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Review of Bill Mckibben’s must-read book “Eaarth”

By Climate Guest Contributor  

"Review of Bill Mckibben’s must-read book “Eaarth”"

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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.

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49 Responses to Review of Bill Mckibben’s must-read book “Eaarth”

  1. NathanS says:

    “…is to ignore most of human history”

    The science on Global Warming / Climate change is true and ( mostly ) accurate. But in the spirit of not ignoring our history lets remember the original periodic table. The one thing that we know is even more inevitable than global warming, is that this science will change. All our doom-saying is based on a changing landscape of scientific thought. Yes things are changing already for the worse, but…

    ” 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. ”

    I think this statement is one of total mis-perception. You have made the mistake of missing the big-picture, having lived the cushy, 21-st century, North-American, life. A life that would be the envy of so many dead princes and kings. You have overlooked the fact that for the majority of persons who have lived on this planet the experience has been a hellish one, one where slowly rising temerpatures and sea-levels, and a wave of extinction not seen since the end of the Cretacious period, would be a laughable problem.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Sidestepping The Problem and Fooling Ourselves in a Different Way?

    First, two caveats: I haven’t read McKibben’s book, yet, and I look forward to doing so. And, it’s possible that I may be slightly misinterpreting a main idea of the reviewer’s comments.

    Also, I found the review very helpful, yet it gives me the following concern …

    Consider these options:

    * Stick your fingers in your ears.

    * Go to your basement and oil your guns.

    * Try to blindly continue with unsustainable status-quo approaches (which, I take it, is the same as, or overlaps with, the “stick your fingers in your ears” point).

    * “Manage descent”.

    Although I agree with many of the specific points made in the review, I think the tone or wording — the idea of managing “descent” — misses something of fundamental importance.

    We need to find a way (or rather, ways) that is/are meaningful, fulfilling, and positive to align human meaning and happiness with sustainability, and the other way around.

    In other words, we need a sustainability that is positive, rewarding, and indeed sustainable.

    Thinking of things as “managing descent” will not provide people with the potential meaning and sought-after happiness that will be necessary to actually “manage the descent” and achieve sustainability. People will not want to live their lives within a context of “managing descent”. Do you?

    Here, to be clear, I’m not avoiding or ignoring the present problem. I’m not saying that we must keep “ascending” (rather than “descending”) in the status-quo senses of ever-increasing consumption and population. Not at all. We do need to become sustainable. But we need to become sustainable AS we pursue human meaning, genuine and healthy happiness, and human “ascent” in the areas of meaning, intelligence, knowing ourselves, and spirituality, to use that word broadly.

    The motivating aim must be seen, and genuinely felt, as “ascent” rather than “descent”. It’s just not the same sort of materialistic “ascent” that we are accustomed to.

    Understanding the four choices in the list provided above, as our only choices, ignores the real challenge and runs the huge danger of fooling ourselves. By that I mean this: Thinking that we can view, and communicate, the task forward as “managing descent”, using those terms, is (I would say) fooling ourselves. Anyone who thinks that 6.8 Billion people, or even any large group of people, will go forward in a way that they genuinely see as a “descent” is missing an important aspect of human nature. People like to ascend, not descend. That’s one of the reasons that the Beatles were so popular and are, of course, about as timeless as you can get.

    The real challenge, then, is this: How do we transition to sustainability in a way that is a genuine and healthy “ascent” — i.e., in a way that helps us be more healthy, more genuinely happy, wiser, and so forth …. in a way that helps us realize positive meaning? That’s the real challenge, intellectually and so forth. It’s a hard one, yes! Put on your thinking caps!!

    Sorry if I’ve missed the point. Again, I agree with many of the specific points in the review. It’s just that I don’t agree with the terminology or the idea that humans will transition from “A” to “B” if they think of doing so as “descending” or negative in any way whatsoever.

    Be Well — and “ascend”!

    Jeff

  3. mike roddy says:

    Bill McKibben is a beacon to us all, on many levels. The fragmentation model- where countries devolve into semiautonomous regions- is being intuitively absorbed even by the tea partiers.

    I fear that this future may include keeping guns oiled, though maybe not in my lifetime. Not everybody is going to be living in a biologically robust part of the country- think Las Vegas or Houston. Internal emigration will become commonplace, but instead of driving somewhere else and looking for a job and place to live, things are likely to get a little stickier. When families become destitute, they are likely to form groups and take territory by force.

    McKibben is a brilliant and gentle man, and not this dark. But where he sees a new and resilient man, I see a skeleton.

  4. prokaryote says:

    ” – 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.”

    As we are intelligent beings and able to learn from our mistakes we can adapt once we become carbon negative – which requires a critical population work-behaviour force. I’d like to think of climate change as an evolutionary species boundary – a big intelligence test. Earth systems interconnectivity and embossing from climate change, will further accelerate anthropogenesis. To prevent decreational processses – extinction and degeneration, technology is key. I think it is possible but this requires unseen action.

  5. paulm says:

    Bill “Jesus” McKibben deserves a N prize.

