by Bill McKibben
272 Pages | Buy this book
It’s too late: we’re doomed. Or close to it. The greenhouse gases we’ve emitted by burning fossil fuels have changed the climate so much already, and loaded the atmosphere with so much carbon dioxide whose effects are still to be felt, that “we will never again inhabit the planet [we were] born on, or anything close to it.” Earth, in other words, is now “eaarth,” and as a result we can look forward to rising seas, declining GDP, “no more agriculture in California,” and possibly “standing guard over your vegetable patch with your shotgun.” The best we can do is “try to manage our descent” and “aim for a relatively graceful decline” as we “remake” civilization.
What's The Big Deal?
McKibben doesn’t pretend that if we can just rein in our greenhouse-gas emissions everything will be fine. Government actions are so far short of what’s needed to avert catastrophic climate change, he says, as to warrant a “don’t bother.” The message runs counter to that of virtually every green group, which lobbies for both individual action (compact fluorescents! carpools!) and government policy (carbon tax, cap-and-trade) to control greenhouse emissions. Expect them to be pissed.
Buzz Rating: Rumble
One-Breath Author Bio
McKibben, a longtime environmentalist and writer, made his first big splash with The End of Nature. He also founded 350.org, a nonprofit group that campaigns to get atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide back down to 350 parts per million from the current (and rising) 389. We last saw 350 in about 1990.
The Book, In His Words
“The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists . . . We may, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization, but it won’t be the same planet, and hence it can’t be the same civilization. The earth that we knew—the only earth that we ever knew—is gone” (page 25).
Judging By The Cover
The sliver of Earth practically obliterated by a big black X is just right for the calamitous future that McKibben foretells.
Don't Miss These Bits
1. McKibben picks the most alarming observations around to make the case that climate change is not only happening (the view of mainstream climate science), but is irreversible (also pretty much accepted by those who study it) and apocalyptic (a fringe view). To wit: “No one is going to refreeze the Arctic for us, or restore the pH of the oceans” (page 17); rising seas are consuming coastal regions from swanky Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., to Bangladesh (page 32); Lake Erie’s water level could fall between three and six feet in the next 70 years, crippling shipping (page 33); millions more cases of dengue fever are showing up farther north (page 72).
2. There’s no easy way out. McKibben excoriates the gurus of green growth who try to make it all sound painless and simple, a mere matter of political will. “The most fervent evangelist” for green growth, McKibben writes, is The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, “a kind of political GPS unit, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they’re in the know, but never beyond the comforting bounds of conventional wisdom” (pages 48–49). McKibben doesn’t hide the fact that he thinks Friedman’s calls for plug-in hybrids, smart grids, windmills, and the like, with the promise that all will be swell as a result, is delusional nonsense.
3. McKibben gets good mileage out of the “too big to fail” description of financial systems whose near failure (and need to be rescued by the government) triggered the Great Recession. He predicts a similar collapse of the systems that now sustain civilization, unless people reform them dramatically. “Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks . . . We need to scale back, to go to ground . . . even at the sacrifice of growth” (page 123). Instead of big utilities, factory farms, and supermarkets, think small-scale agriculture, farmers’ markets, and that community-owned windmill. Some places are already moving in that direction: the number of farms in New England rose to 33,000 in 2007 from 28,000 in 2002 (page 173), and their average size fell from 142 acres to 122. “Millions of people are going to work at least part-time as farmers again” (page 177) and, as people shingle their roofs with solar photovoltaic panels and burn wood, we’ll have “the equivalent of farmers’ markets in electrons” (page 187).
McKibben is bucking the trend in climate-change attitudes. As Gallup and other pollsters have found, people are increasingly turning away from the belief that the climate is changing due to human activities—and, even faster, away from caring. Not so with McKibben. Although he wrote Eaarth well before the scandal involving the hacked “climate-gate” e-mails, McKibben surely wouldn’t have given them the time of day: he has no doubt that the climate is headed for disaster, and all the research he presents supports that.
Swipe This Critique
McKibben apparently didn’t get the memo that when people are scared, they’re too paralyzed to take action. He lays out a near future in which everything from agriculture to energy is hyperlocal—a farm in every backyard (or at least every neighborhood), a “community-owned windmill” (page 145) in every town. Things may well get as bad as McKibben predicts, but since people can barely plan one month ahead, is it realistic to think we will reorganize society along the “small is beautiful,” “a farm on every block” model he urges? Human nature being what it is, there’s virtually no chance enough people will take his advice to remake even one suburb, let alone civilization. The question is whether those who do heed his warnings will turn out to be this decade’s Y2K survivalists (and we know how many cans of beans they were left with when civilization didn’t crash that midnight) or more like the Japanese who earthquake-proofed their buildings.
Climatologist James Hansen (McKibben “blazes a path”) praised McKibben’s 350.org to the hilt in his own book, while McKibben calls Hansen “the planet’s leading climatologist” (page 15) and credits his research with inspiring 350.org. Other blurbs are from other authors who see dire times ahead, including Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us (“clarity, eloquence, deep knowledge”), and Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers (who calls McKibben “the most effective environmental activist of our age”).
Prose: McKibben isn’t a bestselling author and ex–New Yorker writer for nothing.
Construction: We could do without the story of Vermont during the Revolutionary War and other historical digressions.
Miscellaneous: The acknowledgement in the preface that the grim reality McKibben describes “will be for some an excuse to give up” (page xiv) is the last we hear of this crucial caveat.