or Close but no cigar.
Up, Down, Appendices.
oh my ... well you know there was this long-haired preacher in a white robe who used to walk around Rio de Janeiro, walked around the whole of Brasil in fact, his name was José Datrino, aka Profeta de Gentileza / Prophet of Kindness, he wasn't so old when he began in 1960 or thereabouts, early forties, he kept at it until he died in 1996, I came there after that but still, you could say I met him, just never face to face - What a man!
anyway, he was sometimes frustrated by the limits of language, and so sometimes added a letter or two to words he wanted to get into and through, VVVERDE / GGGREEN is one of those (pictured above), and so, honouring his memory God bless him, I will put forward TERRRA with three Rs: one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost as in Gentileza's schema; or readin' ritein' rithmatic; even Reuse Recycle Reduce, whatever,
and I'm sorry if all I have to say about Bill McKibben and his book does not please you, be well.
|Caetano Veloso, Terra: 1978, 2007.|
|quando eu me encontrava preso|
na cela de uma cadeia
foi que eu vi pela primeira vez
as tais fotografias
em que apareces inteira
porém lá não estavas nua
e sim coberta de nuvens
por mais distante
o errante navegante
quem jamais te esqueceria
|when I found myself locked up|
in the cell of a prison
it happened that I saw for the first time
in which you appear complete
however, where you are not naked
but wearing clouds
no matter how far
the wanderer may stray
who could ever forget you
|ninguém supõe a morena|
dentro da estrela azulada
na vertigem do cinema
manda um abraço pra ti, pequenina
como se eu fosse o saudoso poeta
e fosses a Paraíba
por mais distante
o errante navegante
quem jamais te esqueceria
|who would expect a dark girl|
inside a blue star
above the abyss of the cinema
I send an embrace to you, little one
as if I was a lonely poet
and you were (the province of) Paraiba
no matter how far
the wanderer may stray
who could ever forget you
|eu estou apaixonado por uma menina|
Terra, signo de elemento terra
do mar se diz
terra à vista
Terra, para o pé firmeza,
Terra, para a mão carícia
outros astros lhe são guia
por mais distante
o errante navegante
quem jamais te esqueceria
|I am mad for a girl|
Terra, sign of the elemental earth
on the sea one says
'land in sight'
Terra, firm to my foot
Terra, a caress to my hand
other stars are guiding you
no matter how far
the wanderer may stray
who could ever forget you
|eu sou um leão de fogo|
sem ti me consumiria
a mim mesmo eternamente
e de nada valeria
acontecer de eu ser gente
e gente é outra alegria
diferente das estrelas
por mais distante
o errante navegante
quem jamais te esqueceria
|I am a fiery lion|
without you I would burn up
myself even forever
and it would be worth nothing
I happen to be a person
and a person is another happiness
different from the stars
no matter how far
the wanderer may stray
who could ever forget you
|de onde nem tempo nem espaço|
que a força mande coragem
pra gente te dar carinho
durante toda a viagem
que realizas no nada
através do qual carregas
o nome da tua carne
por mais distante
o errante navegante
quem jamais te esqueceria
|from beyond time and space|
(pray) that strength brings the courage
for us to give you caresses
during the whole journey
that you make through the void
across which you carry
the name of (all) your flesh
no matter how far
the wanderer may stray
who could ever forget you
|nas sacadas dos sobrados|
da velha São Salvador
há lembranças de donzelas
do tempo do Imperador
tudo, tudo na Bahia
faz a gente querer bem,
a Bahia tem um jeito
por mais distante
o errante navegante
quem jamais te esqueceria
|from the second floor verandahs|
of old San Salvador
there are memories of virgin girls
from the time of the emperor
everything in Bahia
makes us wish for the best
in Bahia we have a way
no matter how far
the wanderer may stray
who could ever forget you
someone who follows Veloso's imagination from the jail cell in which he sits, to a view of Earthrise, to a woman clad only in clouds (but not naked) might be moved, as am I, every time I hear it - this seems to me the antidote for every kind of pornography, whether it is Wendell Berry's "So long as women do not go cheap for power," (to the stage at the Moulin Rouge I wonder?) or the ubiquitous, "It's all about ME!"
I mention porn because Bill McKibben uses the word a few times and consequently it is right up there near the front of my cerebral cortex eh? somewhere handy-like ...
Wendell Berry: whom I had not heard of until a few weeks ago at a conference where everyone seemed to be quoting him (?) but I did find him then and I am so glad for it, and one of my children listened to the link of him reciting Mad Farmer - and then called me up to talk about it! imagine! so here's an introduction:
here he is introduced by Bill McKibben in 2009, reading Manifesto, Mad Farmer Liberation Front in 2008 and a copy of the poem, speaking in 2009 about NAIS (clip includes transcript, and here's some bumph on NAIS - National Animal Identification System), and reading his story Making It Home.
ok, Bill McKibben's Eaarth, smart fellow this McKibben, good speaker, born in 1960 he tells us so much of his formative writing probably took place on a word processor, and it shows ... but first some background:
William Ernest McKibben at Wikipedia, a bio on his own website, on FORA TV in 2007 talking about Deep Economy (sponsored by Exxon?), and talking at Book TV in 2010 about Eaarth, a-and his good wife Sue Halpern interviewed on Vermont Public TV, on reflection about what I know of them, which is very little, I might use the term 'better half'.
maybe I had better say up front that I wish this book would be read by all who can read! is that praise enough? is that strong enough? how about this? - I have already sent copies to members of my family with the proviso, or in the hope, or something, with tentative instructions to (puh-leeze!) read it and then pass it on to someone close and when that person has read it, discuss it together ... and so forth, ok?
but yeah, it shows in the overall layout, it shows in the scanty structure of many paragraphs and the helter-skelter way they are strung together, organized? it shows as Chapter 4 gets more and more hazy, and then it comes through in spades in his penultimate and incredibly un-thought-out Paean of Praise for the Internet (and that on the last dozen or so pages yet!)
and it shows in little mistakes, and some not so little: not having considered that this new planet Eaarth will not have a 'Tourist Industry' for long and hopefully not an 'Insurance Industry' either; not recognizing in himself the strong influences of parochial & bourgeois currents in American life & thinking; taking the easy and emotional analogy even when it has to be twisted to fit; biomass & woodchip thermal electric? maybe so but he fails to make the case, &etc.
four long chapters, the first two so dark that it was for me at least a tremendous struggle to get through them, maybe if there had been a stronger hint in the preface about the structure of the book (as used to be common before 1960), or maybe this was intentional? let's see, how can I turn off any blue collars who happen to pick this up? oh, I know, the first few pages, hell! the first hundred pages! will be so dark and without hope that they will drop it one by one ... was that it Bill?
I do see the up side, I am not just some whacked-out curmudgeonly asshole doomer taking easy shots ... he properly & clearly trashes that silly booster Thomas Friedman; he knows something about history and so roots some of his arguments firmly and with perspective; most importantly he offers a glimpse of a way out of the despair with which I personally seem to be fighting a losing battle; and there are lots more positive examples - read it and find them, ok?
I have started re-reading and marking up the margins, here's some 'notes towards a high level summary':
Prefacehere's a take on community for youlast paragraph:1. A New World
"But damage is always relative. So far we've increased global temperatures about a degree, and it's caused the massive change chronicled in chapter 1. That's not going to go away. But if we don't stop pouring more carbon into the atmosphere, the temperature will simply keep rising, right past the point where any kind of adaptation will prove impossible. I have dedicated this book to my closest colleagues in this battle, my crew at 350.org, with the pledge that we'll keep battling. We have no other choice."
('my crew' he says, not 'our crew' or 'the crew'
a-and someone could parse this paragraph? to good effect do you think?)- the planet has already changed irrevocably2. High Tide
- arriving at the 350 target
- peak oil well explained
- a few pages from the end of Chapter 1- the end of growth3. Backing Off
or of the growth 'paradigm' as it were
- transform, transition
- wtf? insurance? tourist industry?
oh right - it will be those firewood powered airliners then?
- anyone who calls Jared Diamond's Collapse 'superb'
obviously hasn't read it (!)
- also hasn't read Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies?
- Obama, a paragraph in Chapter 2
- invoking the Gods:
1970, The Limits to Growth
1973, Small is Beautiful
- a few pages from the end of Chapter 2- a bit near the beginning of Chapter 34. Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully
- speed, scale, complexity
- growth vs. maintenance, centralized vs. distributed
- community, that is, COMMUNITY!- organic food (without mentioning Cuba?)
- scale again (bears repetition)
- back to the land
(but his take on the Brazilian MST is simply wrong)
- decentralized renewable energy
- I'm not sure about wood/biomass thermo electric
but ok if you say so
- and then,
an unrestrained Paean of Praise for the Internet, doh!?
he's right, something like the Internet would be nice,
email would be nice, ok?
- community again, bears repetition, COMMUNITY!