    I haven’t read the book yet (reserved at library for when it arrives) but have to agree with you on this point …

    “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 ”

    all though the only sensible way this can happen is if we adopt Chinese’s democracy (or they take over the world)…

  6. Wonhyo says:

    The excerpt and review are infused with Bill McKibben’s characteristic acknowledgement of natural reality as well as his optimism. The question is, are we collectively prepared to “manage descent”, as McKibben describes?

    Jeff Huggins #2 suggests that we need a find a new paradigm of “ascent”, a positive action, rather than try to “manage descent” a negative action. That thinking is quite sophisticated, but beyond the sophistication of common man. “Managing energy descent” is a struggle only in the context of our modern lifestyles, but it does have very personal and human benefits. For example, growing one’s own food in one’s backyard will be a much more gratifying experience than an existence based on monetary exchange. However, I believe humanity has to go through the depression phase of emotional response to trauma, before we can proceed to a positive perspective on a new paradigm of “ascent”. Whatever we call it, it is going to be traumatic and difficult. To try to avoid that aspect is to continue in denial.

    McKibben has a very optimistic view on human behavior. Mike Roddy #3 points out that many people will be (and are), in fact, putting fingers in their ears and oiling their guns (these are usually the same people). Roddy is more realistic in predicting that destitute families with the means to do so will take territory by force. The tragedy of this is that those who are most vigorously opposing climate progress now are (to generalize) the ones most likely to be oiling their guns and taking territory by force when that becomes necessary for their survival.

    Prokaryote #4 makes the common misstatement: “To prevent decreational processses – extinction and degeneration, technology is key.” One can always argue that technology is neither good nor bad, its how we use it that counts. The reality is that humans have consistently placed false hopes on future non-existent technology to solve the problems they created with existing technology. Carbon capture and storage is an example of this technological hubris. Natural solutions, like reforestation, are far more promising and more hopeful. In order to successfully “manage descent”, we must rely less on false technological hopes and instead use more proven and reliable natural means, which means accepting some of the uncomfortable changes that come with “managing descent”.

    Bill McKibben is on the bleeding edge of acknowledging climate change. We need to bring more people to his state of understanding at the same time we guard against those who would take territory by force. A daunting task, indeed.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    If I may, my own review of Eaarth (which is eerily similar to the one above in some respects; great minds really do follow similar paths):

    A missive from Eaarth

    http://www.grinzo.com/energy/index.php/2010/05/13/a-missive-from-eaarth/

    Perhaps I’m guilty of reading too far between the lines, but I got the distinct feeling that McKibben is much more pessimistic than he normally says, at least explicitly.

  8. Leif says:

    I see no future for humanity without an over-riding mandate on two of civilizations most powerful creations. Capitalism and Corporations. C&C must acknowledge humanities right to long term sustainability and factor that awareness into all monetary and corporate decisions before profits to shareholders. Corporations surely can produce products that have a green footprint, designed to last a life time or two and be cherished by the owner and his/her airs. Products designed to be recycled but reach all of humanity within an economic foundation that fosters the ownership by every individual would surely be a big enough base to justify manufacturing. Solar LED lights for all not super yachts for the few. Work weeks short enough for parents to take care of a family and pursue meaningful life experiences. Societies structured to provide access to rewarding experiences locally. Societies structured to lift the masses not to make billionaires out of millionaires on the backs of the masses. It can be done. It must be done!

  9. prokaryote says:

    Wonhyo #5 ” – One can always argue that technology is neither good nor bad, its how we use it that counts. The reality is that humans have consistently placed false hopes on future non-existent technology to solve the problems they created with existing technology. Carbon capture and storage is an example of this technological hubris. Natural solutions, like reforestation, are far more promising and more hopeful.”

    Natural solutions – biotechnology? is also some kind of technology and human growth go hand in hand with technology. We used the simplest form of technology – fossils, since the dawn of man. In order to sustain our way of life we need to update the technology. And due to climate change we induced, we need to use carbon negative technologies such as biochar to solve the situation. Humans are about to harness all the energy it wants in a not to far future, with simple and complex clean technologies. So when i say “technology is key”, i mean that we need to update existing tech according to what we’ve learned. This is an evolutional process and in order to get wise over this as a hall, we have to feel some sort of force – feedback from the world.
    We are forced to act and rethink our current technologies, solutions (new technologies) and how we use them.

    The Question Concerning Technology

    Heidegger employs the hydroelectric power plant and the windmill as examples of how technology has fundamentally altered man’s relationship not only to the earth, but also to Being itself. In effect, the distinction between these two man-made entities is elemental to the overall understanding of different epochs of Being. In one sense, the Windmill comes from an older or primordial period of Being whereby man merely sought to use the distinctive forces of nature in a more harmonious fashion when compared to the monstrosity that is the hydroelectric power plant. Although it would appear that Heidegger demonstrates preferential treatment for the ancient or older modes of man’s relationship to the earth and Being, he never quite says it in a direct manner. The construction and development of the hydroelectric power plant along the Rhine River brings about a series of revelations relating to the meaning of Being. Man has set about to challenge nature, and therefore, modern technology is the means and activity through which this challenge comes into existence. The following passage truly captures the heart of what Heidegger means by this challenge.

