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Inconvenient? You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet (book review)

By Craig K. Comstock

07 May, 2010
Huffington Post

Get used to it, baby: if there were an easier available place to find new oil than a mile beneath the sea, they'd be drilling there. The accident in the Gulf of Mexico, however damaging it is already, however widely it may spread, is minor compared with what is happening, invisibly, above our heads. That's the message of Bill McKibben's new book, Eaarth, and what he's been warning about for over two decades.

Each era is unimaginable to the era just before, except to a tiny circle of visionaries such as McKibben. Some of these visionaries are misguided, but this author bases his diagnosis on scientific evidence, even when, as in this case, the evidence has momentous implications for our "way of life."

Eaarth, with its doubled second vowel, is McKibben's deliberately drawling name for the planet we now live on, which is, he argues, no longer the planet on which we were born. The change is nothing as obvious and immediate as the slick in the gulf or as limited to one spot on the map. It is gradual and invisible, not unlike many cancers. Being invisible, it is deniable, at least for a while: "How could I be afflicted in my prime by cancer? There must be some mistake."

We're in trouble, writes McKibben, but we're still focusing mainly on undeniable perturbations, such as oil slicks and the global debt crisis--undeniable and relatively minor. If we can encourage the "green shoots" and return to vigorous growth, our leaders assume, everything will be okay. McKibben argues in his book that growth, part of the civic religion of the U.S., must be replaced--not by the wishful concept of "sustainability," a concept he rejects as "squishy," but by contraction and enoughness.

So what's the good news? (It's part of the American genius to assume there must be something good everywhere, as in Ronald Reagan's story of the room covered with equine turds, at the sight and smell of which the optimist calls out, "there must be a pony in here somewhere.") According to McKibben, the good news is that, while it's too late to prevent terrible damage from climate change and the peak of oil production, we can use our ingenuity to manage the contraction "gracefully" (quoting the final word of his text).

Although McKibben uses the term "global warming," a phrase that terrifies a climatologist but sounds tolerable to most people, he understands that the trouble will be experienced as climate change. Nature will reallocate water or, as he claims, has already begun to do so: some agricultural areas will wither in drought, while other places suffer torrential rains and hurricanes. Rivers will dry up or flood. Infrastucture will be damaged; food production, cut (at least food supplied by currently dominant means). Oceans will rise, fed by water from melting glaciers

The 1970s would have been a good time to begin a swift transition to a new economy. We had a President who, at moments, expressed our predicament with regard to energy. Back even before the young McKibben was writing "Talk of the Town" pieces, we were given a series of books, whatever their shortcomings, that might have forewarned us and pointed to some alternatives: for example, the Meadows and their colleagues,The Limits to Growth (1972); E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973); Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975); Denis Hayes, Rays of Hope: The Transition to a Post-Petroleum Age (1977), Amory B. Lovins, Soft Energy Paths (1977); Ivan Illich, Toward a History of Needs (1978); William R. Catton, Jr., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Changes (1980); Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That's Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (1981), and Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land (essays collected in 1982).

But the triumph of Reagan in 1980 made it clear that a majority was not yet prepared to halt the party fueled by a dramatic spike in energy available from fossil fuels, a spike so far lasting about two centuries. Coal, oil, and gas allowed us to be warmer in the winter, to build an electrical grid fired more than anything else by coal (and then also by natural gas), to build a fleet of cars and modern roads, to fly in planes, to make plastics and various industrial chemicals, and rounding out this list of examples, to bring fertility to soil (using ammonia produced by the Haber-Bosch process). What's not to like?

Of course the answer is CO2, an invisible by-product of burning all this fuel. Could the combustion from millions of sources, taken together, hold more of the sun's heat in our atmosphere and thus shift the climate? McKibben's subject is the trouble caused by that heat.

With many allies, McKibben found a way to stimulate a worldwide demonstration about climate change. He began with what might seem unpromising, with a number. It was 350, the maximum parts per million of CO2 that scientist James Hansen said would preserve the longtime conditions in which civilization flourished. Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was only 275 ppm; now it's 390.

According to the website of McKibben's campaign, "unless we are able to rapidly return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt."

Or, we could add while speculating about "positive feedback," the added heat absorption caused by the melting of reflective Arctic sea-ice still covering dark water.

In one of the most valuable books published in the last year, McKibben returns us to the theme of The Limits to Growth and thus questions the central dogma of our civic religion, as big a heresy as when, in the early 16th century, a Polish polymathquestioned the belief, supported by the Church of Rome, that the sun revolved around the earth.

McKibben's prescriptions are not unfamiliar, in part because of his own voluminous writing. He favors rebuilding local economies instead of imagining that we can sustain globalization; growing food by means other than industrial agriculture (including local, organic farms and millions of suburban gardens); developing an economic system around the values of durability, robustness, and enoughness; gaining the stimulation of travel in larger part via the internet; building social capital; and above all, reducing not the rate of increase in greenhouse gases, but the absolute proportion.

We know how to increase the gross domestic product, but (to allude to the title of one of McKibben's earlier books) is our system capable of producing just enough and of distributing it fairly? Easier to label the news of climate change as a hoax and to dismiss the messenger as a hypocrite or worse, a misguided nerd; easier, like a defense attorney, to raise doubt about the evidence (and in this case, to capitalize on the dutiful doubt that is the hallmark of good science).

Part of the value of Eaarth is the generous array of examples from all over the world, gathered from extensive reading, organizing, and travel (yes, let opponents of greenhouse gases have as big a carbon footprint as their work requires, say I). Part of the value flows from the courage of casting doubt on economic growth as the mantra of a successful civilization of the future. And part is McKibben's companionable, coherent, and good-humored account of our fix, delivered in the tone you might hear, in response to a question, from a well-informed friend on a hike as he steps over the sticks, gracefully.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

From the author:
I'm a blogger for Huffington Post, producer and host of a TV program, and book creation coach working with authors.