Friday, May 21, 2010

Review of "Eaarth" by Bill McKibben

A couple of weeks ago I read Paul Greenberg's excellent review, "Hot Planet, Cold Facts," of Bill McKibben's newest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. I immediately put a hold on it at the public library. It arrived yesterday, and I read it after dinner last night. I'm not an especially fast reader, but this is an especially readable book. McKibben is more than a prophet of doom; he is also a clear and witty writer who often made me laugh out loud.

Yes, there are supposed to be two a's in Eaarth - McKibben's point is that over the last four decades, "the earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived." It is so different, in fact, that "it needs a new name." And we Eaarthlings are in such denial about the differences that we probably need a global AA-style intervention, though McKibben nowhere suggests that the double-A is a pun.

Note that word already. It has become customary for the environmentally conscious to bewail the legacy we are leaving our grandchildren. "If you've got a spare month some time, google global warming and grandchildren," McKibben suggests, giving examples of "essentially identical and anodyne responses" from Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Lieberman, David Attenborough, Bill Clinton, and Roger Ebert, among others. As Barack Obama said in 2008, "This is our generation's moment to save future generations from global catastrophe."

Sorry, says McKibben - global catastrophe is already here. The earth bumped along quite nicely for 10,000 years with 275 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and then we started burning fossil fuels and the level started to rise. We'll be in big trouble when the level hits 550ppm, scientists used to say. Then they brought the number down to 450ppm - "still 15 percent above our current levels," so people continued to think in terms of future generations. In December 2007, however,
James Hansen, still the planet's leading climatologist, ... summarized both the real-world data that had emerged in recent years, including the ice-melt, and also the large body of research on paleoclimate - basically, the attempt to understand what had happened in the distant past when carbon dioxide levels climbed and fell. Taken together, he said, these two lines of inquiry made it clear that the safe number was, at most, 350 parts per million.
According to McKibben's website,, we're now at 387ppm.

The results are already devastating parts of the world. If we were magically able to turn back the clock and bring CO2 levels down to 350ppm or lower, we would still be living with the effects of a thawed Arctic, acidified oceans, changed rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and so on. About half of Eaarth describes these effects, and they are far more serious than most of us comfortable Americans can imagine. "We're not ... going to get back the planet we used to have, the one on which our civilization developed," McKibben writes. "We're like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack. Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on the treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue."

So do we just lie down in our hammocks and wait for the end? Not if we're anything like Bill McKibben. In the last half of the book, he tells us how we need to live in this new and terrifying earth we have created.

Unlike Thomas Friedman, who "serves as a kind of political GPS unit, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they're in the know, but never beyond the comforting bounds of conventional wisdom," McKibben does not think our salvation lies in great global projects that will allow us to maintain our faith in economic growth. Some large-scale projects -  providing alternative energy sources, for example - are necessary and good - but there's no way we can afford the number of such projects we would need in order to continue our rush to Bigger and Better.

McKibben's solution, by contrast, is Small and Local. Instead of hauling food around the world, we need to foster family farms. Instead of constant flying and driving, we need to keep in touch with the rest of the world through the Internet. Instead of building giant centralized power plants, we need to develop many local power sources. Instead of relying on the federal government for everything, we need to take back our communities.

Suddenly the left-leaning activist of the book's first half is sounding like a Tea Party libertarian, or a nostalgic flower child. As Greenberg wryly commented, "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.'"

True, but that doesn't distract from McKibben's message: The earth has already changed. Many of the changes are permanent. In order to thrive in this new earth - Eaarth - we are going to have to change too. Not cosmetically, not temporarily, but fundamentally.

Click to read Jed Lipinski's Salon interview with Bill McKibben, "'Eaarth': Earth is over."

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