Eaarth: The end of the world as we know it

“Who the hell is this guy writing to?” I wondered as I made my way deeper and deeper into Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

In my recent readings about “place” in creative nonfiction, I’d had the pleasure to read a lot of fine, fine work by nature writers. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of writing, and I’ve enjoyed a deeply felt connection to the natural world (one reason I took on that reading project in the first place). I’ve tried of late to make a conscious effort to seek out writers who talk about the relationship between humankind and nature, particularly in the context of looming environmental collapse. That’s how I found McKibben.

That I finished his book—instead of throwing myself off a bridge in despair—still amazes me.

McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and founder of the environmental group (a reference to particle levels in the atmosphere). He was one of the first writers to warn of global climate change more than twenty years ago (“There is no satisfaction in saying I told you so,” McKibben says), and since that time, he has become a highly respected environmental activist.

In Eaarth, McKibben makes it clear right up front that we’re not living on our old familiar planet. We’ve already changed its climate so irrevocably that it’s really a new planet, Eaarth-with-an-extra-“a,” enough like the old one that we might not recognize its fundamentally new operating system.

He then spends almost half of his book demonstrating just how fucked up Eaarth is. Even if only one-tenth of what McKibben writes is true—and I suspect that it’s all true—then every climate change denier needs to have someone hit them up-side the head with a copy of this book. Repeatedly.

This is grim shit. Grim enough that, seriously, I started to loath the idea of even having to pick the book up again after a break. It’s solid and smoothly written, and the science is well researched and worked into the story with the deft hand of an experienced journalist. When he laid out his case for environmental and economic collapse, I believed him. And that’s the problem.

“[W]e’re not going to forestall some really disastrous climate change,” McKibben says. Natural disasters continue to get worse. Our ability to respond to them continues to diminish. Our specialized infrastructure makes everything vulnerable. Our rising energy prices make it harder to power. Our standard of living demands untenable output. Developing countries, following our example, pollute egregiously in an attempt to get their fair share.

Eaarth is environmental catastrophism at its most powerful.

Now I know exactly what David Gessner meant when he wrote, in My Green Manifesto, that “[h]uman beings, most of whom are not really very good at dwelling in hopelessness, turn away.” I sure as hell felt like turning away, and I’m one of the people who supports McKibben’s ideas.

“I will be accused of wanting to bury my head in the sand,” Gessner wrote. “But I don’t want to bury my head; I just want a short fucking break to remember that there are good parts about being alive.”

That’s why I wondered who McKibben was writing for. Critics are going to dismiss the book as alarmist (a charge they’ve levied against him for twenty years).  Undecided readers are apt to get scared away. Supporters might get galvanized into action, but they’re just as apt to throw their hands up in defeat: if the planet is this fucked, nothing I do will make a lick’s bit of difference.

Eaarth is simultaneously heavy and bleak, energetic and vital. As loath as I am to call a book “important,” it really is. But as someone who supports the idea that we need to make some hard choices to save the climate, I still kept finding myself saying, “Enough! Enough!” to McKibben. I felt overwhelmed by doomsday. There was just TOO MUCH.

“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,” McKibben says. “But we will keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit that damage.”

Hope? Hope? Egads, man—where?

Well, it’s in there, fortunately, although you have to stick with the book into its second half to find it. If the despondence triggered by the first half of the book hasn’t made you want to drown yourself in a melting glacier, there is much good, thoughtful—even, I daresay, hopeful—information in the book’s second half. McKibben turns things around in the last two chapters by providing examples of ways in which we can still save ourselves. We can’t go back to Earth-with-one-“a,” but maybe we can still avoid Eaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

The key to McKibben’s vision rests in our ability to create decentralized systems (instead of Big Agriculture, Big Energy, etc.) and local, sustainable economies. Kicking the fossil fuel habit is a given. We won’t have a choice in the matter, anyway, because of peak oil. We can either come down off that high in a graceful, managed way or we can plummet. Mad Max, here we come.

McKibeen suggests that there is hope, but more people need to mobilize. It has to happen locally because politicians in Washington and around the world lack the necessary political courage to do what needs to be done. That seems to be another McKibben give: Washington’s spineless inaction in the face of monied special interests will only make our situation worse. “Eaarth represents the deepest of human failures,” he says.

