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 350.org (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.