    The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command.

    This passage essentially asserts that, although the meaning of Being appears to be more obscured as technology becomes increasingly complex, it is still there. One has to look a bit closer at the specific processes involved with modern machinery in order to capture a small piece of the essence of Being. So whenever a man switches on a light, he ought to recognize that the energy required to power the light is one distinct process with respect to the bringing-forth of Being. We, as human beings, have elementally, if not permanently, altered our relationship to Being through the advent of modern technological undertakings. And what’s more is that there is nothing too technological about the true essence of technology, as Heidegger has shown that technology’s ultimate essence resides in a rather poetic dwelling near the truth of Being.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Question_Concerning_Technology

  10. Wit's End says:

    Wonyho said, “The tragedy of this is that those who are most vigorously opposing climate progress now are (to generalize) the ones most likely to be oiling their guns and taking territory by force when that becomes necessary for their survival.”

    Exactly. The skill set that will enable survival for individuals in the future will include things like hunting for food. Many people will be lost irregardless of their skills because they’ll be at the wrong place at the wrong time for extreme weather or seismic events. But in the best of circumstances, many will perish because the ecosystem is collapsing. Vibrant life in the sea is clearly doomed from acidification, overfishing, pollution and warming – to pretend otherwise is willfully ignorant. And that all by itself will have tremendous repercussions for terrestrial life.

    Never mind the social unrest that will overtake cities when food becomes scarce, as it inevitably will. How many crops can survive floods, droughts, and hailstorms like the one in the Oklahoma video? Not to mention the rampant depletion of nutrients in soils and of course, the ravages of ozone on vegetation.

    I joined up with Transition Town. I believe in making every good faith attempt to recoup and restore, to educate, to revise what is meant by prosperity. But frankly people often don’t behave well when the lights go out, and I doubt existing cultural mechanisms that help people cope with challenges with some degree of dignity will remain intact when globally, populations are overwhelmed with famine and disease.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    Response to Comment 5 From Wonhyo

    Focusing on Wonhyo’s second paragraph in Comment 5 (the paragraph having to do with my earlier comment), I agree with some or much of that point, but I think there’s an important way to reflect both points, as they are complementary in a way. Here’s what I mean:

    When someone undergoes very difficult changes, and perhaps goes into a “depression”, it makes a great difference whether there is still a positive “purpose” that one can occasionally get a glimpse of, through the fog of depression, and that one’s friends can remind each other about, or whether one has lost one’s complete sense of positive purpose and is completely adrift.

    In other words, consider these two people undergoing difficult change, having to change habits, and in some degree of “depression”, at least in some senses:

    Person A has completely lost his sense of purpose and now sees his life, and life in general, as negative and “descending”.

    Person B is undergoing the same difficulties (in all other respects), and has to change habits, but can see (at least occasionally) a positive purpose in the whole thing, can see (at least occasionally) a light down the pathway, and understands the whole transition as one of “ascendence” rather than descendence (spelling?). Person B has to make the same changes as Person A in terms of trying to live in the new ways, but Person B understands “the point”, retains some positive sense of purpose, and understands her or his role in the overall continuance of the human enterprise.

    In other words, I’m not denying that some things will (or may likely be) very difficult. I don’t think we can make the transition as if we are going from one sort of frat party on one night directly to another sort of frat party on the very next day, without losing a smile. But, in terms of how well (or whether) we make it through the transition and somewhat depressing period, it will (I suggest) still be much better if we can see, as much as possible, the whole thing as an ascendence rather than descendence.

    This is particularly true, I think, in society, i.e., involving lots of people. An individual can usually “hold on” through a difficult period, although there is still a great deal of difference between an individual who still retains some sense of purpose and one who loses sight of purpose entirely. But, in a larger society, I think that being able to see, and talk about, the “ascendence” part is vital. “Moral support.” I think that society can get through tough times, but it will do so better (and with at least a bit less turbulence) if people remind each other of the “why” and the “ascendence” and the “human purpose”.

    I’ve been through a depression before (it’s a long story), and the most difficult aspect of depression is not things like having to use less energy, having to commute farther, having to move into a smaller house, and so forth. Instead, it is losing (hopefully only temporarily) that sense of purpose. “Why live?” “To be or not to be?” That sort of thing. People need to see even difficult times as times of ascendence or potential ascendence, and need to retain a glimpse of purpose, rather than thinking that they will live the rest of their lives during some sort of prolonged period of human descent.

    Descent is not attractive. It won’t gain adherents. If our transition is seen as an overall “descent”, it won’t happen, at least not by choice. It will be forced upon us by nature, of course, but that’s the whole point: How do we “choose” the transition as much as possible? A positive and necessary choice is one of ascendence.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  12. Leif says:

    Jeff, very good points and I think you have touched on one of the main attractions of CP, at least in my perspective. There is no way to look forward with rational eyes and not be discouraged but the speculation of the commentators and of course Joe brought to these pages of long term sustainability is invigorating. And by sustainability I do not just mean survivability but actual improvement in the overall human condition.

