Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

A missive from Eaarth

Bill McKibben’s latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, has been on a lot of radar screens (including mine) for a while. At this point in time, a book with that title and written by someone of McKibben’s stature in the field pegs the needle on the “must read” gauge, as much as any book would with the possible exception of a new edition of Limits to Growth.[1] In fact, when my copy arrived I put all other reading aside and jumped right into Eaarth.

The result is an excellent book, but one with a haunting lacuna that arguably reveals as much about our situation as does anything McKibben wrote or has said about the book in interviews.

Eaarth continues the narrative thread that stretches all the way back to McKibben’s first book, The End of Nature, published in 1989, just one year after James Hansen’s famous testimony before Congress about global warming. (For a little context, see this brief review of The End of Nature, as well as McKibben’s Wikipedia entry.) The book also continues the train of thought from Paul Crutzen’s and Eugene F. Stoermer’s coining of the term “Anthropocene” in 2000, to refer to the period since the late 1700′s when human activities began influencing the climate through the emission of greenhouse gases.[2] Roll all this growing awareness of our situation together, and the result is inescapable: Not only are we not in Kansas any more, but we got to wherever we are via our own doing, however inadvertent. Furthermore, we’re just now figuring out all the ways in which our new neighborhood isn’t nearly as nice as the Kansas of our childhood.

Readers familiar with his previous work won’t be surprised to learn that McKibben doesn’t resort to hackneyed narrative tricks. There’s nothing revolutionary or conspicuously novel about how McKibben approaches this huge and critical topic. He generally follows the general format for any book that addresses our sustainability situation and targets a mainstream audience:

  • First, describe the problem and enough of its ramifications to provide a meaningful context. Clearly there must be a problem; no author and publishing house would expend the time and money needed to produce a book that says everything is just peachy, nothing to see here, move along, or simply invents a problem. That would be far less interesting than even a “dog bites man” story; it would be the equivalent of a “dog urinates on hydrant” story.
  • Second, address the path forward by making the case for one or more solutions and how to implement them. This is the eternal flame of hope to which virtually all authors and readers of such material are drawn. Authors think they have a solution to a huge and important problem, and many readers, some already familiar with the situation to some extent, are looking for answers.

McKibben does an outstanding job in the first part of this formula. He explains in painful detail how we’re just starting to see the signs that we’re on Eaarth, and not Earth, and presents evidence linking those changes to our own historical actions over the last couple of centuries. He keeps the pedantry and preachiness under control, something I can say from personal experience is much harder than it seems at times, and he avoids burying the reader in stats. I think it’s accurate to say that McKibben is more of a “word guy” than a “numbers guy”, but he clearly doesn’t shy away from hard data in this book.

No small contributor to the success of the book overall is McKibben’s writing skill. I would argue that there are many spots in McKibben’s book where his narrative style and command of metaphors are so good that only another writer who’s struggled with the same material will truly appreciate the performance aspect of this book.[3] He even uses my favorite metaphor for our situation, on page 16:

We’re not, in other words, going to get back to the planet we used to have, the one on which our civilization developed. We’re like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack. Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on a treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue.

One of the challenges of writing about climate change is that it’s such a broad subject that it forces you to include water, food, and energy issues, at a minimum. In trying to boil down all that material and make the case for the urgency of our situation, it’s very easy to succumb to passion for the topic and oversell the facts; see any number of doomer web sites for copious examples of this phenomenon, one that I’m convinced does far more harm than good in educating and activating mainstream consumers and voters. McKibben avoids this pitfall, and it’s one of the few books I’ve read where I can’t think of a single example of his saying something that I would have shunned outright or failing to mention some connection or detail that I think was “required”.

One nano-quibble comes on page 33 where McKibben talks about the interaction between peak oil and climate change.

In fact, one all-too-likely result of peak oil will be even more use of our most abundant fossil fuel, good old coal. And the certain result of using more coal will be… more global warming, since it’s the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels, producing twice the carbon dioxide of oil.

The problem here is a very subtle one: Many people in the US, including many in the ever-disappointing media, think the US still generates a sizable portion of our electricity with oil, when in fact it’s down to only 1 to 2%, thanks largely to the oil shocks of the 1970′s. (See Table 8.2a Electricity Net Generation: Total (All Sectors), 1949-2008) Therefore, quite a few readers will leap to the conclusion that McKibben is talking about replacing oil-fired generation with coal-fired plants. He’s right in saying we’ll face an enormous temptation to use more coal, but it won’t be for pushing electrons, but running motor vehicles. We’ve known for a long time how to convert coal to motor fuel, via CTL (coal to liquids) technology. (See Wikipedia: Fischer-Tropsch process) Once post-peak price increases permanently raise the price of gasoline to much higher levels than anything we’ve seen to date, the pressure to convert some of that insanely cheap US coal into something we can put into a fuel tank will be overwhelming, even at the price of even higher CO2 emissions per mile driven. It would have been helpful if this dynamic had been a little more explicit in the book.

