by Bill McKibben
McKibben doesn’t pretend that if we can just rein in our greenhouse-gas emissions everything will be fine. Government actions are so far short of what’s needed to avert catastrophic climate change, he says, as to warrant a “don’t bother.” The message runs counter to that of virtually every green group, which lobbies for both individual action (compact fluorescents! carpools!) and government policy (carbon tax, cap-and-trade) to control greenhouse emissions. Expect them to be pissed.
“The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists . . . We may, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization, but it won’t be the same planet, and hence it can’t be the same civilization. The earth that we knew—the only earth that we ever knew—is gone” (page 25).
The sliver of Earth practically obliterated by a big black X is just right for the calamitous future that McKibben foretells.
1. McKibben picks the most alarming
observations around to make the case that climate change is not only
happening (the view of mainstream climate science), but is irreversible
(also pretty much accepted by those who study it) and apocalyptic (a
fringe view). To wit: “No one is going to refreeze the Arctic for us, or
restore the pH of the oceans” (page 17); rising seas are consuming
coastal regions from swanky Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., to Bangladesh (page
32); Lake Erie’s water level could fall between three and six feet in
the next 70 years, crippling shipping (page 33); millions more cases of
dengue fever are showing up farther north (page 72).
McKibben is bucking the trend in climate-change attitudes. As Gallup and other pollsters have found, people are increasingly turning away from the belief that the climate is changing due to human activities—and, even faster, away from caring. Not so with McKibben. Although he wrote Eaarth well before the scandal involving the hacked “climate-gate” e-mails, McKibben surely wouldn’t have given them the time of day: he has no doubt that the climate is headed for disaster, and all the research he presents supports that.
McKibben apparently didn’t get the memo that when people are scared, they’re too paralyzed to take action. He lays out a near future in which everything from agriculture to energy is hyperlocal—a farm in every backyard (or at least every neighborhood), a “community-owned windmill” (page 145) in every town. Things may well get as bad as McKibben predicts, but since people can barely plan one month ahead, is it realistic to think we will reorganize society along the “small is beautiful,” “a farm on every block” model he urges? Human nature being what it is, there’s virtually no chance enough people will take his advice to remake even one suburb, let alone civilization. The question is whether those who do heed his warnings will turn out to be this decade’s Y2K survivalists (and we know how many cans of beans they were left with when civilization didn’t crash that midnight) or more like the Japanese who earthquake-proofed their buildings.
Climatologist James Hansen (McKibben “blazes a path”) praised McKibben’s 350.org to the hilt in his own book, while McKibben calls Hansen “the planet’s leading climatologist” (page 15) and credits his research with inspiring 350.org. Other blurbs are from other authors who see dire times ahead, including Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us (“clarity, eloquence, deep knowledge”), and Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers (who calls McKibben “the most effective environmental activist of our age”).
Construction: We could do without the story of Vermont during the Revolutionary War and other historical digressions.