents move, mountains rise and fall, air composition changes, the earth’s flora and fauna change, and even the sun changes. That is the very nature of our planet
    But we are now hard at work destroying the ability of our planet to foster a diverse collection of living beings.The most important cause of this destruction is our population explosion. We are crowding out life on our planet through the destruction of living space for other species, through killing sea creatures for food for ourselves, through wanton and greedy hunting of large wild animals, and by producing and spreading poisons and pollution throughout the planet.
    Fortunately, we are slowing our population growth and are trying to reduce the various pollutants we so carelessly strew about. There is a long way to go in our efforts to limit our destruction on our planet earth, however.

  2. mike roddy says:

    Thanks, Bill, you continue to be an inspiration to all of us who have been paying attention.

    Salmon and steelhead runs are crashing in California and Oregon, due to a combination of habitat destruction (especially industrial logging) and warmer spawning streams. There is a narrow band of temperature that supports eggs and salmon fry, and stream ecosystems sometimes collapse very rapidly. In Southern Oregon, former moist conifer habitat is changing to oak savannah, another process occurring around the world. The combination of destructive human activity and warmer temperatures is the real deadly combination, since weakened and simplified ecosystems are less resilient.

    The important danger signs are here already. We need a lot more people with your passion and ability to communicate.

  3. Chris Dudley says:

    Nuclear weapons took the salt out of war. Already, trench warfare had made valor an accident of survival of shell shock. But fighting under the cover of such powerful weapons made the crucialness of the fight whither. We can still create honor, valor and distinction among soldiers but it no longer springs up naturally from the dust of the battlefield. And, we can no longer say “in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Because we have torn up the very nature of the battlefield.

    Perhaps the outcome will be that war will be abolished.

    Bill identifies a similar change in nature itself. By taking control of the climate, we are removing the sacredness from nature. This deserves contemplation.

  4. Leif says:

    Good grief Chris D. We removed any “sacredness of nature” the day man made his first fire. Where is your contemplation when you get cancer? Build a home where other life forms already inhabit? Dump your S**T in rivers, the very life blood of NATURE.

    So yes, contemplation is deserved and I suggest that you get right on it.

  5. Joe and I are cousins; I’ve known him since we were kids. Bill and I went to high school together and remain friends.

    Bill and Joe are very different in style and approach. Bill is spiritual, Protestant, Harvard, rural. He is an essayist and moral crusader who loves Nature (capital N). Joe is secular, Jewish, MIT, urban. He is a scientist and policy guy who, as he says (only half-jokingly), thinks love of nature is misdirected and unrequited.

    Yet Bill and Joe agree on the facts. They recognize the immediate, dire threat of climate change–how we are already in a disastrous situation and are facing a catastrophic one. They are fundamentally agreed on what has to be done, and that it has to be done NOW. I’m glad their books came out at the same time. Together, they will spread their urgent, critical message to a wide, diverse audience and inspire many to action.

  6. Dave E says:

    Philip Eisner (#1)–right on. My only addition would be that we could be more active in pursuing a stable population level–hopefully at a level that would eventually be substantially below current levels, but without the major disruptions (die offs) that will occur if we let nature do it for us.

  7. Leif says:

    When looking at population decreases it is important to note the actions that produce the most bang for the buck. Ready access to birth control has proven cost effective as well as universal health care and education, especially for woman but even us men can benefit.

    There is however one area that I feel is universally overlooked and that is the segment of the population that has a carbon stomp of a thousand to one, or more, per third world person. You know that there are many millions of these folks out there. Getting even a million of these folks to have a sustainable carbon footprint would be equivalent to erasing one BILLION folks off the population rolls.

  8. Wit's End says:

    Dean Grodzins, thank you for neatly crystallizing the divergence between the “environmentalist” approach and the “scientific”, CO2-centric viewpoint, as exemplified by these two authors. To me, it is a distinction without a difference, but it appears to have real impacts of policy strategies.

    Right now as I write I am riding over the Bay Bridge from Annapolis, on the way home to New Jersey after a rally for Earth Day in front of the White House yesterday. (And dinner with Joe Romm and founding members of the Romm’n’Legions, thank you JR for spending time with us and autographing my copy of Straight Up!)

    This bridge is so huge. It is a symbol of how much humans can disrupt and alter the landscape and ecosystem, and simultaneously an impressive reminder what wonders of engineering people are capable of constructing.

    One of the convictions that was reinforced in all the discussions yesterday amongst climate activists was, if we are to alter this path to disaster we currently follow, it is really essential for all the thousands of groups, organizations, foundations, and individuals to get together and demand action, with one, united voice.

  9. Michael Tucker says:

    I think discussion of population control is not very popular at this time among environmental types. It may be a holdover reaction to the alleged failure of Paul Ehrlich’s prediction from 1968. However population watchers are still around and I have heard two very interesting comments lately. I heard Pat Buchanan lament that some nations are “dying” due low birth rates. He mentioned Japan and he also mentioned the US. I think Japan’s population is getting older but I do not think that nation is dying. For the US he is completely wrong unless he is speaking about the white population (and I think that was the case). This is Buchanan so I expect mistakes and prejudice, but all the others around the table on Morning Joe simply nodded in agreement with him; no challenge.

    I thought everyone understood the seriousness of the massive population expansion currently underway and expected to continue through about 2050 (possibly beyond). I thought wrong. The second comment was made by an unknown source (didn’t catch his name) who is predicting that birth rates are coming down in many African nations. He said that because India is also lowering its birth rates we may stabilize population at about 8 billion people by 2040. He sounded very happy at the prospect…I think 8 billion is still unsustainable.

    We need more discussion about this serious issue. We are at about 6 billion now and we are expected to add 3 billion more by 2050! 3 billion!!! Total world population in 1950 was only 2.5 billion. Some have the attitude that nothing can be done. Some, like those on Morning Joe, can be persuaded that population is actually going down.

    Recent studies point to education of women as a key component in reducing birth rates and population. Not birth control education but EDUCATION! An educated and employable female will postpone having children and opt for fewer children when she is ready to have a family. Solutions like this will help but, lets be clear, adding billions to the world will only add billions to the ranks of the starving and desperate masses!

  10. climate undergrad says:

    My conservative friend thinks (actually he’s convinced) that all 9 billion people will be using iphones in 2050.

    1 billion don’t have access to clean water now, the resources are finite and access is decreasing.

    Is there an app for that?

  11. Chris Dudley says:

    Leif #4,

    I think you miss Bill’s point. Changing the climate is different from your examples.

  12. Leif says:

    It is only different if you assume that what we are currently doing is not changing the climate. A position that is not supported by an honest and unbiased look at the data.

  13. Ryan T says:

    No population program would make much near-term difference in addressing threats to a relatively stable holocene world. And a near-term effect is part of what we need, given inertia and feedbacks in the system. Even the existing billions represent a future impact as they expect to upgrade their lives. If the future is to look brighter, we will need efficiencies and renewables in a big way, and maybe an alternative attitude toward mindless, rampant consumerism.

  14. paulm says:

    Moses:Hansen; John:Gore; Jesus:Bill;