On the second part of that formula — the solution and pathway stuff — McKibben is faced with a dilemma simply because he’s a major voice in this fight (arguably “the” major voice) and he’s writing for an audience likely in the hundreds of thousands to millions, not a blog entry that will be read by 12 friends and relatives. That means he can’t write a book that simply wallows in the problems; he has to address the solution part of the situation, even if there isn’t a “good” solution, i.e. one that’s cheap and politically easy enough to be readily implemented.

For something this complex, a solution is really multiple parts: The first is a vision of the new state we seek, which includes things as varied as infrastructure, consumption patterns, societal views, laws, regulations, and tax changes. That’s a tall order in this instance, but we also need a road map that details how we get from our current state to the more desirable one. I’m not asking for the exact pieces of legislation needed to reshape public policy and guide us in the desired direction, but at least a rough guide to how we make this happen. McKibben lays out a vision of the goal for this massive change that virtually everyone agrees we need to undertake in one form or another, described below, but doesn’t attempt to describe how we make the transition from our current Point A to his choice of Point B.

I can imagine people jumping in here and protesting that I’m demanding too much from one guy and one book. After all, if this were a simple problem with attractive solutions we would have dealt with it years ago. So while it’s inarguable that I’m asking a lot, I think it’s an entirely reasonable request, given the author, his long history of writing so effectively on this topic, and the urgency we face in 2010.

McKibben’s solution is to transform our economies and our mindset so that we can live “lightly, carefully, gracefully” on this new planet we’ve created. Specifically, he would push us toward much more localized economies. More local electricity generation, more local food production, more interaction with those strange, mythical creatures known as “neighbors”, even (gasp!) localized financial institutions so none (or fewer) are “too big to fail”. No one should assume from that description that McKibben’s inner Luddite has erupted and taken control of his keyboard; he’s clearly not a Luddite, and he even talks at some length about the role the Internet can play in a localized transformed world. If anything, I would say this is one place where his idealism nearly gets the better of him, and I don’t see the ‘net as being quite as positive a force as he does.

The problem, of course, is finding a way from our current model, which relies very heavily on economies of (often gigantic) scale coupled with cheap transportation[4], to one which is much less transportation intensive and anywhere from slightly to significantly more labor intensive, depending on the specific industry in question. Economies don’t undergo such deep and broad restructurings quickly or easily; it requires sustained pressure from the free market (i.e. price mechanism) and/or public policy over years or decades. That pressure has to be great enough to overcome the resistance to change, which in the case of the entities involved in our centralized energy and material goods sectors is almost impossible to overestimate. The portion of that pressure supplied by public policy can’t be perceived as a short-term side-effect of the latest election cycle that can be “undone at the ballot box”; the overwhelming majority of people, corporations, and institutions will have to accept that we really are no longer living on Earth before they’ll willingly make such dramatic changes to their business models and consumption patterns. In particular, the moneyed interests that are currently funding the denier war against climate change action will continue to do so, which will only slow the needed change in perception by mainstream voters and consumers.

McKibben surely sees these barriers to the kind and scope of change we so desperately need. So, one might ask, why doesn’t he talk about them? Where is the frank discussion of the social, political, and economic hurdles to be overcome, the rallying cry for us to organize simultaneous gridlock-inducing sit-ins on Washington DC and all 50 US state capitals? I don’t want to speak for McKibben or imply that I have any particular insight into his thoughts and motivations, but I suspect that if you could pry an honest answer out of him with some combination of truth serum, tequila, and blackmail threats involving photos of him being cordial toward James Inhofe, he would confess that he’s thought deeply about those barriers to change and become deeply pessimistic about our path forward. He would say that writing this book presented him with a terrible three-way choice: He could put on a cheery face and blatantly lie to the reader, justifying it to himself and his closest confidants as being in the best interest of the world to help keep everyone happily fighting the good fight; he could simply say, “We’re screwed beyond all hope”, knowing it would actually make some people stop fighting, a horrible price for a morsel of brutal honesty; or he could talk about Point A and Point B honestly and directly, simply not address how we find our way from here to there, hope the book does some good in terms of generally educating people, and deflect any such questions on the grounds that he wrote an explanation of where we stand, not a public policy book.

