Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

“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.

51 thoughts on “Eaarth”

  1. Another book full of leftist nonsense. Do you actually read anything from a different perspective Bryan? I have yet to see a review of Superfreakonomics here.

    His assumptions about keys aspects of his ideas are full of holes. Ethiopia and Zimbabwe are prime examples of where small scale farming is the problem not the solution.

    Zimbabwe used to be self-sufficient in agricultural produce with a large cash crop surplus hich formed the basis for the formal economy. After Zimbabwe's "land reform" programme redistributed the large commercial farms to peasent farmers productivity dropped to the extent that the Zimbabwean economy is a basket case.

    Eithopia has more than enough arable land that is well watered to feed it's population. The problem is the state owns all the land and instead of efficient famers being able to increase their farm sizes farms are being subdivided into small and small areas. These small farms make next to no surplus and therefore when droughts inevitable hit there is starvation.

    1. More content-free assertions, Gosman? I was talking recently to someone who knows the situation in Zimbabwe well, and her view was that Mugabe's land "reforms" had nothing to do with redistribution to peasants. All the best big farms have ended up with Mugabe's henchmen – basically treated as booty. The peasants have been forced off the land in many cases, not given their own farms.

      It appears you think that any approach to solve the climate and resource problem is "leftist nonsense". If that's not the case, please enlighten us. Give the problem the same weight as McKibben, and propose a way out of it.

      1. Quite wrong there Gareth.

        I regard myself as quite an expert on the situation in Zimbabwe.

        There are two types of farms involved in the redistribution exercise A1 and A2. A1 farms were ones that have been allocated to small scale peasent farmers. A2 farms are larger commercial units. It is the A2 farms that have largely been allocated to Zanu-PF cronies. However these are also some of the more productive ones still.

        The vast majority of A1 and A2 farms have been created out of former Commercial farms. The A1 farms are the ones where large areas of land lay fallow. The reason for this is because the small scale peasent farmers can not get sufficient inputs to grow the same amount of crops that the previous commercial farmers managed to produce. Why is this you might ask? Because banks won't lend any money to them because they can't get any security for the loans. This is because all land is in the hands of the Government who only issues 99 year leases.

        a has been a redistribution of farms.

        1. Here is a link to some information about the problems with Zimbabwean farming as a result of the "land reform". Please note that the commentator (From the MDC, so not pro-Zanu-PF by any stretch), has stated that 200 000 families were given land under the land distribution exercise and that the problem is one of access to inputs.

        2. In other words, you now concede that the problems in Zimbabwe have nothing to do with the size of the farms per se, but the way the government is running the country.

          And in Ethiopia, you note that it's a political problem as well…

          Just a contrarian, aren't you…

          1. Ahhh…. incorrect. The problems is that the commercial farms had the capital to invest to maintain the high levels of productivity. They had the capital because they were large scale and owned the land they worked.

            As soon as you reduce the size of farms you lower your ability to raise working capital. This as well as the decision to vest ownership in the state is the problem in both those countries.

            1. “As soon as you reduce the size of farms you lower your ability to raise working capital. This as well as the decision to vest ownership in the state is the problem in both those countries.”
              You said it yourself, Gosman, the problem is financial and political, not the inherent productivity of the smaller units. Ideally a farm is self-sufficient, it isn’t dependent on external inputs apart from those required to replace the fertility exported when produce is sold. Unfortunately perpetual self-sufficiency, which requires about 60% of the farm’s soil being devoted to husbanding the farm is an anathema to commercial mind-sets.

            2. "Ideally a farm is self-sufficient, it isn't dependent on external inputs apart from those required to replace the fertility exported when produce is sold."

              What a load of nonsense. A farm is merely a means for humans to grow food or other primary produce to be used as those who are involved with the farm see fit. There is no one ideal way of doing things because it is dependent on what the farmer wants from the farm.

              If the farmer wanted to ensure short to medium term high yields and high profits from selling crops to other people then there is no way that the farm should not rely on external inputs such as, newly developed crop varieties, pesticides, fertilisers, transportation etc etc.

            3. I interpreted the initial theme to this discussion as 'how we must amend our land management skills on a smaller scale', This in turn will collaboratively help restore the global environmental issues. I believe this process will not be modeled on any existing country like Zimbabwe, but will have to be a new 'form' using old practices and contemporary ideas.
              Mono-culture farming is unsustainable!

              I believe its time for humanity to have a break to stop and smell the roses before mother nature unleashes Newtons theory upon us.
              Sadly I predict our 'economy mad, environmentally blind' governments will push the planet to the endth degree and then the 'nay-sayers' will be seeking food and shelter from the 'I told you sayers'.;)

    2. I review serious books about climate change. Superfreakonomics appears to be the opposite. Give me "leftist nonsense" any day, if that is what McKibben represents. Not that I agree with your characterisation. Is it "leftist" to be persuaded that human-caused climate change threatens human civilisation? Is it "leftist" to issue hurricane warnings, to worry about drought or sea level rise?

