Bill McKibben's must-read "Eaarth"



Bill McKibben

Times Books; $24

Bill McKibben, the writer who first brought the reality of global warming to the mainstream reader 20 years ago with The End of Nature, is understandably feeling a little dark. Well, not a little dark, a lot dark. And who can blame him. The past twenty years have created more carbons, more methane, and more pain. Progress is hard to find; hope even harder.

And so he intentionally misspells our planet’s name to make a point: that we no longer live on the same planet. McKibben describes this old planet in this way. “For the ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we’ve existed in the sweetest of sweet spots.”

This “sweet spot” has turned sour, and the first half of Eaarth is a relentless, panoramic accounting of just how bad it’s gotten, worldwide, from artic melt to extreme weather to the growth of dengue fever. This litany of global woe, he says, “Should come as body blows, as mortar barrages, as sickening thuds… Name a major feature of the earth’s surface and you’ll find massive change.”

McKibben’s most excoriating section involves the systematic dismantling of the quaint idea that we should work to reverse our carbon emissions for the sake of our grandchildren. One after another, McKibben quotes the best-known politicians, from Schwarzenegger to Bill Clinton, as they invoke “grandchildren” as a motivation for cleaning up our energy wasting ways.

“How did time dilate,” McKibben asks. How did “100 or 200 years from now… become yesterday?”

Scientists not only underestimated “how fast the Arctic would melt; they overestimated how fast our hearts would melt.”

In other words, little has changed, despite the growing and overwhelming evidence of climate change. Carbon levels keep on climbing, far past the level that NASA’s James Hansen, McKibben and many others believe to be the habitat’s livable level of CO2 ppm (parts per million): 350.

We’re at 391.06 as I write this review — and it’s climbing.

If you’re looking for any ray of good news in this first half, forget it. Just grit your teeth and get through it.

Problem is if you’re looking for some ready solutions, the second half of Eaarth isn’t going to be any easier. Because living on Eaarth, as the book’s subtitle says, is about “Making Life on a Tough New Planet.”

How will we do that? By scaling back, slowing down, thinking smaller. A tall order, this idea of growing smaller, but the fast paced growth-at-all-costs has all but wrecked the environment. Fortunately, McKibben has examples and success stories to share, from his global travels to his own back yard: innovations in farming and renewable energy.

“So here’s the needle we need to thread,” McKibben states. “In the space of just a few years we’ve got to switch away from fossil fuel.”

Hear that, fossil fuel old farts? The switch has to be fast, or this tough planet on which we reside will get unimaginably difficult. We have to learn to live on this new planet, “lightly, carefully, gracefully,” McKibben says, so we can “survive the damage we can no longer prevent.”

Terrifying and edifying, Eaarth is a must-read for the entire planet, no matter how you want to spell it.