Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/4/2010 (2565 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
By Bill McKibben
Knopf Canada, 240 pages, $32
AMERICAN environmental journalist Bill McKibben’s engaging, but heartbreaking, new book about global warming is not a wake-up call.
That call came in 1972 when The Club of Rome published Limits to Growth, which demonstrated that we were fouling our nest and depleting our resources.
But we hit the snooze button in 1980 with the election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and some of us are still lolling around wondering if there's really a problem. No, Eaarth is not our wake-up call; it's our pink slip -- for four decades of sleeping through crucial meetings, ignoring important clients and literally burning our capital.
As a result, we no longer live in the comfortable home of our ancestors -- the benign, predictable planet that nurtured our species and our civilization. We are out on the street of the new planet we created through unfettered growth and neglect.
"Eaarth" is McKibben's name for this new planet, the one that looks so much like the old one, but is so different in so many ways that will require so much of us.
McKibben founded the international campaign 350.org, which organized last year's worldwide demonstration calling attention to the need to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide below the 350 parts per million that would preserve a recognizable climate regime.
He is a veteran explorer of the mechanics and consequences of increased greenhouse gases whose 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first to present these ideas to the general public. He has since published 10 others. Al Gore credits McKibben with inspiring his interest in the topic.
Eaarth provides mountains of indisputable evidence that not only is climate change our future, it is our present. We have failed to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide below 350 ppm. It is now at 390 ppm, and climbing. Notwithstanding the distracting oil-industry sponsored pseudo-debate, we have indeed warmed the planet, and all hell is breaking loose right now:
-- In 2009, for the first time since before the last Ice Age, both the Northwest and Northeast Passages were ice free.
-- Montana's Glacier National Park has only 25 remaining glaciers , out of over 150 in the 19th century. (Glaciers are the summer reservoirs for much of the world's fresh water supply.)
-- The oceans are more acidic than at any time in the last 800,000 years. (Excess CO2 is absorbed by the seas, lowering their pH. This will eliminate large populations of shellfish and all coral reefs.)
-- Lyme disease-carrying ticks are being found in Vermont forests in January, and dengue fever, malaria and West Nile disease break out at latitudes and elevations where they were previously unknown.
-- Insects surviving warmer winters are decimating Canada's boreal forest. (Our government has been forced to concede that our dying trees are no longer net absorbers of CO2, but now net producers due to rotting deadwood.)
-- The tropics have expanded by four degrees latitude, encompassing huge tracts of previously arable land and making deserts of them.
-- Rising sea levels are flooding and salting large areas of Bangladesh, making agriculture impossible.
McKibben's list is much longer, of course, and he details the complex feedback loops that exponentially amplify the initial effects of our nudging the atmosphere, thereby pushing warming and its effects on our natural and economic environment well beyond our control. (Can the insurance industry survive the increase in catastrophic storms, floods and general unpredictability? Can industrial civilization survive the demise of the insurance industry?)
So the battle to save the planet that allowed humans to settle down and flourish for the past 10,000 years is over. We lost. (Heck, we barely even fought.)
Now the question is, "How do we survive on this new planet?"
That's the subject of the second half of Eaarth.
McKibben is not a doomer; along with the termination letter, he offers a bit of job counselling.
First, we must change some vocabulary. Growth and the oxymoronic sustainable growth must go. On the new planet, where warming curves rise and energy curves descend, we will need the less exciting durable, sturdy, stable, hardy and robust.
Second, we must rethink bigness. The now ubiquitous concept of "too big to fail" applies to all systems where interconnectedness, monoculture and delicate global transport make us vulnerable to catastrophic failure.
Diversity and redundancy are our main protections on the new Eaarth. Locally based, decentralized economies, where many small producers supply energy and food, will be safer than our current arrangements.
When one goes down, there will be many more to pick up the slack. "[B]etter the Fortune 500,000 than the Fortune 500," he writes.
Maintenance will be our new national project. We've built a lot of stuff; we can no longer simply replace it.
And heretical as this may sound in our farming province, organic food production is our only future. We have been pounded with the notion that chemical-based industrial farming is more efficient and gives higher yields, but are never told that this is only per crop.
Organic methods of intercropping (planting more than one type of plant in a single field) yield much more total food per acre, are less vulnerable to pests, disease, dwindling oil supplies and the increasing unpredictability of rainfall, and will be the only way we will feed ourselves.
McKibben doesn't say it will be easy, but transitions never are. We do have some choices. Will we make the right ones, and soon enough? Our record so far is not encouraging. If one book can help, this is it.
Jeff Presslaff is a Winnipeg musician with a strong interest in environmental issues.