- some concluding paragraphs
a prof of mine at architecture school wanted everything on one side of one 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper, handwritten - so many times I have thanked him for that good training, in a word-processor in those days you could see 24 lines, not much better now actually, maybe 30 legible lines these days? this is a metric for seeing how people are thinking - that is, how they are doing their thinking, you know that when you are speaking or writing you are actually thinking, right? - you can tell if someone is thinking in 30 line blobs, and this book has too many of 'em
just about everything is footnoted, this is good, the index is ok, it would be better if the thing was on-line so you could employ hyper-links and the like, but ok, only problem here is that if you follow the footnotes you too often wind up with the New York Times and such like newspapers, with 'heavyweights' like Richard Heinberg and the hippies on Gabriola, whatever! whatever! ok?
and no ultimate disrespect to the lightweights either, I was one of those left coast hippies too in days gone by, but I know what Bob means when he says, "I seen pretty people disappear like smoke," ok?
he introduces a few interesting new phrases, 'collapse porn,' 'doom porn,' 'grandchildren porn,' 'good-life porn,' ... classy!
quibbles don't diminish what he is saying so much - having carefully considered the other entries in this class of purveyor: James Hansen, Tim Flannery, James Lovelock, and so forth, many others as well - our Bill looks like the best of a bad lot, still, it's "Close but no cigar." ... but it is close, yeah, close ...
things that love night, love not such nigh(t)s as these.
it makes me angry, it makes me weep, and in the end this book leaves me wondering where to go from here? what to do? say, another Al Gore movie? or someone with the balls of a Gandhi to step out in front with no bourgeois distractions? or a whole LOT of local town hall presentations with qualified scientists and adult politicians together making the points for everyone to understand? and with a modicum of humility maybe ... what?
as for me, when I can get it together, more and more often I find it too much to even get out the door, but when I can get it together I walk the streets giving away 350 buttons and flyers, saying with a smile, "Maybe you should look into this ..."
a few words about 'preaching to the choir,' it happens, for lots of reasons, some of it I do myself just because I get exhausted by the straight uphill struggle that informing people about this issue IS and just want some relief, just want to talk to a few people, even one, who agrees with me, but I recognize it for what it is at least, so when I hear people in groups like Transition Town saying that most people know already (as I did a week or so ago) - I choke! - I FUCKING WELL CHOKE! because I know that it's not true, the choir yeah, the sweet darlings in the choir are convinced even when they don't understand, but I can tell you straight, I can tell you clear - out on the streets of Toronto it is 1 in 100 at best, dig it!
so then, to whom is this book addressed? the choir? the congregation? some pissant parish formerly known as America? or to the World? a nossa Terra? a nossa querida TERRRA?
and a few words about the bourgeoisie, of which our good burghers William Earnest McKibben and Albert Arnold Gore Jr. and David Takayoshi Suzuki and the rest are a part (Suzuki's trajectory may be somewhat different having been interned during the war, but he made it there nonetheless), you can be bourgeois without being necessarily smug and complacent, people like Che and Régis Debray and Mahatma Gandhi, who also grew up bourgeois, managed to overcome it somehow, one could ask, "Why must one overcome it?" simply because if you don't you will not be able to distinguish the merely conventional and sentimental from some approximation of the real and you will let your indulgent desire for comfort and the comfort of your loved ones corrupt your thinking, influence your actions, keep you from pulling out that last stop when it's called for, sounds harsh? ok, work it out for yourself then ...
you do have to dig just a bit (but not beyond the first page of the preface) to find the arrogance which is always hidden just beneath a bourgeois veneer: "Twenty years ago, in 1989, I wrote the first book for a general audience about global warming ..." a-and ... maybe he did, although 1989 seems a bit late? my illiterate friends and I knew about it in the early 70s and how did we find out I wonder? maybe he was the first 'for a general audience,' I don't know, but why say it? why brag about being the first? and why use weasel words to bracket your brag?
it is disconcerting to find this phrase, "the first on global warming for a general audience," keep turning up in reviews, a self-fulfilling prophecy then? is that it? are those your credentials then? do you need such credentials?
somewhere ... near the end of Chapter 2 he notes the tendency of Americans not to mature, to remain adolescent - and then forgets to apply it to himself? I mentioned "It's all about ME!" in my last post, there are many shades between "It's all about ME!" and some kind of graceful humility which obliges you to do your homework, to cross every 't' and dot every 'i' ... and so forth ...
read it, weep, dry your tears, get busy - there's no time to waste.
here's something from Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem - A Report on the Banality of Evil:
"Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that 'it could happen' in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can be reasonably asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."not very often I find myself second guessing Hannah Arendt! (another beloved smoker), I don't have the book at hand anymore or I would include a longer quote to give this some context maybe, and the mavens of copyright correctitude have got it locked down tight on the Internet ...
you often hear "our reach exceeds our grasp," but I am wondering if this is any longer true? if it hasn't been turned on its head? maybe it is that as a species our grasp now exceeds our reach? and as I read day after day what seems to be an unavoidable confluence of corporations with the catastrophes that are overtaking the planet: Bayer with the bees, Monsanto with their Roundup, Halliburton and BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the governments of the rich nations unanimously doing exactly nothing, that's to say:
the governments of the rich nations unanimously doing exactly diddley-squat fuck-all nothing! (especially the mewling misbegotten cretins who govern my own country of k-k-Canada)
since corporations and bureaucracies and governments are not strictly speaking human, maybe it is that more is required for this planet to remain fit for human habitation? do you think Hannah? do you think gentle reader? or maybe Vonnegut's Ice-9 has already been released? ... a dark meditation, everything seems dark to me these days ... oh well, it's all about me eh?
brushing from whom the stiffened puke i put him all into my arms and staggered banged with terror through a million billion trillion stars
I picked up Charles Taylor's Malaise of Modernity yesterday and started re-reading it, coming back to it after reading A Secular Age several times in the last few years I had a surprise ... it was like being suddenly in front of certain protestant ministers when they preach - if you look closely they seem to be sucking lemons ... sour and dour, and I hadn't remembered that about Taylor, but it reminded me of the Catholic bias that creeps in towards the end of A Secular Age ... Andrew Nikiforuk opens his review (below) saying, "Bill McKibben has always struck me as a puritanical figure who needs to lighten up a bit,"
and it was like the penny dropped and a light came on, I can't say if it's a good or bad light just yet,
of the Christian denominations I have known the Methodists are, again, the best of a bad lot, raised up the list by their music, Wesley founded 'em and I (for one) cannot listen to his Easter hymn, "Christ the Lord is risen today! A-a-a-a-lleluia!" without a thrill,
but Caetano's Terra has been rattling around in my head this week too, and I have been shambling round this apartment in a gouty imitation of a samba, Taylor can say what he likes about the down sides of individualism and authenticity, hahaha, but if I had these two pieces of music in my hands and could only keep one, my base sensual nature would decide the issue in a heartbeat :-)
so it makes a kind of sense to me at the next level up that a Methodist might populate his mythology with trials and tribulations, with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, with a planet that has morphed from a naked but not indecent woman clothed in clouds, to, what looks to me (at best) like a bull dyke with a strapon, is that it Bill?
did you listen to him gentle reader? to Caetano singing to his Terrra? did you watch his shambling sort of dance?
And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed;
Saint Paul, Romans 5.
I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that Time cannot decay, I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet.
Leonard Cohen, Democracy.
... capturing less than 0.02% of the sunlight that falls on our planet each day would be enough to meet all of our energy needs ...
1. Manifesto, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Berry, 1991.
Preface (excerpt at the NYT).
end of Chapter 1 p45-46,
Eaarth, Chapter 2 p66-68, Insurance,
a paragraph in Chapter 2 p81, Obama,
Eaarth, Chapter 2 p98, Jared Diamond,
end of Chapter 2 p99-101,
near the beginning of Chapter 3 p102-103.
Eaarth by Bill McKibben, Phil England, April 6 2010.
Hot Planet, Cold Facts, Paul Greenberg, April 29 2010.
'Eaarth,' by Bill McKibben, Edward C. Wolf, April 17 2010.
Genesis in reverse, Andrew Nikiforuk, April 23 2010.
Welcome to Eaarth, Scott Gast, April 27 2010.
The State of the Earth, 2010, Rebecca Solnit, April 22 2010.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Jay Kilby, May 6 2010.
Manifesto, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Berry, 1991.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Eaarth, end of Chapter 1 p45-46.
So let's review. The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the earth's surface, are distinctly more acid and their level is rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful. The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle. The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth's crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization. And some places with civilizations that date back thousand of years — the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kiribati in the Pacific, and many other island nations — are actively preparing to lower their flags and evacuate their territory. The cedars of Lebanon — you can read about them in the Bible — are now listed as "heavily threatened" by climate change. We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn't. I know that I'm repeating myself. I'm repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that's ever happened.
And the attempt to make it right usually makes things worse.
Sometimes the loops are almost comical. Versace is building a new hotel in Dubai, for instance, but the beach sand now gets so hot that guests burn their feet. Solution: a "refrigerated beach." As the hotel's founder explained, "We will suck the heat out of the sand to keep it cool enough to lie on. This is the kind of luxury top people want."
Sometimes it's not shake-your-head funny but almost unavoidable. As more and more of Australia desertifies, the country could find itself "using 400 percent more energy to supply its drinking water by 2030 if the policy trend towards seawater desalination were to continue."
And often — usually in the poor world — it's simply tragic. "Drinking water in Bangladesh is often full of salt as rising sea levels force water further inland," a Dhaka newspaper reporter wrote recently. That means women have to trek ever farther for a pitcher of clean water — sometimes several trips of several miles a day. "Some reports claim women and adolescent girls no longer have enough time and energy to carry out household duties like cooking, bathing, washing clothes and taking care of the elderly and infirm. It is even affecting their marriage prospects and family lives. Families who struggle to get clean water don't want daughters to leave their homes and marry elsewhere." Adolescent girls forced to drink increasingly saline water found their skin was "turning rough and unattractive," and "men from outside the area had no interest in marrying them."
That's life on our new planet. That's where we live now.
Eaarth, Chapter 2 p66-68, Insurance.
But the direct costs of moving people or building dikes may be the least of the expense. Let's think for a moment about a technology that gets little attention but provides an essential foundation for our prosperity. Not the power plant; the actuarial table. It's a remarkable invention: by looking at past deaths, or fires, or floods, or crop failures, or knee injuries to fullbacks, actuaries can reckon the chance of such events in the future. That enables them to underwrite insurance at a reasonable cost — and that insurance lets us do everythíng else. Who would build a house without it, or a factory? (That's why insurance is by some measures the world's largest industry.)
