You had to wonder when it would happen. That moment when someone would take us from talk of how to prevent climate change to acknowledging that it was here already, here to stay, and that it had — and would continue — to irrevocably foreclose on many of the opportunities humanity has taken for granted for millennia.
Figures it would be Bill McKibben. His first book, The End of Nature was one of the earliest to introduce global warming into popular culture. His latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Hot New Planet, lays out our grim new reality relentlessly (excerpt here). Yet it is not, fundamentally, a pessimistic book.
McKibben’s premise, that we’re already on a new and different planet just as surely as if we’d boarded a spaceship en masse and arrived at a new world, is presented convincingly.
This new world is less friendly, less accommodating, less commodious, just when we needed the old Earth to be more benign.
If you are a regular reader of Climateprogress, you already know we’re now inhabiting an alien place but McKibben’s book is still a must read.
For one thing, he has a knack for expressing complex scientific issues in ways that are accessible to the general public, often in sound bites, and in the age of Twitter this is increasingly the lingua franca of social discourse and cultural exchange – for good or ill.
Here are a few gems:
We’re running Genesis backward, decreating.
Decreating. My spell check wants to reject that word, yet it is too apt to discard. It is precisely what we’re engaged in.
Or take this example of ultimate irony McKibben uses with great skill to drive home how lemming-like our behavior has been on our trip to Planet Eaarth. It appeared in Australian papers back in June of 2009:
New construction plans for the World’s largest coal export facility had been quietly altered to raise the structure two or three meters for fear of rising sea levels.
And yes, it’s true that lemmings don’t actually commit mass suicide, but some myths are too valuable to discard – besides, it appears that people do.
In describing how we’ve completely overshot any hope of preserving the old Earth, McKibben almost makes this stuff funny:
We have, in short, goosed our economy with one jolt of Viagra after another, anything to avoid facing the fact that our reproductive days were passed, and hence constant and unrelenting thrust was no longer so necessary. (I suspect global warming is the planetary equivalent of the dread “erection lasting more than four hours” that we’re warned about “¦)
Or take this passage, where he skillfully lampoons the whole consumer excess that brought us to Eaarth when he notes the effect of $4.00 a gallon gas:
Suddenly, in fact, you felt a little less confident that you were an Explorer, a Navigator, a Forrester, a Mountaineer, a Scout, a Tracker, a Trooper, a Wrangler, a Pathfinder, a Trailblazer. You all of a sudden were in Kansas or maybe in New Rochelle – not Durango, or Tahoe, or Denali, or the Yukon. Discovery and Escape and Excursion suddenly seemed less important than the buzz-killing fact that it took a hundred bucks to fill the tank.
Yes, he actually entertains us while mapping out our collective trip to perdition. No mean feat.
He holds out hope for a world that is richer in some ways than the one we left behind. A world where community matters, where the scale is manageable, and where connections between people and the land are stronger, if less global. A world, McKibben points out, that is not like Freidman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded. The time when we could grow green and maintain and expand our current globalized consumer economy came and went, according to McKibben. On the less commodious Eaarth, the investments to do so are simply too staggering; the paucity of natural capital upon which to do it, too scant; and the share of capital spent just coping with what we’ve wrought, too high.
To a lot of global warming luminaries his message will feel like a cold mackerel slapped across their collective cheek. Growth is civilization’s drug of choice, and like any addict, we will fight with tooth and claw to keep partaking of it.
But McKibben makes his case convincingly. He invokes the much maligned Limits to Growth and the Club of Rome (which, it turns out wasn’t wrong in its prognostications, merely off by a couple of decades), Jared Diamond’s Collapse and the relentless litany of facts that describe the detritus of the old Earth that is even now washing up on our shores.
But McKibben doesn’t advocate obsessing on our collapse – which he says gives us only two choices: “Either you’ve got your fingers stuck firmly in your ears or you’re down in the basement oiling your guns” – rather he calls on us “”¦ to choose, instead, to manage our descent.” To “”¦ aim for a relatively graceful decline” (emphasis is McKibben’s).
While McKibben is standing on firm ground for most of Eaarth, he does make one misstep. In recommending a world that is more local — in which provision of food, energy, raw materials and goods are distributed, not centralized — McKibben maintains that political power must be similarly dispersed. He suggests that our institutions should be scaled to our technologies. Yet managing a “graceful decline” or even a steady state economy will be the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever taken, and it is one we must take together. To presume that the actions of thousands of small entities can effect such a change — or that we can count on every one of them to do it — is to ignore most of human history. Any strategy that invests most of the responsibility for change to a bunch of individual and essentially autonomous entities runs smack into Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons.
If humanity is to make a transition as profound as McKibben says we must, then we need even stronger institutions at both the national and international level.
The world, including many who have been tireless advocates of climate action, will likely reject McKibben’s diagnosis and his prescription — hoping against hope that we can return to Earth and have what we’ve always had by slapping a green veneer over the massive consumption machine that is our contemporary economy. But they fool only themselves. We are now on planet Eaarth, and much of out talent, capital and time will be spent coping with this harsher, less forgiving new world.
Regular CP book reviewer John Atcheson, has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks. He is working on his own novel about climate change.