At the start of the year I reviewed “Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope”, by Tim Flannery. While it was an interesting book, full of information and ideas, warmly and well written, in the end it left me unsatisfied. I felt that as an argument for hope it had failed to make its case.
I’ve recently finished a similar book, “Eaarth”, by Bill McKibben (of 350.org). It focuses on the same topic, the effect of climate change on the planet and how we should be preparing for the future. It doesn’t pull any punches.
Chapter 1: A New World. This chapter starts by noting the climatic stability that we have enjoyed for the last 10,000 years. Stability that has allowed the the development of human civilisation, with its grand cities, agriculture, and specialised culture. A world that was captured in the famous 1968 photo (from Apollo-8) of the Earth from space.
But we no longer live on that planet. In the four decades since, that earth has changed in profound ways, was that have taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less like the oasis and more like the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has — even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine that we live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth.
McKibben makes the case for the changed planet in example after example, meticulously researched and referenced. A random selection:
So far humans, by burning fossil fuel, have raised the temperature of the planet nearly a degree Celsius … A NASA study in December 2008 fiund that warming on that scale was enough to trigger a 45 percet increase in the thunderheads above the ocean … In fact, total global rainfall is increasing 1.5 percent a decade. …
Or consider the white and frozen top of the planet. Arctic ice has been melting slowly for two decades…
… a U.S. government team studying the tropics recently concluded that by the standard meteorological definition, they have expanded by more than two degrees of latitude north and south since 1980 — “a further 8.5 million square miles of the earth are now experiencing a tropical climate”. …
A new Nepalese study found temperatures rising a tenth of a degree annually in the Himalayas. … across the region the great ice sheets are already shrinking fast…
It’s not just the Himalayas. In the spring of 2009, researchers arriving in Bolivia found that the eighteen-thousand-year-old Chacaltaya Glacue glacier is “gone, completely melted away …
But lay aside the hurricanes and wreckage. Just concentrate for a minute on how the sea is changing. … Even most oceanographers were shocked a few years ago when researchers began noticing that the seas were acidifying as they absorbed some some of the carbon dioxide we’ve poured in to the atmosphere. …
Don’t let your eyes glaze over at this parade of statistics (and many more to follow). These should come as body blows, as sickening thuds. The Holocene is staggered, and the only world that humans have known is suddenly reeling. I am not describing what will happen if we don’t take action, or warning of some future threat. This is the current inventory: more thunder, more lightening, less ice. Name a major feature of the earth’s surface an you’ll find a massive change.
On the fact that we have recognised, far too late, that 350ppm is the safe limit for CO2 in the atmosphere:
We can, if we’re very lucky and very committed, eventually get the number back down below 350. … But even so, great damage will have been done along the way, on land and in the sea. …
We’re not, in other words, going to get back the planet we used to have, the one on which our civilisation developed. We’re like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack. Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on the treadmill, but half his heart is dead issue. We’re like the guy who smoked for forty years and then he had a stroke. He doesn’t smoke any more, but the left side of his body doesn’t work either.
There’s plenty more of the same in the first chapter, all of it well referenced to original sources, but I think you get the idea. It’s a depressing read.
Chapter 2: High Tide. The focus of this chapter is the end of growth. It can’t go on, we’re hitting the wall.
But now — now that we’re stuck between a played out rock and a hot place — it’s time to think with special clarity about the future. On a new planet growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.
In a solid blow to the mainstream Green position, McKibben doesn’t see “green growth” as a viable alternative.
If we had started 20 years ago, when we first knew about global warming, and when we had the first hints of peak oil, such a plan might have made sense. … But it’s not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don’t think the growth can rise to occasion; I think the system has met its match. We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.
That is a dark thing to say, and un-American, so I will try to make the case carefully. In the first place: this kind of transformation is a big job. Even in normal times, even on the old planet, the transition from one source of energy to another took many decades. …
Wherever we turn, we always bump their heads against the same bottom line: it’s expensive, and it takes a long time to even try to replace our fossil fuel system.
And that’s on the old planet. What we need to talk about now is what it’s like to make massive change on the new one, where we’re suddenly running out of fossil fuel and dealing with a spooky, erratic climate.