The art of underwriting is now highly complex and computerized. The day before Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast, for instance, models were forecasting that it would cause exactly $29.3 billion in property damage, and that its fury could destroy 59,953 buildings. But that kind of precision masks the one huge flaw of the actuarial table: the technology is dependent on the planet behaving in the future as it has in the past. If we switch planets we need new actuarial tables, and we don't know what to base them on. Insurance payouts have been skyrocketing for the last decade, and they'll keep going up. In areas with frequent storms, the Association of British Insurers recently predicted 100 percent premium increases for policyholders over the next ten years. But that's the good case: premiums would rise, just like seawalls, and it would cost money and be a drag on the economy; still we could make incremental adjustments. What we can't afford is the cost of complete uncertainty — or, rather, the cost of certainty that were going somewhere new and unstable. What if you were selling life insurance and suddenly there was a global outbreak of some new and deadly plague? You'd be out of luck, not to mention out of business. "What we have seen in recent years in terms of insurance losses are but a harbinger of things to come," said Tim Wagner, cochairman of the Climate Change and Global Warming Task Force for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "Insurance is priced based on statistics and probability. What climate change has done is create ambiguity and uncertainty in the pricing scenario."
Swiss Re, the world's biggest insurance company, wanted to figure out some of these possibilities, so it contracted with Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment for a report on the most likely outcomes, which was published in 2005. The Harvard team modeled two "climate change futures," one with the kind of gradual change we used to expect, and the other with the kind of disruptive, quick, and nasty change we've already seen. (The team didn't even bother modeling a worst-case scenario — "slippage of ice sheets from Antarctica to Greenland, accelerated thawing of permafrost with release of large quantities of methane" — that comes closest to what we're experiencing on the new earth.) Even in the milder scenario, climate change "threatens world economies." But their second, more real-world simulation predicts that as storms and other disruptions become more frequent, they "overwhelm the adaptive capacities of even developed nations; large areas and sectors become uninsurable; major investments collapse; and markets crash." Pay careful attention, despite the bland phraseology: "In effect, parts of developed countries would experience developing nation conditions for prolonged periods as a result of natural catastrophes and increasing vulnerability due to the abbreviated return times of extreme events."
Since these are the words of people who write insurance policies for a living, let me translate: if you get sucker-punched by one storm after another, you don't have time to recover; you spend your insurance payout reroofing your house, and then the roof blows off again the next year. Maybe your insurance company cancels your policy (as has already happened this decade to millions in storm-prone coastal areas), and after the next storm or two your town starts looking less like America and more like Haiti. Meanwhile, the business that employs you loses its warehouse two years in a row, and then the insurance company either cancels its policy or jacks the rate up so high that it shuts down. Maybe the government becomes the insurer of last resort, as has already happened with flood insurance, but then the losses fall on all of us taxpayers, and we have to do with less funding for education or health care or, hmm, infrastructure. Between 2005 and 2007, state-run insurance programs in the United States saw their exposure double to $684 billion as people lost their private insurance. The EU has set aside a billion euros a year for a "solidarity fund" to cover "uninsurable risk" to government-owned property, but new forecasts predict that floods alone will soon be doing 1.2 billion euros worth of damage to such facilities each year. "With a worsening climate, an increase in fund resources is needed," one bureaucrat said dryly.
And if this is happening in the West, imagine the effect in poor countries: in their scenarios, the Harvard team reported, "the emerging markets are most hard hit, with widespread unavailability or pricing that renders insurance unaffordable. As a result, insurers withdraw from segments of many markets, stranding development projects." This is not just speculation; a recent MIT study found that the GDP of poor countries dropped by l percent in those years when temperatures were a degree or more above average.
Every feature of this new planet increases the uncertainty; we've already seen that coral reefs are dying off rapidly and could be gone altogether by midcentury. That's a tragic loss for the planets biological diversity, and it damages the tourist industry on all the low-lying islands that are trying their best to cope with sea level rise. But it also removes the most important line of defense against storms on those coasts; one study suggested that a single kilometer of sheltering reef was worth $1.2 million. Whole new categories of risk appear. As the number of thunderheads in the atmosphere steadily increases, so do the number of hailstorms. Australian insurers recently predicted that the number of storms with golf ball-size hail could become twice as frequent between now and 2050 — which is no small thing since the third-most-costly natural disaster in Australian history was just such a storm that struck Sydney in 1999. 'the total exposure of insurers is mind-boggling: in the five northernmost coastal counties of Texas alone, insurers are on the hook for $890 billion worth of risk, third in the nation behind Florida and New York. And the costs are not confined to the coast. For me, standing by the bank of the Middlebury River, the single scariest statistic in the whole report may have been this: "A ten percent increase in flood peaks would produce one hundred times the damage of previous floods, as waters breach dams and levees."
Eaarth, Chapter 2 p81, Obama
If you want to understand the limits on our response, just listen to Obama. Here he is in February 2009 discussing calls for greater spending in his stimulus plan: "Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the essential." And in July, on a call with Internet journalists about health care reform, he said that he refused to let "the perfect be the enemy of the good." That same month, speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks, he said the same thing: "We don't want to make the best the enemy of the good." It's sound and sane politics — in the first two cases. Because economic policy and health care are perfect examples of normal politics. You split the difference between positions, make incremental change, and come back in a few years to do some more. It doesn't get impossibly harder in the meantime — people will suffer for lack of health care, but their suffering won't make future change impossible. Global warming, though, is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don't compromise. They've already laid out their nonnegotiable bottom line: above 350 ppm the planet doesn't work. In this case, the good and the essential and the perfect and the adequate are all about the same.
Eaarth, Chapter 2 p98.
There's been a certain fascination with Easter Island in recent years, and with the Greenland Norse, and with the other stars of the new genre of what you might call "collapse porn." From Jared Diamond's superb Collapse to Jim Kunstler's dark and funny novel World Made by Hand, a score of books have given us the slightly scary shiver of imagining our lives tumbling over a cliff. As one English newspaperman put it, "The Maya, like us, were at the apex of their power when things began to unravel. ... As stock markets zigzag into uncharted territory and ice caps continue to melt, it is a view increasingly echoed by scholars and commentators." (For some reason it makes me giggle to imagine the Mayan Bernie Madoff.) The New Yorker ran a feature on "the new dystopians" — "doomers," it called them — people advising that you buy pistols or hoard gold or corner the market on firewood.
Eaarth, end of Chapter 2 p99-101.
The trouble with obsessing over collapse, though, is that it keeps you from considering other possibilities. Either you've got your fingers stuck firmly in your ears, or you're down in the basement oiling your guns. There's no real room for creative thinking. To its theologians, collapse is as automatic and involuntary as growth has been to its acolytes.
The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility — that we might choose instead to try to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline. That instead of trying to fly the plane higher when the engines start to fail, or just letting it crash into the nearest block of apartments, we might start looking around for a smooth stretch of river to put it down in. Forget John Glenn; Sully Sullenberger, ditching his US Airways flight in the Hudson in January 2009, is the kind of hero we need (and so much the better that he turned out to be quiet and self-effacing). Yes, we've foreclosed lots of options; as the founder of the Club of Rome put it, "The future is no longer what it was thought to be, or what it might have been if humans had known how to use their brains and their opportunities more effectively." But we're not entirely out of possibilities. Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what's in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.
Number one is: mature. We've spent two hundred years hooked on growth, and it's done us some good, and it's done us some bad, but mostly it's gotten deep inside us, kept us perpetually adolescent. Americans in particular: Edward Everett, the governor of Massachusetts, gave a speech in 1840 in which he said, "The progress which has been made in art and science is, indeed, vast. We are ready to think that the goal must be at hand. But there is no goal; and there can be no pause; for art and science are, in themselves, progressive and infinite. Nothing can arrest them which does not plunge the entire order of society into barbarism." In the vernacular of our time, here's the economics columnist Robert Samuelson, writing in Newsweek: "We Americans are progress junkies. We think that today should be better than yesterday and that tomorrow should be better than today." Every politician who ever lived has said, "Our best days are ahead of us." But they aren't, not in the way we're used to reckoning "best." On a finite planet that was going to happen someday; it's just our luck that the music stopped while we were on the floor. Yes, it's tough — but then, it's been tough for other people in other times and places. So if 2008 turned out to be the year that growth came to an end — or maybe it will be 2011, or 2014, or 2024 — well, that's the breaks. Harder for the Chinese than for us; they'd just begun to taste some of that ease. Or maybe easier for them, since they're less used to it. But it is what it is. We need to see clearly. No illusions, no fantasies, no melodrama.
That's easier said than done — we all want to hold on to the vague idea that we can make it work. If you're in the developed world, that might mean embracing "geo-engineering" schemes: filling the atmosphere with sulfur to block sunlight (on-purpose smog), or filling the seas with iron filings to stimulate the growth of plankton that would soak up carbon. But the early tests have found only "negligible" results, and the costs are huge, measured in the tens of trillions of dollars. Not only that, but we'd be experimenting on the same scale that we've experimented with carbon, and look how well that's turned out. I have more sympathy with the daydreams of the developing world. At a recent meeting of Asian journalists, for example, one delegate suggested that Bangladesh could be relocated to Siberia and Iceland, because melting snows would turn them into "bread-baskets." How to tell them instead that the tundra is turning into a methane-leaking swamp?
Step number two: we need to figure out what we must jettison. Many habits, obviously — little things like the consumer lifestyle. But the big item on the list becomes increasingly clear. Complexity is the mark of our age, but that complexity rests on the cheap fossil fuel and the stable climate that underwrote huge surpluses of food. With that cushion, we were able, in Richard Heinberg's words, "to elevate social complexity to an art form." Unlike other animals who "get up in the morning and simply start milling around looking for food," we "get up in the morning and ... well, here the story diverges in millions of ways. Some of us commute to offices or factories. Some people have jobs building or maintaining the cars we drive. Other people have jobs reading the news we listen to on the radio as we navigate the freeway." That complexity is our glory, but also our vulnerability. As we began to sense with the spike in oil prices and then the credit crunch in 2008, we've connected things so tightly to each other that small failures in one place vibrate throughout the entire system. If America's dumb decision to use a fraction of its corn crop for ethanol can help set off food riots in thirty-seven countries, or if a series of shortsighted bets on Nevada mortgages can double unemployment in China, we've let our systems intertwine too much. If our driving habits can move the monsoon off the Asian subcontinent or melt the Arctic ice cap — well, you get it.
