About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

#83 - Eaarth

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben (New York: Times Books, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "The bestselling author of Deep Economy shows that we're living on a fundamentally altered planet -- and opens our eyes to the kind of change we'll need in order to make our civilization endure.

"Twenty years ago, with The End of Nature, Bill McKibben offered one of the earliest warnings about global warming. Those warnings went mostly unheeded; now, he insists, we need to acknowledge that we've waited too long, and that massive change is not only unavoidable but already under way. Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We've created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it Eaarth.

"That new planet is filled with new binds and traps. A changing world costs large sums to defend -- think of the money that went to repair New Orleans, or the trillions of dollars it will take to transform our energy systems. But the endless economic growth that could underwrite such largesse depends on the stable planet we've managed to damage and degrade. We can't rely on old habits any longer.

"Our hope depends, McKibben argues, on scaling back -- on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community (in the neighborhood, but also on the Internet) that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale. Change -- fundamental change -- is our best hope on a planet suddenly and violently out of balance."

Table of Contents:
  • Preface
  • 1. A New World
  • 2. High Tide
  • 3. Backing Off
  • 4. Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully
My Take: It's an exaggeration, but only a small one, to call Bill McKibben my hero.

Maybe I'm a poseur, because I haven't read much -- in fact, I don't recall if I've read any -- of the environmental books for which he's most famous. I haven't read The End of Nature; I didn't read Deep Economy.

I did, however, read Maybe One several years back, and it's no exaggeration to say that book changed my life. At the time, I was quietly but painfully torn between the growing suspicion that a three-person family -- Filbert, Twig, and me -- might be what we were meant to have, and the chaotic "one kid isn't a real family" houseful of my own childhood. True to form, I read just about everything on the subject I could get my hands on. Sure, there were plenty of books and articles about how to make sure your only child turned out Normal, but Maybe One ... Maybe One was an epiphany. For the first time, a single-child family seemed less like, "well, I guess maybe we can make it work OK" and more like a conscious, positive decision -- not just for the 3 of us, but for our communities large and small. (Around the same time, Twig began grade school, and we started getting to know several other close-knit, loving, and all-around-awesome one-kid families, which didn't hurt either.)

Digression aside, I can't help wanting to read Eaarth even though I know it'll be considerably more sobering than Goon Squad. In the first chapter, McKibben explains the title and his premise thus:
"For the ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we've existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged: globally averaged, it's swung in the narrowest of ranges, between fifty-eight and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. That's warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plains and valleys year-round; it was the 'correct' temperature for the marvelously diverse planet that seems right to us. And every aspect of our civilization reflects that particular world. We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitoes could not overwinter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and wheat can't imagine another earth either. ...

"But we no longer live on that planet. ... [T]he earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We're every day less the oasis and more 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 we still 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's description of this new and different planet, at the end of this same chapter, stands in start contrast to the "sweet spot" depicted above:
"The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the earth's surface, are distinctly more acid and their levels are rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful. The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle. The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth's crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization. And some places with civilizations that date back thousands of years -- the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kiribati in the Pacific, and many other island nations -- are actively preparing to lower their flags and evacuate their territory. The cedars of Lebanon -- you can read about them in the Bible -- are now listed as 'heavily threatened' by climate change. We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn't. I know that I'm repeating myself. I'm repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that's ever happened. ... That's life on our new planet. That's where we live now."
Nothing like a little uplifting inspirational tract to get me in the mood for the holidays, eh?

(Later, after finishing the book) Interesting and worth reading, but not sure McKibben by himself has The Solution to the climate crisis, any more than Thomas Friedman single-handedly has the answer. McKibben's take is both gloomier and less exhausting than Friedman's. Gloomier, because he's pretty clear in asserting that Friedman's call for massive investment in green innovation and technology won't cut it; 30 or 40 years ago, perhaps, but it's too late for that now. Less exhausting, because McKibben believes more localized and regionalized decision-making and sustainability (and correspondingly, less centralization) are what's called for -- particularly in the area of agriculture. (I'm already a fervent if not terribly orthodox locavore, and his description of the Farmers Diner had me practically salivating.)

He also calls for increased use of the internet to promote knowledge and diversity in a more carbon-friendly way, though I found his description of exactly how this would work somewhat fuzzy, and less compelling than the local agriculture piece. This, for me, is where the book falls short. I finished Hot, Flat, and Crowded thinking Friedman's proposal might just work, but would be darned difficult to get off the ground. McKibben's, by contrast, probably requires less momentum, but probably won't be enough on its own. Maybe it's just my own resistance to change, but the implication that the majority of people can get buy without commuting, traveling long distances, or working for large, distant corporations because after all, we have the internet unconvincing -- at least as it's presented here. In short, while I'm still a McKibben fan (and have faithfully added Deep Economy to my reading list), I think the global warming solutions presented herein are helpful and perhaps necessary, but not sufficient, for combatting climate change. (The author himself would argue that he's not hoping to reverse climate change, but merely to slow it and make the fallout easier to live with ... but my position's still the same.)

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