Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben, Time Books (2010)
First, my prejudice in reading this book – I was looking for a book to introduce law students to global warming and to the idea of adaption, i.e., how we will need to change due to global warming, not just how we might try to avoid global warming.
This is a short, small book, four chapters, a little more than 200 pages, plus notes. It is also attractively priced, which combined with the length was very promising for a book that we might use for only a few class sessions.
The first two chapters are an excellent introduction to global warming as a here-and-now problem. The author’s key point is that all the laws, all the treaties, all the scary movies miss the key point. From folks who are trying to work out a treaty with China and the developing world to reduce greenhouse gas production to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, all are about the terrible problems our grandchildren will face if we do not do something NOW. McKibben’s point in the first two chapters is that global warming is here now.
The ocean is rising, the climate is changing, and it is doing so in ways that may be irreversible. For example, permafrost is melting, and it is not melting into the wheat fields of the future. It is melting into a bog full of rotting organic matter that is now emitting methane. Worse, methane is a much more efficient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So increasing methane increases warming, which increases methane. The polar ice is melting and is mostly disappearing most of the year. This does not raise sea level – it is like melting the ice floating in your iced tea – but it does change the arctic from white snow that reflects heat back into space into dark ocean that absorbs it.
He gives many other documented examples of systems which, once they start to break down, do it pretty much independently of any efforts we make to reduce greenhouse gasses. He also attacks the traditional view on how many parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide constitute the critical level where heating starts getting faster. He argues convincingly that the level is much closer to where we are right now, that all of the targets and goals for capping the rise in carbon dioxide at a level to be reached in the future are wrongheaded – we are already too high and things are changing.
The second chapter looks at climate events over the past few decades and argues that they are trending toward more extreme events. Not just less rain in some places and more rain in others, but less rain in the form of long droughts and more rain in the form of catastrophic floods. It makes a lot of difference if your 50 inches of rain falls in five ten–inch storms rather than being spread over the year, or if your 30 inches comes in a few big storms five months apart, rather than throughout the growing season. There has clearly been a lot more damage due to hurricanes and flooding in the past 10 years than for the historical record before that. Some of the extra damage is because people have moved into risky areas due to the subsidy of levees and the National Flood Insurance Program, but there have been more extreme events as well. Since I moved back to Louisiana in 2002, we have been hit by six hurricanes – two in 2002 that did not do a lot of damage because of their size and where they came in, then Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike. As bad as the damage caused by Katrina, it was not as big a storm as Rita, and had either of them come ashore about 30 miles west of New Orleans – putting the brunt of the winds and surge into New Orleans, rather than Mississippi or west Louisiana, Katrina’s damage to New Orleans would have seemed mild in comparison.
McKibben pulls no punches in Chapters One and Two, making clear that we live on a hotter, more extreme earth, and one that is going to get even hotter and more extreme no matter what we do. He makes a strong point that we need to start talking about changing the way we live on the planet that we now live on, and stop thinking that we are working to protect our grandchildren from global warming.
I turned to Chapters Three and Four with great anticipation – someone has finally admitted that the problem is here, now, and we need to adapt. I was ready for ideas on moving people to higher ground, reworking water systems; in short, exciting ideas on how to adapt. What I learned was that the world would be a better place with few greenhouse gasses if it were more like the author’s home in rural Vermont. (I suppose one should just say Vermont, to avoid being redundant.) One of these examples was about how flooding on a local river had washed out the road to his 500–resident community. He lamented that it was going to cost a lot of (other people’s) money to fix, and what really was needed was a new (even more expensive) road relocated farther from the river. He did not discuss the question of whether it might make more sense to adapt his community by moving it down the mountain.
I was taken with his notion of all the chemical fertilizer that could be saved if you just spread the night soil of New York City over the Garden State next door. I know a bit about municipal sanitation and was quickly musing about draining the NYC municipal sewers into repurposed C-130 fire–fighting tankers and heading them east to New Jersey. Having flushed this vision from my mind, I realized that we had just shifted to yet another “small is beautiful” environmental utopian vision. The problem is that this is completely disconnected from the first two chapters: they make a pretty convincing case that the problem is here and now and that utopian solutions for your grandchildren are just denying the problem. I left Chapters Three and Four feeling that Vermont would be a great place for a few hundred thousand of the Bangladeshis left treading water in Chapter Two.
This is not to say that Chapters Three and Four are wrong, just hopelessly irrelevant to the world we live in. Given the dose of reality in Chapters One and Two, I had expected a bridge between the hot and nasty here and the rural agrarian (but Internet–enhanced) future in Chapters Three and Four. I was reminded of the story in Lathe of Heaven, a movie from the Ursula K. Le Guin novel. The hero has active dreams – what he dreams comes true, but, as in Bedazzled (the Peter Cooke/Dudley Moore version, please) not exactly as he wanted. When he dreamed of a solution to limited resources, scarce jobs, and limited housing, he awoke to a world ravaged by a plague. I do not know what is in the dreams of Bill McKibben, but perhaps his next book will tell us how to get from here to his there without making a lot of people disappear.
The first two chapters were a great read. I hate to have students buy a book that we read half of. If we read the rest of the book in class, I am afraid that it will reinforce the stereotype that a developer is a bad person who wants to build a house in the woods, and an environmentalist is someone who already has his house in the woods. Perhaps I can convince them that the second half is just a brilliant Swiftian send–up and is meant to remind us that, as Chapters One and Two tell us, we really are in trouble and better come up with some new ideas. Perhaps it is.