In his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben portrays the dire environmental conditions that a generation ago seemed like abstract predictions of what our grandchildren might endure. In much of his previous work the environmental journalist and activist aimed to wake people up to the existence of climate change before it was too late. His 1989 The End of Nature was the first book to clearly chart for a general audience the human causes of and potential disasters wrought by global warming.
In marked contrast, Eaarth accepts that climate change and its grave hardships are underway, serving as a manual of sorts to help guide us through a world irrevocably altered. We now inhabit a planet so dramatically remade through climate change it warrants a new name: Eaarth. “The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has,” he writes.
Eaarth is at once mature, angry and inspiring. In the opening chapters McKibben maps our new planet—one with prolonged droughts, more intense storms and floods, acidifying oceans, expanding tropical zones, and rising sea levels. He then dedicates the second half of the book to how we might try “to manage our descent.” It might sound grim, but by exploring this reality McKibben quits the self-delusion that keeps so many of us hallucinating that technological fixes and economic expansion (i.e. consuming and wasting) can remedy the problem.
A life on a tough new planet, McKibben tells us, must be less complex—slower, smaller, more stable—one of “maintenance” instead of mind-blowing growth. He looks back at US colonial history and the earliest days after the American Revolution to explain that we chose federal over state (and local) power to accomplish the grand National Project, as he calls it. That project was one of westward expansion (including constructing the railways and highways), reaching the moon, overcoming the Soviet Union—in other words building the physical and political infrastructure needed to create the largest economy in human history.
But now, McKibben argues, there is no room left to grow, so we must “back off.” The undoing of complexity—that which makes workers in China lose their jobs thanks to bad mortgage bets in Nevada, and creates floods in Bangladesh due to CO2 emissions from American drivers—allows us to be more agile in the face of turmoil. It gets us off the too-big-to-fail disaster track. McKibben gives considerable ink to the role of the state as serving the people and the importance of people acting as citizens—and not just shoppers—in this globally warmed world.
The book’s last chapter offers compelling details of a new way of life, explaining that we can solve our problems now. In his rendition, technologies and practices that rely on decentralized social organization are exciting; solutions to a polluted atmosphere and transmuted ecosystems can be elegant and creative, addressing what is deeply human about us, even amid the ruin.
We will be able to feed ourselves more reliably by growing three dozen different crops in one field as opposed to a monoculture of corn or soy, he explains. We will be able to power our lives by using dispersed sources of heat and light generation, all of which currently exist—solar water heaters, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, biomass plants that burn organic matter, and more.
Then there’s the social component of the switch to the local. While at times he can romanticize such a shift, McKibben also gets it that a tight-knit localized community can be stifling, even “dull.” We need access to a wide range of ideas and cultures, which McKibben says the Internet can be key in delivering. “It’s as if it came along just in time, a deus ex machina to make our next evolution bearable.” And, like local food and dispersed energy generation, the Internet is decentralized, which means not only will our ecosystems and economies be diverse, McKibben posits, so will our culture and politics.
The activism the author has engaged in for the past several years with students from Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he teaches, embody this new kind of politics. 350.org, the group’s latest effort, is a decentralized Web-based campaign to communicate that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the most the world as we’ve known it can handle. (We’re currently well past that at almost 390 ppm.)
350.org’s ongoing campaign doesn’t require participants to trek to Washington DC for a mass rally. Instead McKibben and his six collaborators simply ask people to use the number 350 in any way they see fit and take a photo that can be posted on the group’s website. This strategy of meeting people where they’re at was wildly successful, with citizens from over 180 countries participating in one of the most widespread global actions in history.
Eaarth is a visionary book; while it’s not always rooted in the practicalities of making change it’s truly rooted in the real. And it bravely stakes out “the architecture for the world that comes next, the dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent.”