“The momentum of the heating, and the momentum of the economy that powers it, can’t be turned off quickly enough to prevent hideous damage. But we will keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit that damage.”
Bill McKibben’s words occur on the final page of his newly published book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. The misspelling indicates a planet still recognisable but fundamentally changed. A planet that he first warned about over twenty years ago in his earlier book, The End of Nature.
McKibben is an activist as well as a writer. He led the 350.org campaign last year. 350 parts per million is the level James Hansen and other scientists consider the upper limit of a safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. McKibben’s team adopted that figure to spearhead their internet-based campaign which saw public actions in many parts of the world in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference. Nothing happened at that conference to suggest that the world is about to take the necessary steps to avoid dangerous climate change. Eaarth recognises that we are heading to a world different from that in which civilisation has developed.
It won’t be a better world. We can expect a planet “with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.” McKibben considers the process well under way. He says we may, if we’re very lucky and very committed, eventually get atmospheric carbon dioxide back down to 350 parts per million, but great damage will have been done along the way, on land and in the sea. There’s no longer any escaping that. He’s unrelenting as he lists why. Disparate data points such as the higher susceptibility of Chinook salmon to parasites, or the advancing ocean at a beach in North Carolina, or the more flourishing growth of ragweed, are part of the picture. So are the numerous stories of poor people who are grappling with new uncertainties in the seasons and rains that can no longer be counted on. But the rapid changes in huge physical features are the most telling. They are completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilisation. Here he includes the melting Arctic ice cap, the loss of Greenland ice, the acidifying and rising oceans, the more powerful hurricanes, the melting inland glaciers of the Andes and the Himalayas, the drying rainforest of the Amazon, the dying boreal forests of North America. They are big trends; once they get rolling we can’t stop them.
The growth paradigm won’t help, sympathetic though McKibben is to green growth advocates like Friedman and Gore. He realises this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American” but proceeds to make his case. Infrastructure, already neglected, is imposing steadily rising costs. Recovery from flooding is enormously expensive. Insurance costs are climbing. Endless expansion spells all kinds of trouble, including wars over climate change-affected resources. He looks back to the book Limits to Growth commissioned in 1972 by the small group of European industrialists and scientists known as the Club of Rome. The book was translated into 30 languages and sold 30 million copies. But it was before its time. He quotes from a 2002 ad from Exxon Mobil: “In 1972, the Club of Rome published ‘Limits to Growth,’ questioning the sustainability of economic and population growth….The Club of Rome was wrong.” Not wrong, McKibben rejoins, just ahead of the curve. “You can ignore environmental problems for a long time, but when they catch up to you, they catch up fast.” Basically, he says, the book was right. “You grow too large, and then you run out of oil and the Arctic melts.”
Scientists have not exaggerated our environmental woes; they’re more likely to have understated them. We are in deep trouble. The question is how to survive what is coming at us. McKibben proposes words to help us think usefully about the future. Durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust. “Squat, solid, stout words.” The racehorse, fleet and showy, has to become the workhorse, dependable and long-lasting. In place of expansion and growth we need maintenance and repair. The transition from a system that demands growth to one that can live without it. In this context he speaks of dispersing resources, of tilting back from heavy centralisation towards lower levels of government and smaller societies. On a tougher planet community needs to come back into its own. “We are going to need to split up, at least a little, if we’re going to avoid being subdued by the forces we’ve unleashed.”
He pursues this theme into the essentials of our future: food, energy, and the internet. Industrially farmed monocultures may produce impressive results to begin with, but their success is outweighed by the productivity of small farms. He disagrees with those who claim that only industrial farming can provide the food the growing population will need. Even World Bank economists now accept that redistribution of land to small farmers would lead to greater overall productivity. The US Department of Agriculture reports that according to its latest census smaller farms produce more food per acre, whether measured in tons, calories or dollars. New information, new science and new technologies are further assisting this productivity. He instances a large organic farm in upstate New York: “…we substitute observation, management, planning, and education for purchased inputs.” Resilience is the word McKibben uses to describe smaller scale farming, such as the resilience “which comes with three dozen different crops in one field, not a vast ocean of corn or soybeans”. He is, of course, an advocate of the consumption of locally produced food wherever possible.
He’s also an advocate of the local and dispersed when it comes to energy production. Energy conservation is the first. step. After that, he considers that the potential of locally produced energy via wind turbines and solar panels and biomass is underestimated. He quotes one study which showed that half of all American states could meet their energy needs entirely within their borders, and most could meet a significant percentage.
The internet looks the odd man out in this localising process. In some respects it is. It ensures that we are never stifled by the local or out of touch with the major information sources we need. But it is decentralised, and also it can be used for local purposes, for which use he offers several examples. It was crucial in the 350.org campaign which mobilised the localised demonstrations last year.
McKibben writes with great verve. His book is packed with real life stories and illustrations. There is nothing stolid about his presentation. Indeed the vigour and aptness of his prose can sometimes have the reader temporarily forgetting the utter seriousness of the situation he confronts. But he means it when he says: “The Holocene is staggered, the only world that humans have known is suddenly reeling.” The hunkering down process he urges is presented not as a preference but as a necessity if we are to avoid the threat of total collapse in the hard times ahead.
There is urgency in McKibben’s writing, but he doesn’t clobber the reader. His book is reasonable and engaging, an invitation to discussion and consideration. It merits both, as a serious contribution to the most fundamental issue of our time.