So, here’s the paradox: There’s plenty of data in McKibben’s book to persuade anyone still undecided about climate change that they should sit up, take notice, and act—act locally and sustainably. Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of gloom and doom—enough so that even supporters like me are apt to tune out and turn off. It’s a wonder that readers even get to the hope at the end.

But I suppose that’s part of the point: too many people; not enough energy; angry, altered planet. We all need to brace ourselves for the “hideous” results.

Bracing yourself for Eaarth’s sobering message will be a good first step.

5 replies »

  1. My grandmother died very poor, very sick, and very troubled. But she religiously participated in the Pub Clearing House sweepstakes or one of those things, and would tell us all the time how close she was. Of course, she wasn’t, and we would roll our eyes and tell her to stop wasting her time. But as I grew older I came to realize that humans can’t live without hope. That stupid contest, with it’s one in a million millions payout, was hope, however fragile and however slim.

    It’s probably Darwinian. If you have enough intelligence to know how to not have children, it takes a certain amount of hope to deliberately bring someone into the world. Only the hopeful survive.

    Forgive the rambling, but you hit a nerve here. On the wall of my consulting office in Chicago I have a quote by an Australian academic, John Niland, “Sometimes we forget that what clients really want is not academic responsibility or analytic rigor, but a root metaphor that will sell hope.” Ever since, I have been careful never to write a report that did not have a sliver of hope in it, however slim. And to my delight, from time to time my bleak-ass outlook was wrong and that sliver came true.

  2. Heard an interesting item on NPR yesterday PM. Or was it the BBC. Doesn’t matter. Concerned itself with a program that uses small scale, off the grid power. Solar panels to charge a battery to recharge cell phones and run LED lights. Can be scaled up to do more, but the immediate savings is not having to trek to the nearest electric source and pay to have your cell phone recharged. That and not having to use expensive fuels to have a little light at night. Lots of rural non-electric grid areas with a billion plus person need. Reminds me of E F Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”.

  3. The grim realities of blogging about climate science and human-caused climate disruption is part of why my own blogging output dropped off for 18 months or so. When you realize that what you’re pouring your heart and soul into is being ignored (or worse), it can drain your will to live.

    Thankfully, only for a while.

  4. While i completely agree that humans are making a mess of their home, i have to admit that i sometimes find the climate change activists to be just a little too, for lack of a better word, religious about the issue. What i see (and this is not meant to include everyone, though it is a general statement) is the underlying philosophical issue that got us into this mess in the first place: anthropocentricism.

    Roughly 12,000 years ago or so, the last ice age started going out with a bang. From what little i know of paleoclimatology, it appears that the change was pretty rapid. Sea levels rose precipitously. Which for a person who’s spent long years studying religion and mythology produces an “aha” moment. We know humans were fairly advanced in their ability by that time, and we also know that they all (with the exception of Japan) share a Great Flood mythology. I’ll stop rambling in a second, but given our propensity for living near the sea, what might have been lost in terms of human civilization in this scenario?

    the point of that tangent is that what was recorded as a world ending event, didn’t … though it may well have set human development back thousands of years.

    My understanding of geological time scale suggests that we’re probably still in that warming trend. Now i am not suggesting that we’re faultless or that we should deny our impact. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should do nothing, in the end, we shall eat, drink or breath every last bit of crap we put into the environment. We probably will accelerate the natural cycle until we cook ourselves like a hot dog in Mr. Wizard’s solar cooker.

    However, we do not have the power to destroy the Earth. We do not have the power to destroy Life. We can kill ourselves, and we might even be able to kill most of the things we’ve come to define life on Earth with. But we are not all that we think we are based on 2000+ years of bunk religious belief. We’re monkeys, one tiny piece of Life. And when we’re gone (by our own hand or that of Time), Life will carry on and new forms will take hold until they disappear too.

    That’s the beauty of the world. Of Nature. Of Life. We’re not the beauty of it, just a minor manifestation. Our coal-fired power plants are meaningless in the grand scheme, just as our solar powered LED lighting will be. I’m afraid that many on both sides of the climate issue rail, fruitlessly, against the underlying truth of Life in a vain attempt to establish the primacy of their own kind. For some, it’s a conscious act, for many if not most it’s subconscious and the result of a religio-philosophical heritage of the West … including the Enlightenment and its belief in Reason.

    If humans were actually as great (as in powerful, intelligent and important) as we like to think we are, then we’d understand that we aren’t.