Chuck's Reviews > Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

Eaarth by Bill McKibben
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May 11, 13

Read in July, 2010

Last week the Senate showed its lack of backbone by refusing to take up climate legislation. The proposed bill was extremely modest, but it apparently involved too much political risk for Democrats facing re-election, and of course the Party of No held to its predictable position. One does have to wonder why it's so easy for our "leaders" to turn their backs on finding ways to mitigate a likely global catastrophe. I think the answer is that, although there are a few visible signs of a coming climate meltdown, much of the evidence is out of sight. And out of sight seems to mean out of mind. Rising global temperatures cause disappearing glaciers, acidification of the ocean, melting permafrost, droughts, and increasingly violent weather conditions. But we we don't encounter much of this on a daily basis, and we seem wired to respond primarily to what is in our immediate environment.

Bill McKibben's latest book attempts to put some of the facts back in the forefront of our consciousness. He emphasizes the number 350 -- that number indicates how many parts per million of carbon dioxide can presumably exist in the atmosphere without imperiling the stability of planet Earth. But, according to McKibben, we're already at 390 and climbing. We no longer live on Earth; we live on a new planet, which he calls "Eaarth".

The first half of Eaarth details the hard truths and looming consequences. But McKibben sees himself as offering solutions, not just prophesying doom. The difficulty is that the "solutions" he offers don't remotely scale up to the problem that he identifies. He argues that we need to rediscover "community", disavow the mantra of endless "growth", and move toward local production of food and energy; and he sees the Internet as a valuable tool in promoting those endeavors. McKibben describes some noteworthy success stories along these lines, but some of his recommendations (per the book's subtitle) are aimed more at coping with the consequences of global warming rather than reversing it. And while those recommendations that might help reduce harmful emissions are salutary, McKibben doesn't provide any evidence that they will get us anywhere close back to the magic number 350.

In the end, I suppose, each of us as individuals must do what we can, and "thinking local" is probably the right place to begin. However, given the magnitude of the problem, solving it -- if it's not already too late to do so -- seems to me to require significant government leadership and intervention, a new Manhattan Project with strong support from governments around the world. It's not clear that McKibben would disagree with this point, but he doesn't actively promote it either. Unfortunately, as long as lobbyists for fossil fuels wield their extensive and expensive power, and politicians care more about their next few years in office than they do about the future of the planet, it won't be just Rome that is burning. No problem, though; we can always adjust our air conditioners while we tune up our fiddles.

Update (May 11, 2013 -- original review written on July 26, 2010): Today's New York Times reports that the atmosphere's carbon dioxide level has now hit 400 parts per million -- a concentration that hadn't occurred during the last 3 million years. But, hey, it's currently only 46 degrees outside, so why should I worry? Out of sight, out of mind. And those who refuse to recognize or address the problem today won't be around tomorrow when the consequences of their disastrous ignorance and inanition become evident. Perhaps their progeny will hold them accountable, but what difference will that make?
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