BILL MCKIBBEN has been trying to warn us about the apocalyptic threat of climate change for two decades, ever since The End of Nature in 1990. As a writer, activist, and citizen of our beleaguered planet, he has done the best that one smart and caring man can do to get us to pay attention to the runaway freight train careening toward us.
We didn’t listen, and global warming is no longer a threat; it’s a reality. The average planetary temperature is up, as is total rainfall, with more violent thunderstorms. There’s drought in Australia and the American Southwest. Mountain glaciers and polar ice fields are melting, hurricanes are more frequent and more powerful, oceans are warmer and more acidic. The evidence is indisputable, yet we dither, distracted by propaganda planted in the media by coal and oil companies.
For most of the last ten thousand years, the period in which human civilization began and flourished, up until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was roughly 275 parts per million; 350 parts per million is the number beyond which the system breaks down and begins to reel out of control. It’s now 390 parts per million and rising. We talk about climate change, but we do nothing about it. “The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists,” McKibben writes in Eaarth (the altered spelling is meant to signify that this is not the same old Earth).
This book is not about what might happen, but what is already happening and how we need to prepare for a future world that is in no way like the one we thought we knew and could rely on to stay more or less the same. If the threats to coastal habitats, coral reefs, and polar bears don’t get your attention, consider the costs of dealing with a warming planet: relocating whole cities and ports and rebuilding flooded highways, to name a couple. This is why the corporate executives paying the closest attention to climate and those most worried about it are in the insurance industry.
Trouble is on the way: that’s clear, but McKibben spends the second half of this book showing how we can handle it—with grace if we choose; disastrously, if we keep our heads in the sand. To begin with, we must stop the mindless repetition of the mantra that growth solves all problems. It doesn’t. We must change some very bad habits, most a function of the consumer culture that seduces us with toys and fails to make us happy.
Here is a list of words that McKibben suggests we need to ponder carefully: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust. We need to slow down, fix things when they break, make do with what we need instead of fixating on what we think we want, accept small rather than insist on big, decentralize government, and think in terms of community rather than the individual.
All of this will require rethinking the cultivation and distribution of food. Industrial agriculture is wasteful, fuel intensive, and probably not good for our collective health. McKibben often cites examples of agricultural efficiency and sustainability from Vermont, where he now lives. Can these be applied globally? He thinks the answer to that is yes. He’s not blind to the difficulty of reforming how people grow their food in huge countries like India, China, Indonesia. But there is strong evidence of a new agriculture—with emphasis on smaller plots, soil conservation, natural pest control, and innovative crop rotations—all over the world. It needs encouragement.
The same thing goes for how we get and use energy. There’s no easy answer here. Solar and wind are good, but we will have to learn to do with less available energy. Again, this is possible, if we start now and plan well.
The point, of course, is that we’re in big trouble. But the biggest threat is not climate change: it’s despair. Bill McKibben and Jerry Jenkins are great writers, researchers, and environmentalists. But what I admire the most about both of them is not their impressive intellects but their indefatigable unwillingness to give up. This planet, this species can survive climate change. But we cannot be passive. The job, both here in the Adirondacks and around the world, starts now.