We've turned our sweet planet into Eaarth, which is not as nice. We're moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back — and with far more power. But we've still got to live on that world, so we better start figuring out how.
Eaarth, near the beginning of Chapter 3 p102-103.
We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale. Were so used to growth that we can't imagine alternatives; at best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim that we can keep on as before. So here are my candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future.
DurableThese are squat, solid, stout words. They conjure a world where we no longer grow by leaps and bounds, but where we hunker down, where we dig in. They are words that we associate with maturity, not youth; with steadiness, not flash. They aren't exciting, but they are comforting — think husband, not boy-friend.
Eaarth by Bill McKibben, Phil England, April 6 2010.
Pioneering environmentalist Bill McKibben hopes to take his readers by the collars and shake them in his new climate change wake-up call, Eaarth
Even those of us who have done our best to look climate change squarely in the eye have had to retreat into comfort zones and shield ourselves from time to time from some of the worst messages coming out of the scientific community. Now, in the wake of the failure of Copenhagen, McKibben challenges us to take the blinkers off.
McKibben was the first author to write a book about climate change for a general audience (The End of Nature in 1989, after James Hansen had first raised this issue in Congress in 1988). Twenty years later, his principle message is that climate change is no longer just a nebulous threat to our grandchildren or to our children; it’s a real and present danger, here and now.
McKibben takes us by the hand and leads us through the profound, and in some cases largely irreversible, effects of the 1C rise in global average temperatures that we have experienced already:
Changes in rainfall patterns are causing permanent drought in places such as Australia and the American Southwest, increasing the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and cyclones and extending the wildfire season in California by 78 days compared to the 1970s and 1980s, with fires burning four times as long.
Increasing temperatures have caused rapid melting of the Arctic, an expansion of the tropics by more than two degrees of latitude both north and south, and provided the conditions for the Mountain Pine Beatle to lay 33m acres of forests in the Rocky Mountains to waste. Ocean acidity is up by 30 per cent and coral reefs are threatened with permanent extinction. Increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather is affecting food security and impacting especially on those who live directly off the land. Natural feedback mechanisms that threaten to accelerate the warming process are starting to kick in.
And, as if to add insult to injury, our predicament is complicated by the fact that we are entering an economic crisis that is likely to become permanent once we fully understand the implications of peak oil. A 2008 study that compared the business-as-usual scenarios of the pioneering 1972 'Limits to Growth' report with thirty years of reality concluded we are indeed on the path to collapse.
In with the new
If you survive this ghost-of-climate-present survey of our ‘new’ planet and make it to the second half of the book, you’ll find that in order for us to survive, McKibben advocates a new mindset that jettisons ideas of growth, consumer lifestyles, bigness and complexity.
Surprisingly for the person who has spearheaded the 350.org’s global campaign to put the latest science at the heart of the global talks on climate change, he has little to say about what a science-based and just global climate deal would look like. When discussing the 'grand bargain' needed to seal an international climate deal, he flags up the parlous state of the economy and the fact that Americans would balk at extra taxes to fund windmills in China, but doesn’t mention any of the alternative sources of finance that are available to negotiators, for example, the proposed 'Robin Hood' Tobin tax on financial transactions.
Rather than discussing the alternatives to economic growth put forward by Herman Daly or Tim Jackson, McKibben proposes that the idea of 'maintenance' should replace 'growth' or 'expansion' as a guiding principle. In an economically broke, climate-changed world what role is there for national government? After a protracted look at American history McKibben concludes, ‘not much’.
His solutions are mainly community-based and focused on meeting our top-line needs: food, energy and, surprisingly perhaps, the internet. He is fantastic on food, highlighting both the impressive upswing of initiatives across the US as well as inspirational solutions for food security in poor countries. Here it is clear that we need to re-localise and go small not because, as McKibben puts it, 'mammals get smaller in the heat and so should governments', but because our current system of industrialised agriculture is vulnerable to peak oil, threatens food security in poorer nations and is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gases. Small, smart, labour-intensive, natural systems are undoubtedly the way to go.
Hot Planet, Cold Facts, Paul Greenberg, April 29 2010.
There ought to be a word, probably in German, for a book that makes the reader boil over with life-changing eco-enthusiasm only to find himself, a month later, reverting to his old Hummer-driving, planet-destroying ways. An informal survey of Germanists has failed to come up with anything. But Bill McKibben has found a planet where such books sell well. It is a world where environmental news goes from bad to worse, a place where ice caps vanish, crops fail, oceans acidify, activists rally and an oil company makes more money in three years “than any company in the history of money.” The place McKibben has discovered is an unpronounceable land called Eaarth. Where is Eaarth, you may ask? Unfortunately, you’re soaking in it.
“Eaarth” is the name McKibben has decided to assign both to his new book and to the planet formerly known as Earth. His point is a fresh one that brings the reader uncomfortably close to climate change. Earth with one “a,” according to McKibben, no longer exists. We have carbonized it out of existence. Two-a Eaarth is now our home. On two-a Eaarth, we are way past the bearable threshold — 350 parts per million — for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and well down the road to a devastating 650 parts per million. Our planet’s vital signs are already weakening, and despite the Gore-green tide washing over the nation’s documentary production houses, we have come to resemble “the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack,” as McKibben puts it. “Now he dines on Lipitor and walks the treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue.” How we proceed with a half-dead heart is McKibben’s primary concern, one that keeps even the morbidly pessimistic reader turning the pages, looking for his own not-too-hot cubbyhole on the superheated planet.
Except, before we get to the cubbyhole, there is a lot of schooling and re-schooling to remind us how backed into a corner we already are. Taking aim at those who talk airily of saving the world “for our grandchildren,” McKibben shows how we are already standing in our grandchildren’s shoes. Sunnier types like Thomas Friedman, who argues that we can shift our energy economy to renewable resources and reclaim the old, cool Earth, are dispatched efficiently. While agreeing with the sentiment behind Friedman’s joie de vert, McKibben points out that even if we were to start an ecological Manhattan Project and build two million large windmills — “four times as many as we built in 2007, every year for the next 40” — we would offset only one-ninth of the carbon output necessary to make our planet vaguely resemble the one into which baby boomers like Friedman (and McKibben) were born.
McKibben also gives an alarming roll call of the ancillary phenomena adding to the carbon-dioxide-caused warming, phenomena the original modelers of climate change did not necessarily take into account. The beetle-driven death and decay of the temperate forests of the Rocky Mountains (beetles spread when unusually warm winter temperatures allow eggs to hatch), which releases yet more carbon dioxide; the belching of methane, an even more effective climate warmer than carbon dioxide, from the defrosting tundra; the transformation of heat-reflecting polar ice caps into heat-absorbing water — all of these once reliable planet coolers are turning into planet toasters, rapidly accelerating global warming beyond what we can reasonably respond to.
Unlike many writers on environmental cataclysm, McKibben is actually a writer, and a very good one at that. He is smart enough to know that the reader needs a dark chuckle of a bone thrown at him now and then to keep plowing through the bad news. On concluding his troubling section on the inevitable precipitous decline of our agricultural system and resulting series of food-related wars, he puckishly remarks: “Well, that’s a tad grim. Not really the career I trained for, fighting other adult males over the fall harvest.” This occasional lightheartedness carries the reader through the book’s thesis and antithesis sections, delivering him, albeit a bit dispirited, to the synthesis part explaining how we might endure life on Eaarth.
It is in this final section, called “Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully,” that the real problems begin. If you are, like McKibben, a grudging optimist who believes that human society can willfully transform into a better version of itself, you might be persuaded by his arguments, some of them new, others a little old hat. Arguments that a smaller, diversified agriculture could add stability to our compromised industrial food-production system. That “growth” as an economic model is inherently flawed and will no longer be viable. That an “uptick of neighboring” will spread the sharing and implementation of practical, Eaarth-friendly how-to-ism. That the Internet could alleviate the rural boredom so many of us dread when we contemplate chucking it all and going back to the land, as he argues we must.
But many of these proposed solutions inadvertently resemble the list of things Christian Lander lampooned in his 2008 best seller “Stuff White People Like”: “farmer’s markets,” “awareness,” “making you feel bad about not going outside,” “vegan/vegetarianism.” It’s not that these things aren’t important. But in the absence of some overarching authority, a kind of ecologically minded Lenin, they will remain hipster lifestyle choices rather than global game changers. Which I suppose in the end is part of McKibben’s point. Eaarth itself will be that ecological Lenin, a harsh environmental dictator that will force us to bend to new rules. The question is whether we will be smart enough to bend ourselves first.
Nonfiction review: 'Eaarth,' by Bill McKibben, Edward C. Wolf, April 17 2010.
Twenty-one years ago, a young writer named Bill McKibben published a bombshell of a book, "The End of Nature." Remembered now as "the first book for a general audience about global warming," it arrived just a year after the scorching summer of 1988 brought wildfires to Yellowstone, drought to the Corn Belt and climate scientist James Hansen to the halls of Congress to tell a panel of senators that global warming had begun.
As McKibben was writing that book, the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere climbed past 350 parts per million, a level Hansen later would call the key to preserving a "planet similar to that on which civilization developed."
Apocalypse leaned close that year, and its whispers changed McKibben's life. Leaving a plum position as a staff writer at The New Yorker, he has since written a series of environmental books (among them, "Hope, Human and Wild" and "Deep Economy") and led a personal crusade to combat climate change that began as a march of friends across Vermont and grew to a nationwide movement and a worldwide day of action.
Now nearing 50, McKibben remains determined to alert readers to the present reality of climate change and the path he believes we must walk to "protect the core of our societies and our civilizations."
His new book "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" sounds a clarion at a time when the findings of climate scientists have been all but drowned out by skeptics and right-wing bombast. McKibben, however, does not doubt that facts will trump ideology. "The world hasn't ended, but the world as we know it has," he writes. "Even if we don't quite know it yet."