    Reality is what you perceive it to be.

    On the other hand options are becoming limited. Reality can bite as well.

  13. Wit's End says:

    Jeff, and Leif, I am in general agreement about the need to accentuate the positive aspects of transitioning to a sustainable lifestyle. I’m not convinced that frenetic consumption generates true contentment, at all.

    On the other hand, describing even a debilitating depression as a reaction to the impending radical upheavals that will be wrought by climate change seems implicitly overly genteel. For many people especially those least inclined to accept limits on endless growth, I would expect to see a reaction more akin to a violent psychotic episode.

    Put another way, many people are not going to give up their energy-guzzling toys gracefully.

  14. john atcheson says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Jeff #2: Descending was not my word — it was McKibben’s. But your point is well taken — there can be no action without hope, no hope without the prospect of gain.

    As I noted, McKibben does see some things to be gained from the transition:

    “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.”

    One could infer from your comment, Jeff, that we ascend only when we increase material wealth and experience economic growth. I have been continually impressed by your thoughtful comments, so I know that isn’t what you were saying.

    Interestingly, nearly every major study on the link between happiness and wealth suggests a weak -or non-existent — correlation. McKibben’s vision is for material descent, but he sees something of a spiritual ascent. He didn’t develop this as much as other parts of the book, but it is certainly there.

    I do believe we have become spiritually impoverished in out pursuit of stuff, and if we’re very lucky, we can use the necessary transition we must make to enrich ourselves in the things that truly matter. And it’s clear that McKibben does too. But in this book, he was more concerned with getting us to face reality. I wouldn’t be surprised to see McKibben come out with a book in the near future that focuses more on the positive aspects of the change we must make.

    John

  15. Uosdwis says:

    I have to frequently remind myself he’s NOT Matt McKibben, Tea Party guy.

  16. prokaryote says:

    Technology linked to happiness, study claims

    There are positive links between access to technology and feelings of well-being, a study claims.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/10108551.stm

    :)

  17. prokaryote says:

    From the above linked BBC post ” – In an opinion column for New Scientist magazine last year, Mr Amichai-Hamburger wrote that technology had a negative impact on people’s well-being by blurring professional and personal time.

    “We need ways to help recover those increasingly large parts of our lives that we have ceded to technology, to regain mastery over technology and learn to use it in a healthy and positive way,” he said.”

    I agree with both findings. Technolgy needs optimization, tweaks and updates according to the latest science. This process it is what creates conflict. And this is about to change.

  18. Wonhyo says:

    Wit’s End #10: “The skill set that will enable survival for individuals in the future will include things like hunting for food…Never mind the social unrest that will overtake cities when food becomes scarce…”

    To put it bluntly, those who have and use guns to hunt for food need to be prepared to defend themselves against those who have and use guns to steal the food that the hunters harvest. Hunting and stealing are two very different uses for guns and there are at least as many gun owners prepared to do that latter as there are the former. The most common justification for gun ownership is for “when the SHTF”. I don’t think that’s a thinly veiled reference to hunting.

    Jeff Huggins #11: I’ve talked to a lot of people who take an attitude like, “I know climate change is coming, but I’m optimistic we’ll figure out how to get through it”, without ever having gone through a period of depression. These are generally the same people who switched their light bulbs to CFLs, then carried on with business as usual, thinking they have done their part. To be fully emotionally prepared to deal with climate change, you have to have fully acknowledged it. I don’t think one can fully acknowledge climate change without having gone through a phase of depression. Those who have never been depressed about climate change have not fully acknowledged its implications, on an emotional level. As I’ve read CP comments over the years, I’ve seen people (like Wit’s End) who have gone through the depression period, and they are the ones who discuss the climate change future in the most concrete terms, and take the most concrete actions (like joining Transition Towns). Those who have not gone through the depression period (like Prokaryote #9), continue to discuss climate change in abstract terms, and focus on technological solutions without acknowledging the need for behavioral and lifestyle changes. Depression is an important and constructive stage toward acceptance and preparation. We have to understand we are “descending” from the old way of things before we can fully embrace “ascendance” into a post climate change world.

    So, what is your driving purpose in life in the climate changed world?

  19. Karen S. says:

    Not long ago I had a rather lively discussion on the phone with my step-mother, on why drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a bad idea, and why climate change is happening right now. (BTW, I encourage you all to use the refuge’s proper name and not “ANWR” because that’s industry’s name for it.) I went through all the main points with her, and thought I was making sense. You know, logic. But her reply was, “We’re not going to give up our toys.” I was shocked and asked her to clarify. She wasn’t kidding. No logic could change an opinion based on something not logical. She has no intentions of curbing consumption. I know of other families who are split over this environmental Mason-Dixon line. It’s sad.

    Bill McKibben’s words may fall on too many plugged ears to minimize the decline, but for residents in low-lying Florida like my step-mother, Nature will eventually force them to listen to reality when she wrests those toys from their hands.