      1. No, his solutions are unscientific and leftists. Not his concern about the impacts of Climate change. I'm surprised that you haven't grasped this rather simple point.

        1. I won't concede that his solutions are "leftist". I'm not sure what that word means to you, but it seems to be a shorthand for it being self-evident that the writer so labeled is not worth consideration. McKibben uses three words to head his final chapter – Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully. He's describing how we should try to tread on Earth. I would have thought they were words which might have some appeal to people of many political persuasions. And he's hardly unscientific. He specifically talks of the availability of information, science and technology to inform smaller farming ventures. He may have used the words of an organic farmer – and no, I'm not intending to discuss organic farming per se – as illustration, but that's not essential to the point he is making, which is that there is science which will back our not having to rely on large-scale mechanized carbon-intensive farming to feed the world. Let's hope so, for the climate's sake.

        1. Did you notice in that piece Bryan, (if you bothered to read it of course), that the blogger you rely on for your opinions on SuperFreakonomics seem to have misrepresented Caldeira's opinions about the SuperFreakonomics chapter? In fact you could argue he deliberately 'spun' what Caldeira sent him to make it more sensational.

          1. So Gosman by advocating that we this article we can conlcude that you support Dubner et al's position that climate change is happening and humans are causing it?

            This must be their position because they say

            "We discuss how it’s a very hard problem to solve since pollution is an externality – that is, the people who generate pollution generally don’t pay the cost of their actions and therefore don’t have strong incentives to pollute less. '

            Their thesis is that the best response is global scale geo-engineering rathere than reducing emissions. This seems to move the discussion into the engineering cost effectiveness arena.

    3. I had another paragraph to my last reply addressing the question of smaller farms. It seems to have been lost. I'll try again. Of course there can be problems associated with smaller farms. The Future Agricultures Briefing you linked to struck me as a sensible discussion of Ethiopian problems. But it didn't propose clearing the ground for industrial farming and packing the rural population off to the cities. The corrupt follies of Mugabe in Zimbabwe can hardly be adduced as evidence that smaller farms don't work. What do you say to the World Bank economists and the US Dept of Agriculture mentioned in the review? A few years ago I read Colin Tudge's book So Shall We Reap in which he made what I thought was a very reasonable case for what he called sensible craft farming as having the capacity to feed the world's population up to its expected limit. He considered it of vital importance that farming continue to be a major employer of labour.

  2. This is a big problem for many in the Environmental movement. They love cuddling up to Science when it suits their purpose such as AGW but they start equivocating as soon as their pet ideas are shown to have little or no Scientific basis.

    Here is a link to a debunking of some myths about GM crops that advocates of Organic food production push

      1. Ummmm…. I believe that McKibben uses "a large organic farm" as anecdotal evidence in his book to support his proposed solutions.

        If you wish to stop debate on whether these ideas have merit of not by all means do so but it would be useful if you explained the reason to do so up front.

  3. I am not sure that the Club of Rome were that far out in their predictions. Under their most likely scenario they had environmental effects starting to adversely impact on economies and societies during the first decade of the 21stC. So I think that is not too bad a forecast for 1972, much better than anything from an economist.

    The climate science chapter in Superfreakenomics has been reviewed harshly by a number of scientifists and scientific groups here is one from the Union of Concerned Scientists

    I suggest that Brian does not need to repeat this work.

      1. OK it was a off the cuff comment going for a quick laugh at economists' expense. it is well known that economists have a wonderful track record for forecasting.

        Since you know me so well can you tell me what my bias is?

        1. But that is exactly the problem you face Bryan.

          There are lot's of people who agree that there is a problem with AGW that needs to be dealt with.

          However I am seeing an awful lot of solutions that would alienate approximately half, (if not more) of any constinuency in any Western electorate mainly due to the fact they are extreme left wing in nature and talk about zero growth strategies and massive redistribution in wealth from so called rich to poor.

          If you think that is the only possible solution then I think you will find you are going to take a very long time building a consensus for action.

          Luckily though there are a number of people who disagree with this view and this means we can continue to look at getting something that has a chance of being implemented in the foreseeable future.