Again, this is speculation about McKibben’s innermost thoughts, but this gap in this book at this time leads me to believe that he’s arrived at essentially the same depressing conclusions that many others I’ve spoken with have expressed in private communications. For those of us both able and willing to see the ramifications of our past and ongoing actions, it’s all too obvious: We really have kicked our planet’s environment hard enough to move it off its cozy and familiar equilibrium and send it wandering through a succession of ever less convenient worlds. How we deal with that sobering fact will be the greatest challenge in human history.

[1] Just to be clear, there is no new edition of LtG in the works. I got this information directly from one of the authors of the prior editions. I think that’s a terrible loss, considering how important that book is to the general concept of sustainability and the rising urgency of our energy, climate change, water, food, and other issues.

[2] I remain convinced that even this view of our world is out of date already, or at a minimum, is underspecified. We’ve passed through a period of minor and benign influence on the environment into one in which we realize that we’re compelled by the ramifications of our past actions and self-interest to attempt to actively control the environment, to “lead measured lives on a managed planet”. This is the period I’ve called the Metricene, and I would trace its beginning to no later than James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony [PDF], specifically the second paragraph, which begins “I would like to draw three main conclusions.”

[3] In prior comments on this site I’ve said that I really disliked the term “Eaarth”, even though I fully understood the rationale for renaming the whole planet and agreed with the point McKibben was trying to make. After reading the book, I don’t like the term any better, but it’s lost much of its fingernails on a chalkboard quality. And please don’t get nuts over my referring to McKibben’s work as “a performance”; all writing is a performance.

[4] That cheap transportation exists thanks to the insanely low price of the oil itself plus our failure to put a price on the CO2 emissions from burning it.

5 comments to A missive from Eaarth

  • Good review. Bill is doing his best. He and Hansen will share the Nobel Peace prize soon. The guy is a hero.

  • Got the audiobook version last night, listened to the first half. To say I was spellbound would be an understatement. Being very, very familiar with the terms and language of this discussion, at times I felt as if I was experiencing a disaster movie, as the truth and implication of what he was saying set in. It’s stunning that we are finally faced with problems which we will not be able to solve. Paraphrasing: “civilization has met its match.” Another quote that is devastating because of its absolute lack of hyperbole: “this is literally the biggest thing that’s ever happened.”

    Finally, Lou. I agree about the title. But it’s far less grating, by many orders of magnitude, than what it annoyingly describes. The new planet we live on is going to be not just annoying, but lethal to many of us. I hope he at least has some decent strategies in part 2.

  • I’m as disappointed with the second half of the book as I was impressed with the first. McKibben has shown himself to be an ideologue, stuck looking backward, nostalgic for the benefits of a quaint time that never truly existed. It’s almost bordering on the “states’ rights” teabagger arguments. That big government is *the problem.*

    Actually, we better hope for a transformation rather than an elimination of big government. Because it’s the only entity with the power and scope to implement some of the most important solutions. And any climate agreements must be backed by organizational entities global in scope, with enforcement power. The dangers of cheating and slacking by individuals or renegade lawless enclaves are too great.

    I understand the benefits of small and interconnected locales, groups, tribes, co-operatives. That’s where we should be headed. But not in the dogmatic way McKibben describes. We need to be designing these new structures to operate under the umbrella of accountable national (and global) governance. Big or small anything can be run in good or bad ways. Let’s try to have the benefits of both, and learn to think differently depending on our levels of analysis. Let’s use the power of central governments to engage the transformation of our economies toward sustainability. It doesn’t all have to break down.

  • Lou

    BlackSun: I agree with your direction. We need to be not just necessarily smaller or larger, but smarter, more responsive, more accountable. For some things centralized gov’t does that better, and for others it will be decentralized gov’t or a commercial entity or some hybrid; whatever the case, the old solutions, to the the extent they worked at all, don’t work with the new rules. The changes we’ve made to the physical world haven’t just put us on Eaarth, they’ve created a new Eeconomy (Ecconomy?), too.

    After pondering this a few more days, I honestly think McKibben simply didn’t have anything to offer in the way of solutions, but he had to latch onto something, so he tried to make a case for the least bad thing he could think of, the borderline cliche localization meme. I’m not at all convinced that’s “the” answer, to put it mildly.

  • Mark

    Thanks for the review, Lou. Intriguing enough that I ordered the book yesterday. Having not read it, I agree with BlackSun’s view regarding the need for a greater governance. I’m also concerned that a beyond-5-o’clock-this-afternoon awareness of the population rises in conjunction with the inevitable transition to Eaarth. James Lovelock’s view resonates with me — the human species probably never had the capacity to foresee its fate since the dawn of easy-energy civilization. Enjoy life while you can, teach those still willing to learn (as Lou’s site does) and hope for the best. It’s going to get rough.