  20. Wonhyo says:

    Wit’s End #13: “Put another way, many people are not going to give up their energy-guzzling toys gracefully.”

    Exactly. Furthermore, those who are least likely to give up their energy-guzzling toys gracefully are also the least likely to ask for assistance, gracefully, when they realize how unprepared they are.

  21. Wonhyo says:

    Karen S. #19: “her reply was, ‘We’re not going to give up our toys.’”

    I used to be astonished at how often I got this response. What’s most frustrating is when I get this response from otherwise intelligent people who are not climate deniers.

  22. Leif says:

    I am sure that there were a significant number of folks in the Tennessee valley prior to May that felt that they were not going to give up their toys as well. Guess what, Nature took them. Reality Bites.

  23. Jeff Huggins says:

    To john (Comment 14) and Wonhyo (Comment 18) …

    john, thanks for your comment and thoughts. I agree with you. And, you’re right, I wasn’t talking about ascendence in a conventional materialistic sense or in a materialistic sense at all. I’m glad that McKibben realizes the point and, although I haven’t read the book yet (so it’s not really fair for me to comment on it), I do hope that he combines a realistic assessment of the problem and situation with an equally realistic positive assessment of the meaning, rewards, and fulfillment of positive change. In other words … what you said. The word “descent”, that he uses, has an unattractive tone to it, as you know. Yet, of course, I applaud all of his efforts and work.

    Wonhyo, thanks for your Comment 18. I do agree that we have to acknowledge, and feel the feelings, and “get it”, before and as we “move through” things and into the future. There is that good ole’ relationship between “pain” and “gain” sometimes, and there is both the reality of the situation AND how one approaches it and looks at it. So, I’m not disagreeing with the central point that you’re making, as I understand it. I don’t agree with people who think “we’re all dooommed!!”, nor do I agree with people who think that there will be an “easy” tech fix and that substantial cultural change won’t be necessary, nor do I agree with people who somehow think that human history shows that things will work out all by themselves, so just stay tuned.

    Hard work ahead. But let’s make it as healthy as possible and not lose sight of purpose, meaning, and the value of life.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  24. Mark Shapiro says:

    Bill McKibben sure provokes a lot of healthy thought and discussion — among those of us who read him. That number grows — slowly.

    His word “decreating” is all too apt. As we burn fossil fuels we are literally destroying fossil information. As we plow, pave, mine, and log we destroy ecological information. As species decline and die out, we lose DNA books, each one titled “One unique way to survive on planet Earth.”

    We are destroying information faster than we can decode it.

    So there is no time for pessimism — let’s introduce Bill M to our friends, family, politicians, and journalists.

  25. Leif says:

    The distain we hold for the “Book Burners” of the Dark Ages, we trump them hands down. We destroy the “Book of Life”.

  26. Windsong says:

    I just finished reading his book– “Eaarth”. It was sad in a way because he really makes you realize that things will never be the same. The earth I knew as a kid, with all the hugmungous variety of species is gone and things will only get worse. Heartbreaking. And yet he sounds upbeat mostly throughout the book, accepts things as they are and offers practical solutions on surviving!

  27. prokaryote says:

    Wonhyo #18 ” – Those who have not gone through the depression period (like Prokaryote #9), continue to discuss climate change in abstract terms, and focus on technological solutions without acknowledging the need for behavioral and lifestyle changes. Depression is an important and constructive stage toward acceptance and preparation. We have to understand we are “descending” from the old way of things before we can fully embrace “ascendance” into a post climate change world.”

    Of course we have to learn this, climate change becomes more visible every day. The topic will not go away. Solastalgia all over the globe. This is happening now and people start to react to it and change behaviour – they have to.

    Solveclimate recently had this article about behavior change.

    Visualizing CO2: Making Emissions Tangible to Change Behavior
    http://solveclimate.com/blog/20100429/visualizing-co2-making-emissions-tangible-change-behavior

    I don’t belive that adaption necessarily means we have to lack certain lifestyle. In fact i think people just gain benefits. This creates the next economy – something fossil energy can no longer provide. And all the health positive effects – as long we implement them. But in order todo this we need technology updates with a design framework which supports sustainable lifestyle.

    We only reach the post anthropogenic climate state – ie. reducing Co2 emissions to pre industrial levels with carbon negative affords.

  28. John McCormick says:

    Wonhyo, at #18

    You said:

    I don’t think one can fully acknowledge climate change without having gone through a phase of depression. Those who have never been depressed about climate change have not fully acknowledged its implications, on an emotional level.

    I am struggling with my frustration in not being able to envision a future of 3-4 and 5 degree C temperature increase in my children’s lifetime and begin to prepare them for that future. Our specie lacks the neurological pathway to grasp a vision of something we have never experienced. The massive heatwave that struck Europe several years ago was real evidence that a warmer world will bring pain. But, that heat wave passed as we knew it would. Our experience gave us that certainty. How about constant unbearable heat over an entire continent with its consequent drought, water shortage and food shortage impacts?