          1. When I review a book sympathetically that doesn't mean I am an advocate. It means I think the author's views are worth consideration. I'm well aware that Nicholas Stern and Al Gore, for instance, think there can be green growth, as does Thomas Friedman. I have reviewed all of them sympathetically. I'm much more interested in seeing adequate action to mitigate climate change than I am in the political pedigree of those who initiate it, if it ever is initiated. What you call massive (is it really massive?) redistribution of wealth I see as in part payment to ameliorate damage we have caused and in part sensible investment to ensure that the rest of the world doesn't take the high-carbon path to development. I can't stop you regarding me as an extreme left-winger, but political orientation is not the priority for me that you seem to imagine in the common danger that I see confronting us

            1. "When I review a book sympathetically that doesn't mean I am an advocate. "

              You keep telling yourself that Bryan.

              It seems that even Bill Gates is investigating time and money looking into the the area that Superfreakonomics was writing about.

              But then again I suppose that isn't really worth consideration as it involves ideas which are not radically left wing.

            2. "You keep telling yourself that Bryan."

              Telling you, actually, Gosman. But it bounces off.

              "I suppose that isn't really worth consideration as it involves ideas which are not radically left wing."

              You're feigning (I hope) obtuseness. The cloud-forming idea may well have to be looked at if things get as bad as seems likely. But such desperate options in no way lessen the need to stop the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That radically left-wing idea is strangely shared by Merkel, Sarkozy, Cameron and many others who describe themselves as conservatives. Granted they're not having much success as yet, but I haven't heard them denying the need.

              Geoengineering possibilities have been discussed on Hot Topic in a past postby the way.

  4. Could you please reference your source(s) for increased fertility from higher levels of CO2. Also how does the study or the study take account fo the effect or non-effect of changes in agricultural practcies during the period of the CO2 increase?

      1. I can edit my comments… I think you need to be logged in to Intense Debate to see that function. Worth doing, because you can then see new comments and reply by email.

  5. Prof W Nordhaus in his book "A question of Balance" states:
    "The choice of an appropriate discount rate is particularly important for climate change policies because most of the impacts are far in the future. The approach in the DICE model is to use to use the estimated market return on capital as the discount rate.The estimated discount rate in the model averages 4 percent over the next century. ………….In thinking of long-run discounting, it is always useful to remember that the funds used to purchase Manhatten Island for $24 in 1626, when invested at a 4% real interest rate, would bring you the entire immense value of land in Manhatten today."
    p 11 – 12.
    It seems to me that the estimated rate of 4% is chosen PRECISELY because of of an historical extrapolation.

    As to the point that future generations will be wealthier – I very much beg to differ! Some (approximately 10% will hold extreme wealth) while the large majority will be very much poorer in real terms. (and I don't want to get into a debate on political grounds here) – but the sad fact is quite clear that whereas a generation ago it was feasible for a large proportion of the working population to support a family on one income – that is no longer the case. One of the results of an huge expansion in the workforce – the integration of the eastern block – and the fall of the bamboo wall has resulted in the export of work overseas – from all countries in the western block – to the new workers in Eastern Europe and Asia. The result? Real incomes for middle and lower workers in the West have steadily declined.

    The only reason Stern is given creedence is because he DOES take the science seriously. Prof Nordhaus says he does – but demonstrates by his lack f appreciation of the Huge impacts that sea level rise on major cities around the globe, and droughts will have on our ability to feed ourselves that he doesn't.

  6. You guys are a real hoot. You blanch and quail at the prospect of stopping the use of fossil fuels, saying it will bring about the end of civilisation, cost more money than has ever been earned in history etc, etc.

    And yet, as an alternative, you blandly say that we can just pick up entire cities and move them somewhere else, and it won't cost all that much, really.

    Where did you learn economics, exactly?

  7. So once again we have the argument from ignorance fallacy: I can't explain recent warming, therefore it must be human-induced. Sorry, that's not how science works.

    Furthermore your talk of remedies is only meaningful once you have demonstrated a problem. Your vague hand-waving about "the variation unlike past variations" is:
    (a) not proven. Proxies simply don't give the temporal or spatial resolution to determine global temperatures pre-industrial or changes thereof, and
    (b) Would not establish human cause even if it were true.

    1. Correct – this is not how science works and isnt in fact how it is done – you are raising another straw man.

      The arguments for AGW is from a very successful theory of climate which derives the theory from basic physics. This theory make a large no. of predictions which can be compared to observation. The most powerful of those predictions is stratospheric cooling and direct measurement of atmospheric greenhouse effect either by OLR or ground incoming.

      Proxy reconstruction don't prove or provide any basis for the theory. The could however invalid the theory if you found past temperatures were outside the error bounds for estimates from past forcings. Suggesting otherwise is another strawman. See the IPCC statement on this.

      If GHG arent doing it, then how do you explain.
      Evan 2006
      Harries 2001 and papers that
      have reproduced these results.

      Your explanation for upper stratospheric cooling would be?

      These are quantified prediction from theory confirmed by observation which IS how science works.

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