If you haven't already read Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, you should take author Barbara Kingsolver's advice: "Read it, please. Straight through to the end. Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important."
Quite an endorsement, and the book deserves it. Fortunately for us stragglers, it's coming out in paperback April 1 ($10 at amazon.com) just in time for Earth Month, when McKibben's group, 350.org will no doubt be mobilizing another round of demonstrations in support of climate change action on scales both global and local.
As the senior editor of The Daily Green, I didn't find much new information in Eaarth. But I did find a lot of very good information in one persuasive place. And I know, because my Mom recently read it in her local book club, that it makes that case effectively not just to those who spend their days reading about the environment, but to a general audience as well.
The basic argument is that we have, through our CO2-fueled global warming, already altered the planet profoundly enough so that it ought to have a different name, Eaarth. This new Eaarth can't be remade into the old Earth, given that we've pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that we've already crossed the critical threshold of 350 parts per million, setting in motion feedback loops that will only reinforce the warming the globe has already experienced. The ice caps are melting, wildfires are raging, record heat is recorded in every season and virtually every place around the world, strong storms and flooding are growing more frequent and severe (even as the drought-plagued regions are growing drier). And it's all going to get worse, even if we stopped polluting today... which we aren't, because we've failed at the global and national levels repeatedly to seriously address climate change. (Witness the Republican attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency in this budget cycle for the latest exhibit in that sad case.)
We should except massive species extinctions, along with higher costs for almost everything - from local highway taxes, since our roads will be washing out frequently from stronger storms and floods, to food, as the oil that subsidies modern agriculture runs dry. McKibben does a good job of mixing the scientific with the anecdotal, and the global with the local: He gets dengue fever on a trip to Bangladesh and convinces us that global warming is the root cause, just as it is for his small Vermont town's struggles with road re-construction after repeated flooding. I can relate: My own town saw its drinking water plant crippled by repeated floods that were supposed to occur every century (the "100 year flood" is a term used for generations to define a storm expected about every hundred years) but which have reared up several times in just the last decade. Blame a warmer atmosphere, which holds more moisture, and the particulars of my town's geography. But whatever you blame, expect it to be the first in a series of volleys against public infrastructure we'll have to pay dearly to defend or repair, now that the world has changed.
The path forward, McKibben argues, is to stop pegging our happiness on growth in the economy, which he argues is the root cause of global warming: Stripping the Earth of its natural resources is like each of us marshaling dozens of laborers to help with our daily tasks. Doing without burning so much oil and coal will mean accepting the burden of more of that labor, which means getting used to living well with less, growing more (if not all) of our food and energy close to home and adopting a more Jeffersonian sense of dispersed agrarian localism rather than a Hamiltonian strong centralized federalism. Here, McKibben's arguments sound so startingly like those of the Tea Party that it's interesting to imagine a merging of the far right and far left into some sort of coalition. McKibben argues that the need for a strong central government is driven by "national projects" settling the interior, building a national highway system, fighting Communism, putting a man on the Moon, etc. Today, we have no persuasive national project, and so we should stop sending so many of our resources and decision-making powers to the central government, McKibben argues, which sounds like something Sarah Palin's speech writer might say. Of course, McKibben's vision would involve a community investing its extra money into local banks, local infrastructure, local organic farms and locally owned renewable energy projects. Palin's vision would involve drilling, baby. So there's a hard limit to the cooperative spirit you might imagine around the right-left Axis of Localism. Oh well.
In McKibben's vision of living "lightly, carefully, gracefully" on the localized new Eaarth, life isn't easy or idyllic, but people do enjoy themselves, given the stronger bonds of community and the quality of the food. In this regard, some of his arguments are more persuasive than others. Anyone living a harried work life at a cubicle (me) can dream of a nice quiet gardening lifestyle, freer from cares and more connected to nature; but I would have liked to have seen some serious economic analysis of the reality of that envisioned world. McKibben acknowledges that reversing course would be painful for "generations" but doesn't specify exactly how. Are we talking massive unemployment? The abandonment of many industries?
Would it really work, I wondered, particularly as I ruminated on his idea that the information superhighway of the Internet would be a saving grace of culture and escapism for community-bound locavores who might get tired of repeating the same conversations with their neighbors (since no one will be flying for vacation in his envisioned future). But, knowing something about the economics of Internet information, this seems naive. Who's producing all this escapism content? What advertisers are paying to keep afloat those organizations employing those information producers? Even in the bloated fossil fuel-dependent society we live in today, those answers are hard to come by, so how will a nation of small farmers maintain that kind of media? And if that's the case with media, what of every other industry that employs us today, even those that may not be directly resource-dependent (McKibben points out that one can search the Web for hours without producing a mile's worth of car-driven carbon emissions).
It's just one example of the types of questions that go unanswered in Eaarth. Not that McKibben has to answer them in this slim volume (about 200 pages). It's enough for him to raise them, and persuasively. He does that.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben ($10 at amazon.com)
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.