    Tell me western countries are attacking Iran and I can write headlines months ahead of events. Tell me sea level rise will take out all the waterfront property on Tampa Bay, shoreline property in North and South Carolina in the next thirty years and I will find that interesting but not terrifying. I see the descent coming but cannot grasp the enormity of it. And I am old enough that I will escape the worst of it.

    My children will not and that is deepening my depression and the growing helpless feeling one gets when the car is sliding on an icy road towards the tail lights ahead.

    John McCormick

  29. Dan B says:

    The comments here, and the review of ‘Eaarth’ are encouraging in an odd way. I’ve believed since the late 90′s, as many others posting on CP, that we are not headed for a positive outcome for most of humanity or for human civilization. Despite that we’ve got to maintain some positive vision and hold to some “next steps”. My encouragement seems to come from knowing there are other people who feel the same in spite of the clarity and terrible power of their knowledge.

    Whether the world will end with fire or ice is turned on its head. The icy regions seem set to catch fire – whether it’s burning tundra, forests, or direct combustion of methane releases from clathrates, yedomas, or muskeg is the only question.

  30. Wit's End says:

    John McCormick, I appreciate the raw emotion in your comment. Sometimes I am depressed, sometimes I am terrified, and always I am grieving. Not for me, but for the complex web of life on the former Earth, and for the myriad creations of human ingenuity, and most of all for my children who I expected would have endless prospects for joy and productivity in their lives. For the last 150 years we have partied like there is no tomorrow, and now, there is no tomorrow.

    It remains to be seen what (if anything) can be salvaged from this so unnecessary, self-induced debacle.

  31. lgpratt says:

    So many books (and journals, documentaries, popular publications) and so little time! I appreciate these book reviews, and encourage you to post more. This helps me develop a roadmap for deciding the best way to spend my time keeping up on environmental/ climate change issues. I am also very impressed by the dialogue that ensued. Thanks to all!

  32. Dan B says:

    My neighborhood is 90% non-white (white/european). Official unemployment is 15% and rising. For many residents the future is bleak and the past not much better. Most of the local splurge purchases have been a flat panel TV and a new car, if that. The food budget covers only the cheapest and least healthy choices.

    McKibben’s book seems not to include them. From my perspective it’s got a good dose of middle-class guilt. I encountered a climate change activist who was excited to hear I live in a black, African, and Asian neighborhood. “We’re always wondering where minorities are.” She wanted my help getting people to attend their events and meetings. She couldn’t comprehend that you don’t organize by getting warm bodies in the seats. You organize by going to the people and finding out if you have common ground.

    The different needs of people at various income levels and cultural understanding has been exploited to no good end by the fossil fuel interests. The common ground I’ve found is that everyone would love to move as rapidly as possible to a clean green, renewable energy future. Low income communities don’t see the middle class providing financial assistance. They are seeing green jobs taken by middle class kids and programs to get minority youth stymied by those same “environmental” organizations.

    Climate change is not just an environmental issue. At its heart are many key pieces: security, community, culture, civic health, energy, health, and economics. We need a vision of our future where the divisions that isolate communities from each other are transcended with robust programs and genuine passion.

  33. fj2 says:

    Yes, based on the review and excerpt this is an important and powerful book but, the long term assessment need not be accurate.

    We may yet learn to tread lightly on this planet — a goal of the 1970s soft paths environmental movement — with feather-weight shoes, smart clothes and vehicles under our own human power with a little help from — electric powering — the continuing technological metamorphosis of mechanics rapidly changing into electronics and some major help from advanced molecular strength materials projected for commercialization by mid-century providing stuff that is 100 to 200 times stronger than steel and wood per weight.

    Overweight stuff amplifies waste and environmental impact and is a major cause of the accelerating environmental crisis.

    High-strength low-cost low-weight stuff will likely help us deal with an increasing hostile environment.

    Imagine the wind turbines that can be built with materials 100 to 200 times stronger than steel per weight capable of harnessing much of the tremendous kinetic energies of tropical cyclones and tornados.

    And, there are likely many more unforeseen applications as well.

    And, we may yet learn to invest very heavily in both natural and human capital as may be indicated by current technology trends: advanced data processing, communications, artificial intelligence and media toward wholesale conversion from a transportation economy to an education economy already proposed by the movement towards learning corporations, organizations, and MIT’s OpenCourseware.

  34. I reviewed the McKibben book in several places, including a much ignored diary at Kos, and in the North Coast Journal here: http://www.northcoastjournal.com/arts/2010/05/06/eaarth-making-life-tough-new-planet/

    But as much credit as McKibben deserves, this pivot from advocating only the prevention of climate change, and dealing with causes, to becoming realistic about the climate crisis underway, and ALSO dealing with effects–something I’ve been advocating for several years–was accomplished impressively last year by David Orr in his great book, DOWN TO THE WIRE:

    http://www.northcoastjournal.com/arts/2010/03/11/down-wire-confronting-climate-collapse/

  35. Ron Broberg says:

    Just a word on gun ownership.

    Many in the civilized modern world have come to depend on the security provided by a functioning federal government well financed by a growing economy in an era of cheap oil.

