Facing cold, hard truths about global warming

By Anis Shivani
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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Bill McKibben, probably the nation’s leading environmentalist, argues in “Eaarth’’ that we have already so thoroughly altered the physical features of the planet (to an extent that he has renamed it with an extra “a’’) that we must start preparing for a radically simplified lifestyle. Important strands of environmental thought merge in McKibben’s new book, making for some truly scary reading and prompting urgent questions about the nature of the environmental catastrophe at hand.

The evidence of change on the planet deserves a serious hearing: “The Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans . . . are distinctly more acid and their level is rising. . . . The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream will dwindle. The great rain forest of the Amazons is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. . . . The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization.’’

One of the fundamental principles of environmentalism is to act preemptively if there is a reasonable suspicion that change is irreversible. Caution, rather than acting after the fact, is the guiding rule. Yet our politics are so disjointed from environmental reality that we have a difficult time even framing the problem. This is where McKibben excels, in not offering palliatives such as concentrated urban living as a panacea or the false hope that new technologies to overcome our dependence on fossil fuels are just around the corner.

Techno-optimists believe that we can continue our present levels of consumption without enormous environmental destruction. To McKibben’s credit, he’s not having any part of such escapism. Modernity, as McKibben correctly understands it, is at bottom a sophisticated cultural machine to take advantage of the abundant energy of cheap fossil fuels: “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor — more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually.’’ Modern humans, he observes, are basically “bipedal devices for combusting fossil fuel.’’

We cannot consume fossil fuels and other nonrenewable natural resources at the present pace forever; as McKibben recognizes, this is all the more inconceivable when China, India, and other emerging economies aspire to consume at our level. Simple math suggests that extrapolating American levels of consumption, much of it wasteful, to a planet of 7 billion people cannot work.

The problem of diminishing fossil-fuel resources is not simply an engineering one; it gets to the root of what makes us modern. Where McKibben gets interesting is in offering a tentative vision of what an alternative lifestyle, trying to retain the best aspects of modernity, might look like, and he does it with “no illusions, no fantasies, no melodrama.’’

In the second half of the book, McKibben achieves a synthesis between the ideas about the changing planet he first presented in “The End of Nature’’ (1989) and those about a more human-scaled economy he articulated in “Deep Economy’’ (2007). The latter book was written just before the onset of the current financial crisis, but anticipated many of the truths that have since become more persuasive. Nature itself has brought us to the moral crossroads: “On our new planet growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.’’ It is terrifying to think that we might have “seen the peak of economic growth’’ and that “we won’t be able to make the system bigger,’’ but crossing key environmental thresholds, beyond the point of sustainability, indicates precisely this reality.

A number of recent books argue that cities are the antidote to the environmental crisis. But McKibben understands that this is true only in relative terms. In a world of absolutely declining nonrenewable resources and destructive climate change, we will have to figure out where our economies have grown too complex and environmentally inefficient, and consider “maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm.’’ This will require unprecedented changes in lifestyle, following assumption of greater personal responsibility. In this spirit, McKibben offers many examples, from Vermont to Bangladesh, of concrete methods for food and power production and conservation that are local and sustainable.

“Eaarth’’ is tough reading, with a tough message. It offers a view of economic growth not typically encountered in mainstream discussion, with all its moral dimensions unmasked and clarified. It takes us away from fantasies of living as we have in the past, prompted by both empirical and ethical necessity. It goes as far as to question the true basis of happiness, whether it is reflected in standard measures of economic growth, or whether it lies in neighborliness, community, self-reliance, and harmonious coexistence with nature. Only time will tell whether McKibben’s dire environmental prognosis will come true at the speed and scale he anticipates, but the urgency of his moral advocacy demands attention.

Anis Shivani’s debut book is “Anatolia and Other Stories.’’ He can be reached at

EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
By Bill McKibben
Times, 253 pp., $24