Before we all head off into our gas-powered, coal-fired lives this week, I invite you to take the pledge: You will not let the summer go by without reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. It’s not exactly beach reading, unless your beach is on the Gulf of Mexico. And the way I see it, that is now everybody’s beach, everybody’s wetlands, everybody’s ruin. We all have a hand in that broken cookie jar.
Bill McKibben would have us know a few simple things:
1. Climate change isn’t some hypothetical future event. It’s here. Now. And it’s only going to get worse.
2. Civilization as we’ve known it—the civilization made possible by a stable, abundant and richly diverse planet—is screwed. Because that planet no longer exists. It’s over.
3. Modernity has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels—and those days are gone.
For doubters, there’s data—lots of it. And the numbers add up to this: the planet that human culture has known for 10,000 years has been changed so dramatically by human activity, McKibben has rechristened it “eaarth,” with an extra ‘a’. After you read the first half of the book, you might wonder why he didn’t just call it Planet Doom.
It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the scale of the disaster. McKibben, however, despite everything he knows, seems to be an optimist. If you simply “obsess over collapse,” he writes, “there’s no room for creative thinking.” So the second part of the book is about that: creating a new way of life to suit the new, sad place we have made.
But first the bad news. Unless you’re in denial, you already know that our fossil fuel habit has raised the atmospheric temperature one and a half degrees Fahrenheit . Big deal, you might think, that’s small. But it’s not. The world’s systems are so complex and interdependent, that the effects of warming cascade in a thousand directions. And the numbers continue to rise. Take a look at just a few little corners of the house that fossil fuels built:
Warmer air holds more water. That means less water in and on the ground and more in the air, which means bigger, wetter, more violent storms. It means drought and flood and ever-longer fire seasons in Southern California. Warmer winters mean more winter rain, less snowpack in the mountains—which means winter flooding and a lack of summer water in population centers downhill. They also mean faster snow melt in spring, which means even less water in the heat of the summer. These effects are already real, measurable, and misery-causing.
That single degree of warming is shrinking glaciers everywhere. In the Himalayas, the Peruvian Andes and Canada, for example, the glaciers people depend on for water are disappearing. That’s millions and millions of people. Imagine a world without the Ganges. Warmer air is melting ice caps, which means higher water levels in the ocean, which is already wreaking havoc in low lying areas. The Maldives are buying land so that they can evacuate an entire island nation. Sea water is pushing its way up into agricultural land in Micronesia and Bangladesh. Even a modest rise in sea levels will inundate the perimeter of Manhattan, including Wall Street.
Water problems also affect agriculture, which means the food supply is growing even more insecure. Warmer temperatures also mean explosions of dengue fever in developing countries. Think you’re immune? West Nile virus may be coming to a town near you; it spreads faster and wider after heavy rains.
One more piece (among many) of the CO2 equation: rising levels of CO2 mean the oceans absorb it in higher concentrations, which makes them more acidic. This is corrosive enough to threaten shellfish, and eventually will make them impossible. A more acidic ocean also eats away coral reefs, which have previously protected shorelines from high waves and storm damage. And with bigger, wetter storms to come, well, you get the picture.
The economic and human costs of climate change are already mounting, and this is just the tip of the melting iceberg. The picture is bleak. And even if we could change our habits instantly, tomorrow, there’s no going back to the planet we had just 100 or even 50 years ago. It’s gone.
So what do we do now? The second part of Eaarth lays out some answers.
In short: Grow up. Look reality in the face. Slow down. Give up the fantasy of ever-expanding economic growth; it’s killing us. Dump old habits, like consumerism and dependency on oil. Get Small. And get Local. This means energy conservation in our homes and in our cities; backyard and community gardens everywhere; local energy production like solar and wind; and community-building at the block, neighborhood, and town levels, for creating local solutions and mutual aid. The Transition Towns movement is a great place to start.
As McKibben’s 350.org has proven, global action through dispersed, coordinated, local actions can be powerful. On the new planet Eaarth, it may be the only option we have. Hunkering down, powering down, relying on neighbors. Things could be worse.