    But the modern political world, the liberal western world, the fruit of the Enlightenment, was partial made possible by the seeds planted first by landlords who demanded political franchise independent of the crown, and then extended down the power chain to the frydman, the freeman, the yeoman.

    Those who speak of localization need to consider the consequences of the localization of security – what that means and how it might evolve.

    Who knows how the future unfolds? But I see no reason to *assume* that our government will always be stable enough, well-funded enough to promote the general welfare and continue providing security in the manner that we have come to expect. Nor do I believe that the fundamental nature of the modern western man is much different from his historical counterparts or his counterparts in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Serbia. If you wish to chart a course into to a new future, keep an eye on the past.

  36. Craig says:

    Recorded human history covers a span of 7000 or 8000 years. People have been killing each other for space, resources, control, power, pride, racism, fear, and mistrust for most of that span to time. We are but 70 years removed from the last world war, with million man armies marching against each other, a period in which one of the worlds most technically advanced nations set up death camps for the systematic extermination of millions of people. For the last 50 years or so, we’ve had arsenals of nuclear weapons sitting around that would inflict 1000 times more pain and suffering and damage than anything which happened in WWII.

    McKibben’s notion that we will somehow find a way to ‘manage our decline’ into some new utopia of local governance seems pretty naive.

  37. Wit's End says:

    Craig…
    OUCH.

  38. Leif says:

    Craig, which side do you want to be on?

  39. Jim Edelson says:

    I think, too, Bill is more pessimistic than he leads on. His prescription, also, seems to be at odds with his conclusion. He wants to emphasize local economies while “managing a graceful decline”. This seem to be, as the reviewer alludes, incompatible at best and contradictory at worst.

    I recommend that concerned people become familiar with Herman Daly’s great essay for the Sustainable Development Commission, UK (April 24, 2008) on “A Steady-State Economy”. It is available at:

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3941

    Daly’s policy prescriptions are tough, but some leader somewhere has to break the news that the Limits to Growth are here, in spades.

  40. Just a note to say thanks to all for smart critiques and kind words. I’m in Asia organizing for 350.org’s next big day of action, a Global Work Party on 10/10/10. We could use everyone’s help spreading the word!

  41. homunq says:

    I’d like to tell a story which relates to the issues of middle-class bias and of local versus global governance.

    I split my life between Chiapas – where my electricity comes principally from abundant hydropower – and Guatemala – where, despite favorable conditions for hydro, much of my juice comes from utility-scale diesel or natural gas generation. I am deeply concerned about global warming, to the point where I have spent days on the bus to visit my family in California rather than leaving the footprint of flying. (I wish there were an English word for “pisar”, which means to step on and to screw.) So, you’d imagine that I’d favor more hydropower in Guatemala.

    But between my father-in-law and my step-father-in-law, both living in Guatemala, I’ve seen much to make me think twice about that.

    One of them recently negotiated a yet-to-be-announced deal for 10s of millions of dollars of reparations to communities which were displaced (and, incidentally, quite literally massacred; but the reparations aren’t for that part) by Guatemala’s last big dam project. Though it beggars the imagination, to this day, over 20 years after the dam was build, those displaced communities a few kilometers from their now-submerged former locations don’t have electric power!

    And the other one works for an environmental organization that helps local communities fight against environmentally-damaging megaprojects – including open-pit gold mines, petroleum extraction, narco-logging, cement plants and… dams. He has no sympathy for the global benefits of hydropower, if it displaces communities, leaves them with mosquito-breeding trash-filled former-riverbeds, and (as in the case above) doesn’t even give them the first benefit of the development, the power itself. For such communities, rural areas that have already suffered some of the most-deadly side effects of capitalist development (including genocide), resisting hydropower can’t be called selfish NIMBYism.

    I still have hope that there’s a way out of this bind. But it’s not a matter either of “local autonomies” or “global governance”. It’s something even harder, a healthy blend of both, in which global pressures would force national elites to fairly share the benefits of hydropower (in this instance) with local peoples. Remember, those national elites have grown up in a system where their “fair share” of the net benefits of any project is somewhere between 95% and 10,000%. They will NOT take easily the suggestion that 10% would be an altogether fairer number.

    I keep hoping. But it’s not easy.

  42. homunq says:

    Just a note on the above. To have local communities “share the benefits” of hydropower doesn’t just mean a monthly check; it means meaningful participation in project design, including minimizing resevoir size and leaving meaningful residual flow in the old watercourse. Both of these steps would reduce total output.

    And a global governance simply cannot put pressure on national elites unless it has meaningful, unmediated connections to local communities. If the national government always stands between the UN and the local people, there’s no way those people’s interests will be protected, period, no matter how beneficient the UN is.

  43. Anonymous says:

    homunq says #41, 41: “Though it beggars the imagination, to this day, over 20 years after the dam was build, those displaced communities a few kilometers from their now-submerged former locations don’t have electric power!…To have local communities “share the benefits” of hydropower doesn’t just mean a monthly check; it means meaningful participation in project design, including minimizing resevoir size and leaving meaningful residual flow in the old watercourse.”