McKibben is an eloquent advocate for deep emissions cuts to slow global warming, but making that case is not the purpose of his latest book. Instead, he aims to alert us that on a planet we have altered so profoundly that it deserves a new name ("Eaarth"), we need to shift our lives in light of new realities.
The book surveys the evidence for climate-driven impacts on the planet's major features, challenges the notion that we can grow our way out of this predicament and celebrates locally based, decentralized approaches that McKibben believes can supply food and comfort on our newly volatile home.
In a chapter titled "Backing Off," McKibben turns to colonial history to argue that the debate between big and small solutions is quintessentially American. James Madison and his fellow Federalists won that debate on behalf of "big" the first time around thanks to a unifying national project, the conquest of the West. That project is finished, McKibben points out, leaving us with "a big national government and smaller national purposes." Scaling back begins to sound almost inevitable.
McKibben is inspired by "the quieter movement for what might be called functional independence," the practical folks developing local food systems, insulating homes and making communities work. He clearly believes that every corner of America harbors similar post-peak patriots.
"Eaarth" offers an imperfect but provocative look at "the architecture for the world that comes next, the dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent."
Not quite ready to face that world? Consider this: In 2010, carbon dioxide levels are expected to top 390 parts per million. As McKibben and his colleagues agree, here on Eaarth it's time to get to work.
Genesis in reverse, Andrew Nikiforuk, April 23 2010.
We've cooked the planet, says activist Bill McKibben, but thinking locally, not globally, could help
Bill McKibben has always struck me as a puritanical figure who needs to lighten up a bit. But he's a damn good New England writer and a “real deal” environmental activist. He wrote about climate change long before the Arctic ice shelf collapsed and the oceans started to acidify (The End of Nature). He questioned the wisdom of letting mere mortals engineer different forms of life as casually as Mexican drug gangs cleansing a working-class neighbourhood (Enough). And he's examined the meaning of Job, God and climate change (The Comforting Whirlwind). You'd think he'd be ready to surf the waves on Hawaii's North Shore.
But not McKibben. He's the founder of the carbon-battling 350.org and a man with a gung-ho mission. To appreciate his old-fashioned radicalism, you have to understand his origins: He hails from Lexington, Mass. That's where the American Revolution started. The idea that small communities must revolt against big tyrannies just swims in his blood.
As such, McKibben, a Methodist, remains very much part of the New England congregational tradition, which still informs smart states such as Vermont. The congregational tradition, a small-government creed, holds that the route to a better life (as opposed to better buying) lies in the improvement of individuals, their families, communities and the local economy. Aboriginals call such thinking traditional knowledge. The Greeks call it wisdom and the psychopaths at Goldman Sachs would call it treason. McKibben is convinced it's the way forward.
His oddly titled new book Eaarth reflects our increasingly precarious global existence. (The wonky spelling just suggests that we've cooked the planet and it's no longer the same hospitable place, McKibben says.) Business as usual is over, but our elites can't admit it. The fouling of the atmosphere has ended ten thousands years of relatively benign climate and replaced it with shock-and-awe weather. In other words, the Titanic has left the dock: The ship's owners still worship at the Evangelical Church of Petroleum, and the passengers will have to look out for icebergs on their own.
The hard-core science, though effectively mocked by the moneyed hawkers of heavy crude, grows more alarming every year. The tropics have expanded more than two degrees of latitude north and south since 1980. A study on the freshwater discharge from 950 of the world's largest rivers shows half are declining. The amount of water entering the Pacific has dropped by six per cent. Thanks to fossil-fuel emissions, the oceans are 30 per cent more acidic than they should be. That's calamitous news for coral reefs, crabs and fish eaters. The Arctic ice cap has lost an ice mass equal to 12 nations the size of Great Britain. Misguided adventures with biofuels have increased the ranks of food-poor by 40 million. “We're running Genesis backwards, decreating,” McKibben says.
But getting off oil, and the casino-like revenues that beget unethical governments, won't be easy. McKibben, unlike many greens, recognizes that it took 40 to 50 years to get hooked on our oil-energy slavery, and it will take decades to achieve hydrocarbon emancipation. But bigness won't provide the solutions. “The project we are now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighbourhoods, about blocks.”
We need to know our place again and abandon old party lines, McKibben argues. “It's not clear whether a farmer's market or a local neighbourhood crime watch or a community-owned windmill is a liberal or conservative project. It's some of both.”
Reform, he says, must begin with fundamentals: food and energy, the only two beats in journalism that have ever mattered. And the good news is that ordinary people have started the revolution. The number of small farms in New England grew from 28,000 to 33,000 between 2002 and 2007, increasing for the first time in 150 years. The Institute for Local Self Reliance reports that half of the United States could meet its own energy needs within its own borders. The Slow Money movement promotes the investment of local capital in small local businesses with the goal of making a living as opposed to making a killing. (Calgary's Podium Funds, for example, could well kick-start a national renaissance in local investment.)
McKibben even proposes a new vocabulary for living on this tougher, meaner planet: “durable, sturdy, stable, hardy and robust.” That's Great Depression lingo. It's also the language cherished by modest folks for a long time. I might add to McKibben's sober-minded list a few key additions: truth, perspective and proportion.
All in all, it's an elegant and disquieting read and well worth the time. But two things struck me about McKibben's assessment of our overheated predicament. The first concerns its conservative tone. Our greed had sent us down uncertain paths, and the best we can now do is roll up our sleeves and find atonement in a garden, McKibben says. Greens just may become the renewed face of conservatism while alleged conservatives such as Sarah Palin continue their metamorphosis into petroleum savants.
The second remains McKibben's historic remedy: Small, diversified communities can withstand adversity. Jane Jacobs, Leo Tolstoy and E. F. Schumacher all said that small was sustainable, resilient and beautiful. G. K. Chesterton, by the way, brilliantly offered the same “outline of Sanity” nearly 100 years ago.
Although McKibben's analysis of the big problem (and climate change and peak oil are just that) rings mostly true, his earnestness and clean writing diminish the real conflicts that lie ahead. Like many U.S. military analysts, I suspect there will be blood. You can't end an addiction in a house rocked by repeated climate shocks without tribal and chaotic trauma. It might be more Egad than Eaarth.
Welcome to Eaarth, Scott Gast, April 27 2010.
Bill McKibben’s latest book explores what it’ll take to live on a planet less sweet than it used to be. During a recent stop in Seattle, he described the smaller, slower, and wiser future that may be our best bet.
Author-turned-activist Bill McKibben spoke in Seattle recently, where he outlined what it'll mean to live on a hot new planet.
Bill McKibben was in Addis Ababa recently. And the Maldives before that. Soon, he said, he’ll be heading to China. When I watched him emerge from the stage door at Town Hall in Seattle last week, it seemed entirely plausible that the writer had dispatched a squad of clones to public speaking events and book tours around the globe: Author of 12 books, a prolific contributor to magazines (including this one), and leader of 350.org, the organization responsible for what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history,” McKibben must be eating his Wheaties. Or something.
He was in Seattle to promote his latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, an exploration of the fundamentally new planet we’ve built for ourselves by pumping fossilized carbon into the atmosphere. This new world, McKibben argues, is decidedly less sweet than the one we knew: Hot, with pounding rains, rising seas, and advancing deserts, it’s so different that it needs a new name. Eaarth isn’t the planet we grew up on, but it’s the planet we’ll have to learn to live on. Unfortunately for us, the statistics he rattled off about this new place were uninviting to say the least: The sea is 30 percent more acidic than it would have been without our emissions; the number of hurricanes that tore through the tropical Atlantic rose by 75 percent between 1995 and 2008; 1,700 lightening fires—a new record— torched millions of California acres in June 2008.
You’d expect Seattle, an urban poster child for progressive consciousness, to take environmental warnings in stride. But McKibben’s message last Tuesday night was a tough one for any audience, and silence quickly settled over the room as he spoke: The time for warnings, he stressed, is over. Already nearing 1 degree Celsius (and rising) above the range of temperature variation that defined all of human history, there appears to be no going back. Welcome to Eaarth.
In many ways, Eaarth represents a milestone in McKibben’s remarkable career. His 1989 book, The End of Nature was the first on global warming for a general audience. In it, he argues that nature just isn’t, well, natural any longer. Not with us around anyway. Beginning with the hot coal smoke of the Industrial Revolution, humans have influenced the character and function of every ecosystem on the planet. Enormous systems that once operated independently of us—such as the global carbon cycle—are now, in one way or another, driven by us. For environmentalists (and I’d argue, for humans everywhere), this is a revelation of the drop-everything-and-think kind.
In the years since The End of Nature, McKibben has been unraveling the more dangerous behaviors we’ve taken up in the last 200 years—behaviors that now jeopardize a once-sweet planet. Much of his writing calls for small and local solutions to combat global threats like climate change that have resulted from those behaviors. That’s pretty much the opposite of how we’re running things now: big, centralized, and growing. But in a time when “too big to fail” actually fails, building locally-based means of powering, feeding, and spending might turn out to be both the best idea we’ve got and the most satisfying.
As hair-raising as McKibben’s description of Eaarth is, there was something refreshing about his message last week. Even as “green” has become both a cultural force and a market mover, it’s still a movement that’s largely attached to stuff. Solar arrays, windmills, and scuffles over nuclear power stations are the norm when talking about sustainability; almost no one, it seems, is talking about the problem with bigness. But in Eaarth, McKibben gets right to it:
“Most of all, of course, our time has been the time of bigness—the amazing ever-steepening upward curve, where things grew and grew and grew some more. Economies and road networks and houses, inflating until there were entire subdivisions filled with starter castles for entry-level monarchs. Stomachs and breasts and lips, cars and debts, portions and bonuses. Can we imagine smaller? That is the test of our time.”I glanced around at the nodding audience, crammed wall-to-exit. McKibben seemed to hit a chord with his message: Our biggest problem is an addiction to growth, and our brightest hope is in connecting with the small stuff that has sustained us for so long, like our neighborhoods, farms, and watersheds. It was a surreal feeling, seeing so much agreement with a statement that’s about as heretical as you can get in America. But there they were—bobbing vigorously away while McKibben skewered growth. Thoughts flooded in: Are most people this skeptical of growth? Is there a movement building here? Can this outpouring be turned into political will? When will we see the first mainstream politician run on a “post-growth” platform?