McKibben goes on to discuss aspects of the problem that relate particularly to America (huge amounts of infrastructure, such as the national road and bridge network, which is already run down), and those that are truly global:
And the fact that so much of the world remains so poor is also one of the biggest obstacles to actually doing something about the climate. Just as we come into this crisis with an infrastructure deficit and an overhang of debt, so we also suffer from a justice deficit that will slow any attempt at action.
We have seen this all play out at Copenhagen, with a major split between “developing” and “developed” nations.
So the obvious replacement for Plan A — for the now vain hope that the rest of the world can emulate us and messily grow its way into lives of relative comfort and security — is a Plan B, a grand bargain where the global North decides to share with the global South. And in return the South agrees to develop on a different, cleaner path. … Everybody knows this will have to be the eventual bargain, and everybody has spent twenty years trying to game the talks.
And if the “talks” never get it done?
Four major studies in the past two years from centrist organisations in the United States and Europe have concluded that “a warmer planet could find itself more often at war.” Each report “predicted starkly similar problems: gunfire over land and natural resources as once bountiful soil turns to desert and coastlines slip below the sea.” The experts also expected violent storms to topple weak governments — which makes a certain amount of sense to those of us who watched George W. Bush begin his descent in the polls after he bumbled the response to Katrina.
Fortunately we’ve just about reached the bottom of the book’s deep wells of depression. Time to start digging ourselves out.
The second half of this book is based on the premise that we can build durable and even relatively graceful ways to inhabit this new planet.
Chapter 3: Backing Off. McKibben’s ambitions for the future are practical and modest. “That we might choose instead to try to manage our descent”, “that we might aim for a relatively graceful decline”. Doesn’t sound very inspiring does it.
We recoil when faced with a future different from the one we imagine. And it’s hard to brace ourselves for the jump to a new world when we still, kind of, live in the old one. So we tell ourselves that scientists may be overstating our environmental woes, or that because the stock market has climbed back from its lows we’ll soon be back to the old growth economy. As we’ve seen, though, scientists are far more guilty of understatement than exaggeration, and our economic troubles are intersecting with our ecological ones in ways that put us hard up against the limits of growth. This book has been dedicated so far to the idea that we’re in very deep trouble. Now we must try to figure out how to survive what is coming at us. And that survival begins with words. …
So here are my candidates the words that may help us think usefully about the future.
… The project we’re now undertaking — maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm — requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighbourhoods, about blocks. … We need to scale back, to go to ground. We need to take what wealth we have left and figure out how we’re going to use it, not to spin the wheel one more time but to slow the wheel down. We need to choose safety instead of risk, and we need to do it quickly, even at the sacrifice of growth. … It’s not just people in poorer nations who are exposed to the elements now, but all of us. We’ve got to make our society safer, and that means making them smaller. It means, since we live on a different planet, a different kind of civilisation.
Distributed networks are more robust than centralised systems. We need to distribute knowledge, skills, resources, agriculture, production and distribution, into communities.
Community may suffer from overuse more sorely than any word in the dictionary. Politicians left and right sprinkle it through their remarks the way a bad Chinese restaurant uses MSG, to mask the lack of wholesome ingredients. But we need to rescue it: we need to make sure that community will become, on this tough new planet, one of the most prosaic terms in the lexicon, like hoe or bicycle or computer. Access to endless amounts of cheap energy made us rich, and wrecked our climate, and it also made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbours.
Much of the rest of the chapter reviews local community initiatives, such as Transition Towns, farmers’ markets, and local currencies. The last quote I’ll take from this chapter relates to politics:
It’s not at all clear whether a farmers’ market, or a local neighbourhood crime watch, or a community-owned windmill is a liberal or conservative project. It’s some of both. Mostly it’s some of neither — our politics, like our highways, were built for an era of endless growth. Karl Marx as much as Adam Smith thought we’d end up in a material paradise; Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev sparred over whose system will produce better kitchen appliances. In the age now dawning, our hopes will shift and our ideologies will shift with them.
