Back in the winter of 1990-91, when I was a between-real-jobs freelancer hanging out in Vancouver with plenty of time on my hands to read, I would cycle down to Stanley Park each rainless day, find a quiet stretch of beach, and read. I went through dozens of books before returning to the working world, but the only book I remember in any detail is Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. It was the first full-length, popular-science take on climate change, and I’ve spent much of the last 20 years thinking and writing about the subject, thanks to that book. So has McKibben.
eaarth is an oddly titled sequel of sorts. Climate change is just the backstory now. What was once looming on the horizon has become a present-day crisis that threatens to undermine the very fabric of civilization. That’s the starting point of McKibben’s latest stream-of-consciousness anti-fossil-fuel polemic. And I mean that in a good way.
A compact, but heavily endnoted (371 of them over 212 pages) work that is clearly intended to first depress the hell out of you then offer some cause for cautious optimism, eaarth is perhaps best described as a handbook for the Anthropocene, as the current era is coming to be known. The misspelled title reminds us that we no longer live on the planet that gave birth to everything we know, but on a very different world, one that is increasingly hostile to many species, including our own. It’s a clever little gimmick, though it might be offputting to those who need to read it the most — the deniers and pseudoskeptics who just can’t bring themselves to accept that humans are capable of changing the basic ecological parameters of our existence.
In that sense, the book may not accomplish all the author hopes for. The relentless litany of the facts of climate change, delivered in bursts of long sentences in long paragraphs — rarely more than two per page — make for a daunting read if you’re not used to this sort of thing. Those familiar with the science may find it a little thin on hard data, biased instead in favor of dramatic anecdotes. Indeed, most the references are popular news media and blogs, not peer-reviewed science.
But I doubt McKibben is worried about converting those who aren’t predisposed to swallowing his message. James Hansen tried that in Storms of My Grandchildren, a science-heavy book that comes off more like a cry of desperation than a guide to salvation. The science informing anthropogenic global warming is now so far beyond dispute among reasonable people that it almost seems like overkill to revisit the data here and now. The whole point behind eaarth is that it’s time to move on, come to grips with the changes that are already upon us and start adapting.
By adapting, McKibben means changing the way we have organized society. All the usual suspects are here: Eat local, use less energy, stop traveling so much, decentralize our power generating infrastructure. There’s nothing new, although I get the impression that the author hasn’t quite made up his mind about which technologies we should embrace and which we should discard. He doesn’t like massive PV arrays in the deserts of the southwest because that would mean expensive, vulnerable grids to transport the electricity to where it’s needed, but he writes more approvingly of massive offshore wind farms because more people live near the coasts. Maybe, but given the speed at which we need to throw off the fossil-fuel shackles, we may not have the luxury of choosing just the best of the renewables.
McKibben’s “small is beautiful” philosophy is awfully attractive in theory. But sometimes it seems his thinking was turned into prose a little too quickly. He glosses over complexity in favor of consistency a few too many times. For example, when it comes to the failing business model of newspapers, he writes:
What if your newspaper wasn’t owned by some corporate overlord looking for a 20 percent return? What if a small annual profit was enough? Maybe it would still be covering the city council and sending a reporter on the road with the baseball team.
You’ll get little argument from me that corporate demands are playing a big role in killing journalism. But declining advertising and readership and the failure to develop an income from the Internet are also major challenges. It seems that by moving beyond the science, McKibben also moved beyond thorough analysis. This creates problems later in the book when he offers the Internet is one of several potential cures for what ails us. While he loves the idea of reviving the neighborhood as a focus of life, it is as yet unclear whether social networking’s ability to transcend geography will make that easier or harder to realize.
On the whole, however, I found myself nodding in approval at most of what eaarth has to offer. McKibben has a profound respect for the science that brought him to where he’s at, and he only occasionally allows his passion for the best of what we can be cloud his judgment. I’d even go so far as to call this a really important book, at least as important The End of Nature. For those willing to accept the simple premise that we can’t go living this way, it’s an easily digestible, compelling review of what we’ve done to the Earth and a useful compendium of the many options at our disposal for adapting to the new reality. Not your typical beach read. But as the gusher from the Deepwater Horizon begins to foul many a beach on the Gulf, I suspect there are at least some readers who will find it timely and provocative.
$24, 212 pages