Making Life on a Tough New Planet
New York: Times Books, April 2010
This book closes a circle. Bill McKibben's The End of Nature chronicled the long-flooding tide that we humans had unleashed upon the Earth. By the time it was published,1 anyone could see the result: Lakes dying; rivers burning; food fish vanishing; beaches drenched in crude oil; forests felled for furniture; strip mines scarring the soil; mountaintops blasted to rubble. Truly we had attained the power to subdue the Earth. That earlier book was a warning of danger and a plea for restraint. Both went largely unheeded.
McKibben says now that a tipping point has been passed. We no longer can return to the Earth of memory. The world we grew up in, the placid planet that nurtured our civilization throughout history, is gone beyond hope of recall. We now live on a different planet, which he calls Eaarth. Drastic changes are not far off in the future somewhere; they are beginning now.
"The rising sea is already turning the town of Port Fourchon into an island. A new $538 million elevated highway is under construction to keep it connected, which seems like a lot of money to spend for a small town, except that 18 percent of America's oil comes ashore through this small town— five thousand of the planet's six thousand offshore drilling rigs are located nearby in the Gulf of Mexico.
– Page 63
The planet your father knew was one where growth was possible. That planet is truly gone; we are now bumping up against the limits the Club of Rome warned us about in 1964. I was one of those who dismissed their warning. I was sure we would soon have a large presence in space: moving industries there, and exploiting asteroid resources, seemed a sure solution to shortages on Earth. That dream looks more and more like another thing not possible on Eaarth.
But Bill McKibben shows us that survival is certainly possible, and that, with a little imagination and some hard work, life on this new planet may be comfortable and fulfilling. The key to that is something from your great-grandfather's planet: a sense of being part of a local community, and having an ethic of conservation. Such an outlook supports a distributed architecture for life: energy produced locally; food grown on local farms, using old, arduous but more productive methods; probably a local currency; above all, neighborliness in the Amish, barn-raising tradition. These things are working very well in Vermont; McKibben, a Vermonter, understands them very well.
None of this means modern life will fade away. Both McKibben and I expect the Internet to remain in altered form; as he says, it is a vital tool for making Eaarth work. Nations will persist. Large public works will still be built. But centralization will no longer be the default assumption, as it was in the twentieth century. We can do much on the local level. Who knows; maybe we can even keep launching those rockets into outer space.
Port Fourchon's peril is one small foretaste of our new world. The litany of pending inundations McKibben presents in this second chapter, "High Tide," and the attendant costs, is truly alarming — especially when you remember that we already are struggling with a backlog of $2.2 trillion in costs for crumbling infrastructure.2 And there is peril too for conventional fuel-intensive, single-crop farms.
"In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, 'it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.' "
– Page 157
The methods McKibben describes take a lot more individual effort, including stoop labor, but they can increase yields per acre while holding down energy and fertilizer use. A side benefit is enhanced genetic diversity in the crops.
For civilization as we have known it, however, there is very little good news. The future appears to offer shortages of many commodities we have taken for granted — such as drinkable water. When such basic necessities get hard to obtain, conflicts erupt.
"Here's the bottom line from that Pentagon report, a picture of a new planet that, at least as far as conflict goes, resembles nothing so much as the old one: 'Wars over resources were the norm until about three centuries ago. When such conflicts broke out, 25% of a population's adult males usually died. As abrupt climate change hits home, warfare may again come to define human life.' "
– Page 85
But McKibben is not telling us to fill our pockets with jam.3 He lays out a plan for survival which can let us keep a good deal of the benefits of civilization. It will, however, be a very different civilization. The plan involves a number of things experts have been saying for years: Drive less, in smaller cars; choose energy-saving appliances; insulate homes and businesses; turn off equipment you're not using. And some of it, while new to most people today, is even older. It means abandoning current methods of agriculture and taking up methods now practiced only in the developing world. The bad news is that these methods mean hard work.4 The good news is that they promise better productivity and greater resilience for agriculture.
"It's true that by some measures we started too late, that the planet has changed and it will change more. The president of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting to pass a 350 resolution, but the president of the United States didn't convert overnight into a passionate supporter, for all the reasons I've described. 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. And in the process, with many others fighting similar battles, we'll help build the architecture for the world that comes next, the dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent. Eaarth represents the deepest of human failures. But we still must live on the world we've created—lightly, carefully, gracefully."
– Pages 211-12
McKibben presents a lot of well-referenced information in these pages: enough to prove he thoroughly understands the possibilities, but not enough to bog the reader down in technical details. His aim is to inspire a sense of hope. In that he succeeds only partially. I do not fault him for that; he's been fighting a long time, seeing future prospects grow more daunting without seeing any substantial progress, or even much interest. Indeed, as I have also seen, the intensity of protest against even the smallest mitigative measures beggars belief. But Eaarth does succeed in showing us measures that don't need to wait on pie-in-the-sky technology but can be done today. For that I rate it a must-read and a keeper.