A question I’d carried with me that night was answered as he spoke: What does another book about climate change actually do to avert climate change? Again, McKibben satisfied. Part of the difficulty we’ve had with getting beyond growth, he said, is that “we lack the vocabulary and metaphors we need for life on a different scale.” Ushering in a future that works, then, is partly a literary task. We'll need a new language for naming it into existence—full of fresh words, analogies, images and stories (with the fate of the planet on the table, “hybrid cars” seems like a small answer). So, in that spirit, McKibben has offered the first word for describing that new future: Eaarth. We’re on it. Now what?
The State of the Earth, 2010, Rebecca Solnit, April 22 2010.
We’re in a very bad way. But we also know the solution would make most of us richer—even if not in the ways we are presently accustomed to counting as wealth.
These days, I see how optimistic and positive disaster and apocalypse movies were. Remember how, when those giant asteroids or alien spaceships headed directly for Earth, everyone rallied and acted as one while our leaders led? We’re in a movie like that now, except that there’s not a lot of rallying or much leading above the grassroots level.
The movie is called Climate Change, and you can tell its plot in a number of ways. In one, the alien monsters taking over the planet are called corporations, while the leaders who should be protecting us from their depredations are already subjugated and doing their bidding. Think of Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and the coal companies as gigantic entities that don’t need clean water, or food, and don’t care much if you do (as you can see from the filthy wreckage in their extraction zones and their spin against the science of our survival).
My recent research into conventional disasters suggests that climate change, despite its unconventional scale, is unfolding in ways familiar from the aftermaths of numerous hurricanes and earthquakes: The ruling elites too often “lead” by creating a second wave of destruction, while the rest of us pick up the pieces and do our best to do what’s necessary. This is a movie whose crisis is upon us and whose resolution is out of sight, but if we are to be saved, I’ll put my money on the small characters mitigating the crisis and getting us through the rough times to come.
The Day the Earth Got Stood Up
Last December, the Copenhagen Climate Summit gave the heads of state supposedly negotiating a future climate-change treaty a clear-cut choice between short-term profits for the few and the long-term survival of practically everyone and everything. As I’m sure you’ll recall, they chose the former. You, the summer ice of the Arctic, about half the species on Earth, the shorelines of quite a few places, the glaciers of Glacier National Park, the birds in the trees, the marmots on the mountains, and the long-term future of just about everything were sold out for the sake of the market status quo, not by all the world’s nations, but by the most powerful among them.
Not all of the elected leaders failed us. President Evo Morales of Bolivia called a people’s summit on climate change which is going on right now, and the most threatened countries did a heroic job of facing up to the world’s most powerful ones—tiny Tuvalu, soon to go beneath the waves, told off China, for example. Thanks to their stand and so their insubordination, Bolivia and Ecuador both lost their shot at State Department funding meant for poor countries which need to prepare for future climate-change disasters.
Bill McKibben offers another compelling plot for this horror movie in his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Its premise is not that something terrible came to Earth—after all we were the ones, over the last 200 years, who sent all those billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere—but that we ourselves have landed on a strange, dangerous, unfamiliar new planet he calls Eaarth. Think Forbidden Planet without Robby the Robot; think The Tempest with neither Ariel nor Prospero.
We no longer live on the kind, comfortable, stable planet we evolved on, he begins:
For the last ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we’ve existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged; globally averaged, it’s swung in the narrowest of ranges, between fifty-eight and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. That’s warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plains and valleys year round; it was the "correct" temperature for the marvelous diverse planet that seems right to us. And every aspect of our civilization reflects that particular world.And then he begins to make the case that this planet, the one we’ve always lived on, no longer exists. Nobody marshals facts better than McKibben. The first two chapters of Eaarth line up the evidence in a devastating way to show that climate change is not (despite the political rhetoric of the past decade) some horrid thing to be visited upon our grandchildren. It’s here right now, visiting us. Here’s just a sample of our world today:
We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitoes could not over-winter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and wheat can’t imagine another earth either. Occasionally, in one place or another, there’s an abrupt departure from the norm—a hurricane, a drought, a freeze. But our very language reflects their rarity: freak storms, disturbances.
A NASA study in December 2008 found that warming [of more than a degree and a half Fahrenheit] was enough to trigger a 45 percent increase in thunder-clouds that can rise five miles above the sea, generating ‘super-cells’ with torrents of rain and hail. In fact, total global rainfall is now increasing 1.5 percent a decade. Larger storms over land now create more lightning; every degree Celsius brings about 6 percent more lightning, according to the climate scientist Amanda Staudt. In just one day in June 2008, lightning sparked 1,700 different fires across California, burning a million acres and setting a new state record. These blazes burned on the new earth, not the old one ... In August 2009, scientists reported that lightning strikes in the Arctic had increased twenty-fold, igniting some of the first tundra fires ever observed.Then he mentions that a trillion tons of Greenland’s ice melted between 2003 and 2008, a mass ten times the size of Manhattan. Someone recently pointed out that the term moving at a “glacial pace” makes no sense any more, not now that Greenland’s ice sheet is pitted and undercut by rushing torrents of melt water and the glacial landscape of mountaintops from the Andes to the Rockies is changing with almost blinding speed.
According to the [National Sea Ice Data Center]’s Mark Serrenze, the new data "is reinforcing the notion that the Arctic ice is in its death spiral."
Weird stuff is happening everywhere: Since McKibben’s book went to press, numerous news sources reported that a two-mile-long island in the Bay of Bengal, long fought over by Bangladesh and India, is no longer a bone of contention. The rising waters have erased it.
McKibben doesn’t say a lot about himself in the book, except for some New England anecdotes to which the Massachusetts-raised Vermonter was a witness. Too bad, since he himself could star in the movie you should be watching, the one about the low-key writer-guy who, upon realizing that his excellent writing on climate change isn’t waking us up enough, takes to dashing around the planet to do the job as an activist.
Mr. Smith Goes to Copenhagen. (People eager to suggest that flying is carbon-intensive should check themselves; the world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue, only by collective acts of change of a kind that would lead to China and the United States radically revising their energy policies.) In recent years he seems to have become one of the figures I’ve run across occasionally in my own activism: someone so filled up with purpose they’ve become a conduit for change, and a lot of the personal—like ease and comfort—get washed aside for the sake of the mission. He’s achieved remarkable things. Notably with 350.org.
350 Degrees of Inseparability
A word about that number, 350. For a long time, McKibben relates, the premise, or pretense, was that the parts per million of atmospheric carbon we needed to worry about was 550, double the historic concentration. As it turns out, it was also a random figure, easy to calculate, not too alarming. We weren’t anywhere near there yet, which is why we could frame global warming as some terrible thing that was going to happen way down the road—the grandchildren theory of climate change.
Then the scientists got more data and so more precision about where peril lay: In December of 2007, NASA climatologist James Hansen announced at the American Geophysical Union that 350 was about the upper limit at which life on Earth as we know and like it was likely to continue. We’re now at about 390. We don’t get to go up dozens of more degrees before the peril strikes. We need to go down now, dramatically. Imagine that change of numbers as like shifting from worrying about whether the butter on your toast was going to clog your arteries way down the road to worrying about whether you’d just swallowed a dose of really creepy industrial sludge and should start puking. The crisis was, in fact, in the past, and the future was upon us.
”The day Jim Hansen announced that number was the day I knew we’d never again inhabit the planet I’d been born on, or anything close to it,” McKibben writes in Eaarth. So he co-founded a grassroots organization, 350.org, with a posse of younger activists he’d met through a climate-change campaign in Vermont.
That small team proved something important: that we could respond to what’s happening on our planet with a speed nearly commensurate with the growing danger. The group’s numerical name, with its crystal-clear target, worked in every imaginable language on Eaarth as words would not have.
A year after Hansen’s announcement, McKibben sent me an e-mail:
What we need is a rallying cry, an idea around which to coalesce. That's why we're running 350.org, and why we'll do a huge global day of action on Oct. 24. We need a measuring stick against which to critique Copenhagen, and 350 ppm CO2 is the best one we're going to get. It implies dramatic and urgent and apple-cart-upsetting action, but it comes at it from a position of strength, not defensiveness. Our hope is that a huge worldwide outpouring on Oct. 24 will set a bar to make any action in Copenhagen powerful.It worked.
It Happened One Day
At this point, let Climate Change, the movie, zoom out from following our protagonist to pan the amazing October 24 visual spectacle of groups of all sizes around the world pushing the number 350 — spelling it out (and into our consciousness) with their bodies for overhead photographs, holding signs in tribal villages, schoolyards, and urban plazas, everywhere from Madagascar to Slovakia. In one poignant case, a lone girl in Babylon, Iraq, who—you might think—had enough to worry about already, held up her hand-drawn 350 sign for a photographer who somehow managed to send the picture in to the organization. (I did my own little bit for the day, getting a few writers—Diane DiPrima, Ariel Dorfman, Barry Lopez—to contribute 350-word pieces they’d written to spur on the participants.)
There were more than 5,000 actions in 181 countries, which is to say, in most parts of the world. I’ve asked some groups and it’s clear that quite a lot of people now know what the number 350 means. So did a lot of politicians and policy-makers by the time Copenhagen came around. The action mattered. Things changed.
That day of actions added a key tool to a previously faltering dialogue: suddenly, ordinary people, organizers, and elected officials had a concrete goal to reach for and a point of entry into the complex science of climate change. By the time the Copenhagen conference rolled around, 112 of the participating countries had endorsed that 350 ppm goal, the majority of nations at the conference—if, alas, the poorer and less influential ones.
