A Book A Week: Eaarth

Listen up, folks: we are in trouble. We’re not totally screwed–not yet, anyway–but we have all moved to another planet whether we know it or not. That planet is hotter, wetter (sometimes), drier (sometimes), prone to increasing weather-related volatility, and generally less stable. It is not the planet we grew up on. It is the planet Eaarth. And since we have nowhere else to go, we need to figure out how to live on it.

This is the premise of Eaarth by Bill McKibben, a book we just ordered and which I gave a close look to while I cataloged it. It’s a fascinating examination of the increasingly obvious and inter-related problems of stagnant economies, population growth, peak oil, limits to capital, climate change, and a less stable environment. The fact that all these things are the product of seventy years of unparalleled economic growth exacerbate the problems due to sclerotic thinking caused by sunk costs, but more on that in a moment.

Bill McKibben is no stranger to environmental issues: he’s been called “the nations ‘s leading environmentalist” by the Boston Globe. He’s led the organization 350.org and has reported on environmental issues since 1989 when his first book, The End of Nature was published following a serialization in The New Yorker.

The problem: First, the heat. It’s increasing. Our industrial age dug a billion years’ worth of fossil fuel out of the ground and burned it, releasing carbon into the air where it traps more sunlight than used to be the case. Even if the cause it not exclusively industry (unlikely as hell, but I suppose, not impossible), it’s clear that all that carbon is not helping matters. The world is getting hotter, period.

Second, the weather. It’s changing. The planet is heating up, more water evaporates into the atmosphere causing more frequent storms of greater intensity than we are used to seeing thus far. The ability to plan for the future requires, however, that we have an effective predictive model to use. We’ve assumed that the future will resemble the past and for twelve millennia that was a safe assumption. Not any more. Volatility is not the friend of predictive modeling.

Third, industrialization itself. All that coal, oil and natural gas had a real value to us: we learned how to extract a great amount of energy from these materials than had previously been harnessed in all human civilization. That’s 12,000 years or so of slaves, soldiers, farming, and animal domestication. None of it could hold a candle to a coal-fired power plant, or even a 350 horsepower internal combustion engine. (Imagine a car pulled by 350 horses and you get an idea of what I’m talking about.) Industrialization allowed a huge number of people to benefit from a workforce that made things in great quantity. The result is a society that commands greater comfort and convenience than the wealthiest kings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and said comfort is available to nearly anyone, at least, in theory. But more stuff requires more energy, which requires that we burn more carbon, which makes the world even hotter, etc.

Fourth, the logical conclusion, is that mass production required mass capital. Mass capital required bureaucratic organization. And the only organizations (up to now) that have been able to marshal such huge quantities of capital for lengths of time spanning decades or centuries are bureaucratic governments (corporations took that model for their own for a reason). And it worked: only our government could have fought and won two world wars, sent a man to the moon, built and paved 47,000+ miles of highway, or created such safety nets as Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. That model of thinking is at an end . . . or will be at some point. The bottom line is that we have spend the past sixty years building an empire that we can no longer maintain. The center does not hold, things fall apart, and working within the system for reform yields nothing but angry reformers.

The result: a hot planet melts glaciers faster than they can be reformed and so there goes all our drinking water. The lack of predictive power over risk will bankrupt governments and insurance companies, as storm surges and extreme weather render the world’s coastlines uninsurable. The rising temperature will melt the poles, Greenland, and Siberia, release a few million tons of methane into the air (Siberia is actually a frozen swamp), and then things will really heat up. Forests literally go up in smoke as drier summers spark fires in the interior. Food gets scarce and then disappears over increasingly wide swaths of the world. Wars will be fought over things like fresh water and arable land.

Maddeningly, oftentimes our solutions make things worse. Land cleared for biomass production has the double whammy effect of dropping food stocks even further and burning more carbon, for example.

Yet, McKibben says, all is not quite as dismal as it seems. People are a resourceful lot and when they stop thinking of things as they should be and start thinking in terms of what is and is not, they can come up with some fascinating ideas.

Decentralized organization is one way of thinking. Using his home state of Vermont as a model, he points to organic farms that are more productive than giant agribusiness. Energy production is something that can be rethought as well; wind farms, solar panels, hydro power are all things that need local concentrations and modeling, not national.

Rethinking a  world that’s predicated on the automobile is another. You don’t have to get rid of the cars; deteriorating roads combined with more frequent gasoline shortages will do that. If you stopped building cars this very minute and never built another the surplus would be enough to absorb several years’ sales worldwide. The problem is creating a system that does what cars do–move people and goods from one place to another–but with energy efficiency and carbon neutrality in mind. Two words for everyone: public transportation is a decent option. Rebuilding our railroads would benefit everyone.

The point, McKibben says, is not that we’re all going to die because the planet will kill us. The point is that we have nowhere else to go and the planet is different now. Old models of survival will not work. So even if we can’t bring back the good old days (such as they were), we can almost certainly manage the damage we’ve already done and resolve to do less.


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