Chapter 4: Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully. What are the essentials for our future? “In order: food, energy, and — yes — the Internet”. Modern agriculture is massively dependent on oil, both to make the fertiliser that increases yields, and to run the machinery, transportation and refrigeration systems that harvests, processes and distributes foodstuffs.
It takes the equivalent of 400 gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel consumed. Now … “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we’re eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”
With peak oil and climate change, neither side of this equation is sustainable. But the work on an alternative approach is under way everywhere. After reviewing a range of case studies McKibben sums up:
So it’s unsettling (but also the first unambiguously good news this book has to offer) to learn that serious people have begun to rethink small-scale agriculture, perhaps just in time to help us deal with the strains of our new planet. In the last ten years academics and researchers have begun figuring out what some farmers have known for a long time; it’s possible to produce lots of food on relatively small farms with little or nothing in the way of synthetic fertiliser or chemicals.
So there will be dinner, if we are resourceful and clever, and if more of us are willing to do the work of farming, and if we build the kind of community institutions that make us more resilient, less vulnerable. It won’t be easy; as flood, drought, and pests spread, we’ll be pressed to keep up. And it won’t work every-place; even the best double-dug community-backed garden still needs water. I don’t know what Las Vegas will do. But many places may still produce enough calories.
What about energy?
First: … We need to cut our fossil fuel use by a factor of twenty over the next few decades. …
Second: it would be nice to replace at least some of that fossil fuel with something else, so that we’re not returned entirely to a world of manual labour …
Third: there’s no easy way out.
Nuclear, biofuels, solar, wind, there is no single viable replacement. It has to be a mixture of conservation, reduced demand (e.g. through less transportation of locally produced food), and local generation and storage methods (the smart grid). “So no silver bullet — but maybe enough silver buckshot if we gather it carefully”.
And that brings us to the last of McKibben’s three key factors for the future.
The Internet may be precisely the tool we need; it’s as if it came along just in time, a deus ex machina to make our next evolution bearable. …
You could make a purely functional argument for the environmental value of the Internet, of course. If you have a computer, you can set up, say, a ride-sharing system that lets people coordinate their commutes or pick up a stranger on the way to the market. Or you can log onto the Freecycle network and find a way not to buy something. The Internet can take waste — that empty seat next to the driver, that old Ping-Pong table — and convert it into something useful.
But I’m thinking less tangibly. It’s not so much the ride to town; it’s the ride somewhere else entirely, into one of the millions of destinations that the net provides. … Mostly, though, it’s decentralised … That decentralisation will be crucial, because all of a sudden we will need vast amounts of information, very little of which can actually come from New York or Los Angeles.
McKibben also stresses the Internet for entertainment, and as a vital tool for combating the downsides of a future where the boundaries of our world are shrinking.
Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I’d keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else. We need cultures … that work for everyone, so that women aren’t made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places. The Net is the one solvent we can still afford… It will need to be the window left ajar in our communities so new ideas can blow in and old prejudices blow out.
Most of the remainder of this final chapter is spent describing the creation of 350.org, and the way that the Net was used to mobilise a community of volunteers all around the globe. Here are the closing words of the book:
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 the damage. And in the process, with many others fighting similar battles, we will help build the architecture for the world that comes next, the dispersed and localised 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.
In closing. Everyone should read this book. (Climate change deniers should be forced to copy it out longhand in red crayon, complete with the 25 pages of references, twice.) I’m hugely impressed with the depth and the breadth of the research that has gone in to it, and also with the clarity with which McKibben has thought about the future that he describes. My only major criticism is that the treatment of energy in the future (Chapter 4) is scanty, and doesn’t really address the serious problems raised earlier on this very issue (Chapter 3). Yes it’s a profoundly depressing book, but the smack in the emotional solar plexus is one that we all (in the “developed” world) deserve.
Time to face up and take our medicine. Change is coming, and the future will not resemble the present. If you can accept that fundamental premise, then Eaarth is a hopeful book too. It is hopeful because it is brutally honest. There’s no sugar coating the pill, no false optimism. It sets out the problems that we face, and it sets out what are probably our best strategies for preparing for the future. Having read Eaarth I feel the way I imagine one feels after hearing a comprehensive diagnosis of cancer. The news isn’t good, but at least I know the odds. It’s something to work with.