Doomsday Book: Bill McKibben's 'Eaarth'

The effects of global warming in the Arctic are painfully visible as the ice melts at an alarming rate. Seen here from August 2008 is the Ilulissat glacier, one of the biggest and most active in the world, on the western coast of Greenland | Photo: STEEN ULRIK JOHANNESSEN/AFP/Getty Images

We're cooked.

That may be the only reasonable conclusion you can reach after reading Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, a penetrating analysis of climate change's impact on life as we (and all other species) know it. So disruptive has it already become, so tumultuous will it continue to be, that McKibben has resorted to re-naming our planet in an attempt to convey the magnitude of the alterations that will beset us evermore.

"The world hasn't ended, but the world as we know it has--even though we don't quite know it yet," he writes. That's why we "imagine...that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they're not. It's a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth."

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McKibben, who will be delivering Pomona College's Distinguished Lecture this Thursday (information), and will be participating in the two-day, follow-up conference in Claremont dubbed Brave New Planet, has been much in the news of late. He's been a key organizer of the movement to block the federal government's approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which if constructed would sluice tar-sands oil from Canada to U. S. refineries; a long train of destruction would flow in its wake. To generate a national uproar about its deleterious implications for public health, McKibben has been a galvanizing presence in the streets (he was arrested outside the White House in September); and offering clarion calls in the media (writing a steady stream of commentary decrying the too-cozy relationship between the Obama Administration and Keystone XL employees and lobbyists). He's a public intellectual with a public conscience.

Like other such conscientious souls, McKibben has become increasingly concerned that the American public, and its political leaders, have failed to grasp the significance of climate change. This is reflected, he notes shrewdly, in the diction and tone we employ when talking about the meteorological forces already buffeting the planet. Much more often than not, we urge ourselves to lower emissions so that subsequent generations may continue to enjoy the world as we have experienced it. "Will our children know the thrill of holding their child's hand," Senator Barbara Boxer wondered in 2008, "watching with excitement a towering snow-capped mountain or awesome, calving glaciers?"

For all its evocative imagery, Boxer's query is unconsciously canned: McKibben's Google search for similar sentiments turned up more than half-a-million "essentially identical and anodyne responses." Yet these heartfelt effusions miss the point, he concludes--the future that we fantasize about saving for our progeny was undercut when our great-grandparents stoked the furnaces of the industrial revolution.

That does not give us a lot of room to maneuver, a point McKibben is quite willing to make: after all, the first tocsin went off in 1824, when Joseph Fourier identified what we now call the Greenhouse Effect; the second blared forth in 1895 when Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, suggested that the release of carbon dioxide intensified the Earth-warming impact that Fourier had calculated 71 years earlier. We can't say we weren't warned.

Actually, we can and lots of folks do, gamboling in that happy land of denial. But their willful rejection of the overwhelming level of scientific evidence is immaterial. Texas Governor Rick Perry can have "climate change" edited out of as many official reports as he wants--that does not change the fact that water levels are rising along the Gulf Coast, imperiling local ecosystems and regional economies.

Given this right-wing pushback against all things climatic, there is no little irony that McKibben finds his prescription for how Americans will best adapt in a talking point lifted from Ron Paul or the new Mitt Romney or Perry or Michele Bachman: Washington will not, because it cannot, be the solution: "conservatives are correct about the inherent inefficiency of big government."

More efficient, more stable, more hopeful are grassroots resolutions: "We've got a lot of work to do if we are going to survive on this Eaarth, but most of it needs to be done closer to home. Small not big; dispersed, not centralized."

Spoken like a true Vermonter. And the Green Mountain State (Mckibben teaches at Middlebury College) figures prominently in his rhetorical asides about the innovative actions and communal cohesion possible in its narrow valleys. It is evident too in his broader vision for how local food and local money and local energy will become the mainstay of life. This perspective is nicely captured in the title of one of his earlier books, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007).

Bill McKibben | Photo: © Nancie Battaglia)

It is reflected as well in the lessons he draws from the American past. Our grand projects that determined the course of human events over the past century--an imperialism domestic and global; transcontinental transportation grids; a capitalist economy of international reach; wars hot and cold--required a massive nation-state. "Vermont wasn't going to send a man to the moon," McKibben observes wryly; "Delaware couldn't make Moscow quail."

That work--courtesy of federalists from Alexander Hamilton to the present--is now over. "Our projects, if we are wise, will be myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the whole world." Should this become the new mission--"and on an uphill planet I think it's almost inevitable"--then the concentration of power in Washington that has been a hallmark of the post-Civil War era "will begin to tilt toward lower levels of government." If so, then ours will be "a more Jeffersonian future than a Hamiltonian one."

Whether this ideal, derived from a tiny state of 625,000 people, will be lost in translation when applied to one in which nearly 37 million reside, is an open question. Debatable too is whether local agriculture--in California or anywhere else--will have the capacity to sustain a planetary population of 7 billion. Will urban centers like Los Angeles (pop. 17 million), which many predict will be more resilient due to their inventive energy and economies of scale, actually fail? Will the City of Angels, like Rome of yore, become a mere shadow of its former self?

Although McKibben does not directly address these concerns, his projections are as arresting as they are disorienting: "Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks." To hold on, in a world that climate change has wrought, we must "make our societies safer, and that means making them smaller. It means, since we live on a different planet, a different kind of civilization."

This is not, he believes, a recipe for disaster, but of hope.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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