Still, this took place a mere two years after Hansen first proposed the number as a measure of our global health, an astonishing adaptation to new ideas. The list of 350 endorsers begins at “A” with Afghanistan, which on this issue at least proved a much saner country than the United States, and on through a long list of most of the poor nations, island nations, and African nations, to Vietnam, Yemen, and Zambia.
The list offers a new way of sorting out the world in which the United States finds itself on the wrong side of history, but also of science, nature, and survival. Of course, this country is always a mix: The nation of Jim Crow was also the nation of the Montgomery bus boycott and Freedom Summer, and the nation of the greatest climate emissions per capita is also the nation of Hansen, McKibben, and a host of innovative activists offering practical solutions to the problems climate change poses.
V for Viable
The early part of Eaarth offers the grim news about the way one species, ours, remade our world—so radically that it has become a turbulent, surprisingly inhospitable new planet. And here’s the bad news: No matter what we do, it will continue to get worse, at least for a while, though how much worse depends on whether we act.
Fortunately, the second half of McKibben’s book offers a kind of redemption and a lot to do, and so gives the book the shape of a “V,” if not for victory, then for viability: You tumble into the pit of bad news, then clamber up the narrative of possibility—of what our responses should look like, could look like, must look like. This is where this particular book diverges from the mountains of recent publications on the facts around climate change: If the first half is a science jeremiad, the second half is a very practical handbook.
My friend Patrick Reinsborough of the Smart Meme Project likes to talk about the “battle of the story, rather than the story of the battle,” of the need for activists to pay attention to narratives, because at least half of any battle turns out to be over just what the story is, and who gets to tell it. If we’re ever going to get much of anything done about climate change we’re going to have to change the story—not the scientific story about parts per million of carbon, and black soot, and methane in the atmosphere, which we need to find ways to broadcast over the white noise of corporate-funded climate denial, but the story of what we might want to do about it.
Right now, the story that everyone tends to tell, no matter what their political positions on climate change, is about renunciation: we’ll have to give up cars, big houses, air travel, all our toys and pleasures. It’s a story where we get poorer. No one but saints and ascetics likes giving things up. What’s exhilarating about Eaarth is that McKibben has a surprisingly different tale to tell. His version of the solution would make most of us richer—even if not in the ways we are presently accustomed to counting as wealth.
His vision is kind of delicious, at least if you like participatory democracy, local power, community, real security, and good food. Okay, it requires renunciation—but of things a lot of us would love to give up, including the whole alienated mode in which both power and production are centralized in remote and politically inaccessible sites—from food produced overseas to decisions made in furtive board meetings of multinational corporations. These things are awful for a lot of reasons, but the salient one is that they’re part of the carbon-intensive conventional economy. So they have to go.
Eaarth is actually an exceedingly polite, understated cry for revolution, but one that makes it clear how differently we need to do a whole lot of basic things. If it’s all about how you tell the story, then McKibben tells one that hasn’t, until now, been associated with climate change, one in which life, in ways that really matter, gets better. And it’s a winner, maybe even a game-changer.
Cheap Is the New Expensive
Another writer, David Kirby, was on my local radio station, KALW, the other day talking about his book, Animal Factory, and making the case that cheap meat is actually very expensive—if you count the impact on human health and the environment. Swine flu, which killed tens of thousands, sickened millions around the globe, and cost us a lot in terms of vaccines and treatments, likely evolved on one of the giant animal concentration units that pass for farms nowadays, and so host antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as concentrations of pollution from animal waste that harm hundreds of thousands or millions directly. “Should the multibillion [dollar] cost of swine flu be factored into the cost of every pork chop sold?” he asks, and adds, “And if so, what would that come out to, per pound?”
In the same way, the American way of life—often portrayed as a pinnacle of affluence—is in many ways deeply impoverished. We’re not poor in material goods, from new houses to hamburgers, though their quality is often dubious, and the wealthiest country the world has ever seen produces surprising amounts of hunger, poverty, and homelessness through the misdistribution of that wealth.
Even for the affluent, everyday American life is often remarkably impoverished, if measured in terms of free time, social connectedness, political engagement, meaningful work, or other things harder to calibrate than the horsepower of your engine or the square feet of your McMansion. And this way of living produces the carbon that is replacing the planet we evolved on with McKibben’s Eaarth—about as high a price as we could pay, short of extinction.
Cheap oil requires our insanely expensive military whose annual budget amounts to nearly as much as the rest of the world’s militaries put together, a crazy foreign policy, and in the past decade, a lot of death in the Middle East. It also pushes along the destruction of nearly everything via climate-change, a cost so terrible that the word “unaffordable” doesn’t begin to describe it. “Unimaginable” might, except that the point of all the data and data projections is to imagine it clearly enough so that we react to it.
McKibben’s vision of a world in which we might survive and even lead decent lives features decentralized food and energy production. Farewell, mega-corporations! (Though, unlike me, he’s pretty polite about their influence on our society and the environment.) His suggested mode of doing things—a vision of an alternative to capitalism as we know it—could be flexible, adapted to the peculiarities of regions, and low-carbon or carbon-neutral, unlike the systems on which we now rely. It would also require people to become more involved in local economies, ecologies, and policies, which is the scale at which viable adaptation seems likely to work best. (This is ground he covered in his 2007 book Deep Economy.)
His is, in fact, a vision of the good life that a host of flourishing institutions like farmers' markets and community-assisted agriculture, organic farming, and small-scale farms are already embracing. In many ways, the solutions to our crisis are under development all around us, if only we’d care to notice.
They are here in our world in bits and pieces, as well as in parts of the so-called underdeveloped world that someday may turn out to be the sustainably developed world. They need, however, to be implemented on a grand scale—not by scaling them up, because their smallness is their beauty and efficiency, but by multiplying them until they become the norm. If they require losing what we have, they promise to recover what we've lost.
(Not So) Titanic
McKibben ends his book by marshaling a host of statistics and stories about just how this kind of agriculture works, now, around the world, and ways, in the future, alternative energies could be similarly innovative and effective. So, of course, could a commitment to energy efficiency. The first changes we could make, starting tomorrow, undoubtedly involve reengineering everything from buildings to transit in the name of energy efficiency.
I live in a state that decided to implement such efficiency measures after the oil crisis of the 1970s. As a result, the average Californian now uses about half as much energy as the average American, not out of saintliness, but out of sophistication. We need to reduce our energy consumption by a huge percentage, but McKibben points out we could achieve the first 20 percent of the necessary reduction through efficiency alone, which is a painless step. I can testify that it doesn’t feel like renouncing anything to live in better-built structures with better-designed machines.
To survive, McKibben suggests, we’ll also need a lot of flexible, responsive institutions that aren’t too big to fail or too big to adapt to the coming climate chaos. Describing a little inner-city savings and loan in Los Angeles, he writes:
There’s nothing that Broadway Federal could do to trigger a recession, and that’s the other advantage of smallness: mistakes are mistakes, not crises, until they’re interconnected into a massive system. Many small things breed a kind of stability; a few big things endanger it—better the Fortune 500,000 than the Fortune 500 (unless you want to be an eight-figure CEO).A lot of people don’t even want to take in the reality of climate change, let alone do anything about it, because it seems so overwhelming. Eaarth’s most significant strength lies in the way it breaks our potential response to climate change’s enormity down into actions and possible changes that not only seem viable and graspable, but alluring. One of the most interesting phenomena of the Bush era was the way addressing climate change here in the United States devolved to the level of states, regions, and cities—the U.S. Council of Mayors got behind doing something for the environment (and us) at a time when the federal government was intent only on making the world safe for oil barons. It was in this same period that the state of California set emissions standards for vehicles that the Obama administration has now adapted.
But that administration isn’t doing nearly what’s required either. Last year, speaking of the economy, Barack Obama said: "Look back four years from now, I think, hopefully, people will judge [our] body of work and say, 'This is a big ocean liner, it's not a speedboat. It doesn't turn around immediately.''
It’s an unfortunate thing to say, since the most familiar image of ocean liners in popular culture involves a calamitous meeting with an iceberg 98 years ago. If we were imagining climate change as a movie, our ship of state would still ram the iceberg, but this time the passengers would have debarked ahead of time.
If the ship of state can’t turn in time to avert catastrophe, it's time to jump ship and put ourselves into small, mobile lifeboats, canoes, outriggers, and kayaks. The age of the giants is over; the future belongs to the small fry. If we want to have a future, that is. It’s really your choice because, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you’re also starring in this movie.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Jay Kilby, May 6 2010.
Bill McKibben's Eaarth has an extra "a" to drive home his point that we have irrevocably changed the planet we inhabit. He argues that warnings about the need to prevent dire effects of climate change for our grandchildren are misplaced because they fail to recognize that the environmental crisis has occurred more quickly than anticipated. It is already upon us. Climate scientists were conservative in their original estimates that in order to avoid catastrophic changes, we must avoid 550 ppm (parts per million) CO2 in our atmosphere, and then 450 ppm. James Hansen has recently revised the estimated crisis point to 350 ppm, and we are currently at 395 ppm. Scientists underestimated the capacity of the small temperature change we have already experienced to wreak havoc upon a previously stable, more hospitable global environment.
The New Planet
How does McKibben know that we live on a different planet than our parents occupied? We now understand more clearly the effects of the near 1 degree Celsius increase that has already occurred.
For example, a December, 2008 NASA study reported that this single degree is enough to increase thunderstorms over the ocean by 45%. A warmer atmosphere evaporates moisture from arid areas more rapidly, but also holds more moisture, causing more intense downpours when it does rain.
Tropical climates have expanded to include an additional 8.5 million square miles, pushing arid subtopic regions further north and south. New aridity has created a 40 million ton reduction in wheat, corn and barley yields worldwide.
Global rainfall is increasing at 1.5% per decade, and our single degree Celsius increase has created a 6% increase in lightning strikes, which along with more arid conditions in dry areas, has led to record increases in forest fires. Fires burn, on average, four times as long as they did a generation ago, pumping additional large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures have allowed destructive insects, such as the mountain pine beetle, to move further north and to higher elevations in the U.S. Rockies and Canada, where they have decimated enormous tracts of forest, further increasing fire risk. The destruction from fire in dead forests is followed by mudslides and soil erosion.