    In the book “Water Wars”, Diane Raines Ward describes a simple solution that avoids all the problems of big hydro power AND gets local communities involved. The solution is to use numerous, distributed, micro hydro power plants, instead of one gigantic centralized hydro power plant. By micro, she means so small and inconspicuous that you won’t know it’s there unless you know where to look. A micro hydro plant would not even span the full width of the river, so issues of fish movement are avoided altogether.

  44. homunq says:

    Anon #43: I’m neither a hydraulic engineer nor a member of the affected communities, so I have no place commenting on specifics, but that’s exactly the kind of solution I was thinking about. However, given current practices, the micro hydro plants might as well be micro fusion plants for all the chances that they have of getting built in numbers big enough to supply 1% of Guatemala’s power.

  45. As to how pessimistic or realistic McKibben or David Orr might be, they both write essentially the same thing: if we’re headed to inevitable extinction and/or the total collapse of human civilization, there’s not much point writing a book about it. They’re writing with ideas on how possibly people can respond and still make a life.

    Which leads to my own mantra: Hope isn’t an emotion, it’s a committment. Hope for the future has to be enacted in the present. First we need inspirations, ideas and plans. Then we need to act in our lives. All we have is our lives, and what we do.

  46. John McCormick says:

    Captain Future (a great handle) at #45

    Hope for the future is either a vision we want to create, or it is grounded in making better what we have got. With a 30-35 year lag time for temperature increase based on today’s atmospheric CO2 concentrations, we have lots of temperature increase in the pipeline regardless of what the collective we do to reduce (even eliminate) CO2 concentration increases.

    Given today’s 392 ppm CO2, we are witnessing a mind-bending meltback of the the Arctic ice cap and many other manifestations of today’s warming.

    Your comments provoke some serious thought but we are already way down the track and my hope for the future is that we and particularly my children are prepared for it. That is also our highest responsibility and that also needs inspiration, ideas and plans.

    I am not arguing for a single minded approach to adaptation because it is impossible for us to adapt to a moving target. Rather, I urge us to keep our minds open to serious commitment to preparing for droughts, persistent heat waves and chronic water shortages particularly in America’s Midwest…the earth’s grain basket.

    John McCormick

  47. Steve H says:

    As those of us who have come to accept that life for ourselves and our descendants will be anything but a walk in the park; more like the lives of those two or three generations ago; we must avoid the tendency to aim for self-sufficiency for our families. I know I have the desire to head back to farmland still in the family; to relearn the ways of great-grandparents with the protestant understanding that life ain’t meant to be easy. But, but, but…I have enough knowledge to grasp the foolishness of such thinking. It might be ignorant to stay in they city, but I can’t get past the notion that a life of self-sufficiency is always one crop failure away from failing itself. Like it or not, we are all going to have get through this together. Absent catastrophe, I understand the incredible difficulty it would take to develop sustainable economies. Despite that, I work locally to do such things with the understanding that sustainability will be something that takes generations to achieve. Unless, that is, we experience catastrophe.

  48. Chris Winter says:

    Captain Future wrote: “As to how pessimistic or realistic McKibben or David Orr might be, they both write essentially the same thing: if we’re headed to inevitable extinction and/or the total collapse of human civilization, there’s not much point writing a book about it.”

    There’s one good reason — the hope that it will scare people into changing their ways while time remains. I don’t say this is McKibben’s purpose, or Orr’s, in writing their books. But it’s a creditable motive; it’s just hard to carry off well.

  49. rgd says:

    John Atcheson’s use of “Tragedy of the Commons” Garret Harden’s 1968 essay is a give away. First it has been refuted by many scholars and readers of history. The commons was not ruined by the users rather the Land Lords seized the commons enclosed it… the enclosure Movement in England… and drove the people who cooperated off the land. And then ruined it, like we know the great oil spewing capitalist corporations do with state support.
    To presume a few people who will read McKibben’s book and find ways to survive will protect their food resources and human resources exploited by various international corporations is a wet flag flapping in their faces at this moment. If we are, we, that is many of us, not all of us, some won’t get away from their stockbrokers, we in various ways don’t find ways to change,shrink, the system that produces the horrors all is junk thinking. Al Gore one of McKibben’s friends is a big investor (millions of $$$$$) in Green Energy. British Petroleum one must be reminded was once called Anglo-Arab Oil Corp –they originated and worked in Iran. In addition no one individual or a small group or one state can handle this massive destruction of fishers, food producing plankton, and wetlands. It might even be sensible to work with the Mexican, Cuban and any government that is connected to the Gulf to provide reduction of oil spills, oil explosions and oil leaks into the almost living waters. The bivalves, crustaceans phytoplankton are not only US citizens and the Gulf is more then Louisiana.
    The Alaska coastline after the oil spill by Exxon took twenty years to come back. My favorite wetlands specialist said it takes 250 years to make a wetlands ecologically self regulating. Ecological matters require systemic, that is holistic, dialectical understanding – nature is more than a one or two clever cliches, any so called solutions needs be a different way of thinking than what capitalism offers.