Welcome to Eaarth

Bill McKibben’s latest book explores what it’ll take to live on a planet less sweet than it used to be. During a recent stop in Seattle, he described the smaller, slower, and wiser future that may be our best bet.
McKibben book tour

Author-turned-activist Bill McKibben spoke in Seattle recently, where he outlined what it'll mean to live on a hot new planet.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Bill McKibben was in Addis Ababa recently. And the Maldives before that. Soon, he said, he’ll be heading to China. When I watched him emerge from the stage door at Town Hall in Seattle last week, it seemed entirely plausible that the writer had dispatched a squad of clones to public speaking events and book tours around the globe: Author of 12 books, a prolific contributor to magazines (including this one), and leader of 350.org, the organization responsible for what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history,” McKibben must be eating his Wheaties. Or something.

He was in Seattle to promote his latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, an exploration of the fundamentally new planet we’ve built for ourselves by pumping fossilized carbon into the atmosphere. This new world, McKibben argues, is decidedly less sweet than the one we knew: Hot, with pounding rains, rising seas, and advancing deserts, it’s so different that it needs a new name. Eaarth isn’t the planet we grew up on, but it’s the planet we’ll have to learn to live on. Unfortunately for us, the statistics he rattled off about this new place were uninviting to say the least: The sea is 30 percent more acidic than it would have been without our emissions; the number of hurricanes that tore through the tropical Atlantic rose by 75 percent between 1995 and 2008; 1,700 lightening fires—a new record— torched millions of California acres in June 2008.

You’d expect Seattle, an urban poster child for progressive consciousness, to take environmental warnings in stride. But McKibben’s message last Tuesday night was a tough one for any audience, and silence quickly settled over the room as he spoke: The time for warnings, he stressed, is over. Already nearing 1 degree Celsius (and rising) above the range of temperature variation that defined all of human history, there appears to be no going back. Welcome to Eaarth.

In many ways, Eaarth represents a milestone in McKibben’s remarkable career. His 1989 book, The End of Nature was the first on global warming for a general audience. In it, he argues that nature just isn’t, well, natural any longer. Not with us around anyway. Beginning with the hot coal smoke of the Industrial Revolution, humans have influenced the character and function of every ecosystem on the planet. Enormous systems that once operated independently of us—such as the global carbon cycle—are now, in one way or another, driven by us. For environmentalists (and, I’d argue, for humans everywhere), this is a revelation of the drop-everything-and-think kind.

Earth seen from space, NASA imageThe State of the Earth, 2010
Rebecca Solnit on Eaarth, climate change, and the possibilities for a delicious future.

In the years since The End of Nature, McKibben has been unraveling the more dangerous behaviors we’ve taken up in the last 200 years—behaviors that now jeopardize a once-sweet planet. Much of his writing calls for small and local solutions to combat global threats like climate change that have resulted from those behaviors. That’s pretty much the opposite of how we’re running things now: big, centralized, and growing. But in a time when “too big to fail” actually fails, building locally-based means of powering, feeding, and spending might turn out to be both the best idea we’ve got and the most satisfying.

As hair-raising as McKibben’s description of Eaarth is, there was something refreshing about his message last week. Even as “green” has become both a cultural force and a market mover, it’s still a movement that’s largely attached to stuff. Solar arrays, windmills, and scuffles over nuclear power stations are the norm when talking about sustainability; almost no one, it seems, is talking about the problem with bigness. But in Eaarth, McKibben gets right to it:

“Most of all, of course, our time has been the time of bigness—the amazing ever-steepening upward curve, where things grew and grew and grew some more. Economies and road networks and houses, inflating until there were entire subdivisions filled with starter castles for entry-level monarchs. Stomachs and breasts and lips, cars and debts, portions and bonuses. Can we imagine smaller? That is the test of our time.”

I glanced around at the nodding audience, crammed wall-to-exit. McKibben seemed to hit a chord with his message: Our biggest problem is an addiction to growth, and our brightest hope is in connecting with the small stuff that has sustained us for so long, like our neighborhoods, farms, and watersheds. It was a surreal feeling, seeing so much agreement with a statement that’s about as heretical as you can get in America. But there they were—bobbing vigorously away while McKibben skewered growth. Thoughts flooded in: Are most people this skeptical of growth? Is there a movement building here? Can this outpouring be turned into political will? When will we see the first mainstream politician run on a “postgrowth” platform?

“We lack the vocabulary and metaphors we need for life on a different scale,” says McKibben.

A question I’d carried with me that night was answered as he spoke: What does another book about climate change actually do to avert climate change? Again, McKibben satisfied. Part of the difficulty we’ve had with getting beyond growth, he said, is that “we lack the vocabulary and metaphors we need for life on a different scale.” Ushering in a future that works, then, is partly a literary task. We'll need a new language for naming it into existence—full of fresh words, analogies, images and stories (with the fate of the planet on the table, “hybrid cars” seems like a small answer). So, in that spirit, McKibben has offered the first word for describing that new future: Eaarth. We’re on it. Now what?

:: To beat climate change, we'll need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice

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