Melting in the Arctic has proceeded much faster than predicted. By 2007, the Arctic ice cap was over a million square miles smaller than ever before recorded. From 2003 to 2008, an area of ice on Greenland 10 times the size of Manhattan melted, and in 2008, the West Antarctic was losing ice 75% faster than a decade before. The governments of the Maldives and the Pacific island nation of Kiribati have announced plans to buy land abroad in order to relocate their populations when rising sea levels make this necessary.
From 1995-2008, frequency of hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic increased by 75% over the previous 13 year span, and the last 30 years have seen four times as many weather-related disasters as the first three quarters of the 20th century combined.
The ocean has become more acidic than at any time in the past 800 years, and by 2009, the Pacific oyster industry was reporting an 80% mortality rate for oyster larvae.
Lack of sufficient money to meet the challenges ahead will be a major problem. We have allowed the infrastructure in the U.S. to fall into serious disrepair, and as the recession softens, the price of oil will return to record highs. But in addition, the new planet we’ve created will cost us more than we are accustomed to – much more. Insurance companies estimate costs based on statistics from previous decades, but they are beginning to understand that the past is no longer a reliable guide for anticipating disasters in a warmer world. In a world where hurricanes are more frequent and powerful, where droughts that used to be occasional have become permanent, where fires occur more often and burn longer, where rains are torrential and floods more common, and where disasters follow one another so frequently that companies are unable to recover their losses before another strikes, insurance companies will go broke and taxpayers will increasingly bear the brunt of costs for natural disasters. And this is the new “developed” world.
Things are much worse in poor countries. In Bangladesh, for example, rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further inland, affecting croplands, and an impoverished population is now facing the spread of dengue fever, a deadly disease that has expanded into new regions. A warmer climate has extended the range of Aedies aegypti, a particular species of mosquito that carries dengue fever, and reduced the size of the males, which in turn increases their feeding rate. The entire system of river valleys in southern and eastern Asia will be threatened by loss of glacial melt from the Himalayas. In 2008, the World Bank found that now 1.4 billion people are making less than $1.25. This is 430 million more than previously estimated. Dwindling water resources have already contributed significantly to conflicts such as Darfur. Climate change will further deplete water and grain resources, creating more conflict. A Pentagon sponsored report forecasts that, “As abrupt climate change hits home, warfare may again come to define human life.”
McKibben argues that we have underestimated not only the pace of global warming, but also the magnitude of change it will require on our part. The lack of remaining oil on our planet along with frenetic new energy demands by developing countries such as China will make it impossible to grow our way out of the climate crisis through technological innovation. If we turn to increased reliance on coal for our energy needs, this will guarantee inability to draw CO2 levels back down to 350 ppm, and “clean coal,” as well as nuclear options, will be too expensive to solve our emissions problem. Environmental advocates such as Al Gore and Thomas Friedman are underestimating the expense involved in converting a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy economy. Renewable sources will indeed expand rapidly, but because effects of climate change are happening more quickly and dramatically than anticipated, we will not have enough time or money to save ourselves through such projects as massive smart grids that transport renewable energy where it is needed. To illustrate, if we built four times as many windmills as in 2007 every year for the next 40 years, that would still only solve about one ninth of the global warming problem.
According to McKibben, the magnitude of the climate crisis will require that we undergo a fundamental shift in attitude. We will need to give up our assumption that economic growth is necessary or inevitable and adopt a new goal of durability. The environmental challenge will demand that we set our sights on hunkering down, learning how to endure.
This means thinking of solutions and lifestyle changes on a smaller, local level. Decentralized solutions are less susceptible to the hazards of tightly interconnected global systems. We have become so dependent on international institutions that failure of a few big banks can bring down the global economy, and failure of an international energy supply could do the same. Similarly, failure of an international grain market can bring worldwide hunger. In McKibben’s view, “too big to fail” is by definition too big, and the resilience that the new planet demands will be best met through a constellation of local communities that have become relatively independent in meeting their own needs for food and energy.
Our modern agricultural methods use four hundred gallons of oil each year to feed the average American, without including energy used to package, refrigerate or cook the food. Some estimate that every third or fourth person on earth is now dependent for his food upon the use of natural gas to produce fertilizer. Modern agriculture employs ever-fewer farmers who use sophisticated mechanized equipment, genetically modified seeds, and large amounts of agrochemicals to cultivate large tracts of land. Many assume that without these methods, we would be unable to feed the world’s growing population. McKibben takes issue with that assumption.
Recent research on non-conventional agriculture has discovered that a host of organic methods can be used to dramatically raise productivity on small farms. By intercropping, growing alternative crops between rows, small farmers can double their output. Peasants women in the Himalayas have learned to grow millet, amaranth, pigeon pea, black gram, horse gram, soybean, rice beans, cowpea, and finger millet in mixtures and rotations that produce yields six times as high as those produced on an equivalent plot of industrially farmed rice. Indonesian farmers have learned that using natural predatory bugs rather than pesticide to control destructive insects allows them to grow fish among their rice paddies, adding nutrients to the soil and producing an additional seven hundred kilograms of fish per hectare of cropland. East African maize farmers have improved soil fertility by adding nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs to their fields, which also provide a source of firewood. Farmers in Honduras have learned that a new velvet-bean crop adds fertile topsoil when it rots, tripling or quadrupling their yields. British scientists have helped Kenyans to control pests through semio-chemicals that attract and repel insects. They plant some grasses that attract parasites that feed on corn borers and other grasses that repel the borers. McKibben describes a particular farm in Bangladesh that grew dozens of fruits, vegetables, and spices, as well as ducklings, chickens and fish that produced not only protein, but also fertilizer for plants. The farmer claimed that, "food is everywhere, and in twelve hours it will double." The variety in this example illustrates one of McKibben's central points - that these local farms are far better equipped to provide the endurance our new planet demands. Loss of particular varieties to disease or changing weather patterns will not bring the entire food chain down if we develop local variation. Constant experimentation and diversification at the local level produces a food supply far more resilient than can be achieved through industrial mono-cropping.
It is true that such local farming is much more labor intensive, which raises costs. However, McKibben believes that if we shift our political resources away from industrial agriculture toward greater support for local farming, and cut out the middlemen currently involved in transporting, storing, packaging, and advertising supermarket food, local farming can become economically viable. At any rate, dwindling energy resources and environmental pressures will make a shift away from industrial farming necessary.
As with agriculture, large, centrally controlled energy sources are more vulnerable and less resilient than widely dispersed, relatively independent local sources. A Pentagon study concluded that in a single night, a few people could cut-off natural gas from the eastern United States for an entire year. Moreover, transporting energy long distances is inefficient. For example, although North Dakota clearly generates much more wind power than does Ohio, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that once the cost of building transmission lines and loss of electrical power from transporting it are taken into consideration, Ohio consumers could produce their own wind power more cheaply than if they received it from North Dakota. Jim Harvey, the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Energy, claims that research demonstrates that we can get renewable energy up and running faster and cheaper by supporting local rooftop solar panels than a high transmission grid distributing renewable energy from centrally located sources. However, the utilities are opposed to widely distributed power, which would force them to relinquish control over energy.
McKibben has a different vision for confronting climate change than such influential voices as Al Gore, Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs. He believes that even these bright, well-intentioned people have not yet grasped the magnitude of the challenge and the response that it demands. McKibben has much less faith than they that a growing new green economy and innovative technologies will get us out of this mess. He believes that too much damage has already been done, rendering these solutions too slow and too expensive to be feasible. McKibben and the others agree that we need a dramatic ramping up of energy conservation as a first step. They all recommend government support for more sustainable, local farming methods and locally generated energy. But McKibben goes further in arguing that our very assumption that the economy must grow will have to change in order to cope with shrinking resources and the pressure that economic development is placing on our environment.
The path he is recommending cuts across political ideological lines. His mistrust of grand plans forged in Washington and call for greater support for local initiatives will strike a familiar chord with conservatives. He even devotes a considerable portion of the book to a history of American roots in decentralized self reliance and opposition to a national bank and strong centralized government.
But McKibben is not a conservative ideologue. He recognizes that localism can degenerate into narrow parochial prejudice and irresponsible policy - "Our National Projects weren't only about paving highways. They were also about guaranteeing civil rights and setting aside wilderness areas, protecting free speech and endangered species. Such advances would fare less well, at least in places, if we broke the country down into tiny slivers. One imagines the Alaska Independence Party, for example, would drill for oil in every square inch of the tundra, caribou be damned." Moreover, his suspicion of "big" extends to big business at least as much as big government.
He is recommending a selective, not wholesale, return to localism. The internet, for example, will continue to provide an important and relatively low-energy resource of worldwide information and global connection. However, the essential activities of food and energy production, and the economic activity they support, should be returned largely to local communities. This will mean buying more from local merchants and relying more on local banks. It will mean living with less stuff - no more low, low prices from Wal-Mart. But there is an upside as well. We may rediscover that our social needs are better served through a local economy that requires us to communicate with, and depend more on, our neighbors.
From our present vantage point, it is very difficult to judge whether Friedman and Gore or McKibben knows best. Should we make major investments in a national grid and technological innovation to drive a growing green economy, or should we focus our efforts on support for decentralized, organic farming and decent payments to homeowners for the electricity they generate from their rooftop solar panels? Our planet is changing so rapidly in so many unprecedented ways and interacting with our global economy in such complex fashion that a multitude of outcomes are possible. Conventional wisdom dictates that in view of such uncertainty, we put our eggs in multiple baskets - invest in multiple potential solutions. But given the present political climate and the considerable influence that the fossil fuel, automobile and agribusiness industries continue to exercise, we will likely delay taking significant action of any kind at the federal level. At least for the time being, whatever progress we make will be on the local or state levels, without a great deal of support from the U.S. Senate.