Happy New Year from Eaarth

In the preface to his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben begins from the position that “It’s true that we’ve lost that fight, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into” (p. xv). We grew up, McKibben says, on the planet astronaut Jim Lovell described as “ ‘a grand oasis.’ But we no longer live on that planet” (p. 2). Things have already changed so significantly, he claims, “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations” (p. xiv).

This isn’t academic Environmental History, but I don’t imagine anyone will deny the relevance of McKibben’s claims, even if he's only just a little bit right. And I’ve been particularly interested in working on bringing my American Environmental History syllabus up to the present and engaging students with the issues we face now. So toward the end of the semester, we talk about the science, the propaganda, and what’s at stake in the current debate.

As you might expect, the first part of
Eaarth, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West” (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.

The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.

McKibben is famous as the man behind
350.org, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).

And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). Even if some of these labor hours can be saved by switching to sustainable technologies, McKibben’s point that we’ve been getting a free ride and thinking it would last forever is a good one. “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).

Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be acknowledged, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). The “developed world” sees starving people as a huge future security threat. No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).

So what does all this mean? At the very least, it suggests we have to stop looking to prestigious, pseudo-academic idiots like Larry Summers for answers: “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). I don’t know why anybody would pay attention to this guy—oh, wait! He was president of Harvard! But the problem isn’t just that elite pseudo-academics tend to be tools of the ruling class. Too many Americans still hang on the words of nuts like Jerry Falwell who has announced, “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). And liberal politicians have also proven their ineffectiveness. Barack Obama, “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks [said] ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). That’s code for “Let’s do nothing and see what happens.”

At the end of the book, McKibben tries to navigate from this laundry-list of disaster to a very short description of localism and community-building. His story ends with a retelling of the 350.org event in October 2009. Maybe he believed at the time this event would lead to a groundswell. Maybe he’s done his job describing the current situation, and it’s up to others to take the next step. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to describe what’s at stake, rather than leaving to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he did mention Mad Max (p. 146), so it’s clear where McKibben thinks the story could go.