Weekend Review: Eaarth by Bill McKibben

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
The idea that humans could fundamentally alter the planet is relatively new, but it has been around for more than a century. Global warming is a big, unpredictable experiment and is described by the original writer on the topic in Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010) by Bill McKibben. This is not a problem for our grandchildren, he writes, the planet that we evolved on already no longer exists. "The stability that produced that civilization has vanished; epic changes have begun...Global warming is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don't compromise." We may be able to salvage some sort of civilization on a fundamentally different planet, which he has named "eaarth."

The crux of the conversation is that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which produced ten thousand years of stability, was 275 parts per million. We are now at 390 parts per million and it is agreed that we have to stabilize at 350 to avoid complete disaster. This huge carbon explosion has set into motion a series of events that are becoming harder and harder to control and the longer we wait to act, the more unlikely it is that the course that we have set in motion can be modified.

Oil represents the essence of modern life. Many things--medical science, computer technology, modern cities--would simply not exist in their current forms without it. To think that we've so mindlessly wasted it is mind-numbing. Oil is our economy. Growth is our way of life. Not to mention China and India who are following in our footsteps. This has to change. More is not better. Even the International Energy Agency (IEA), a conservative group that has long claimed there would always be plenty of oil, in 2008 admitted that production is falling, will continue to fall, and there is no way to meet the continued and increasing thirst for oil.

A shift to renewable energy is growing and this is exciting, but it is not nearly fast enough to ward off enormous change. We can't just replace oil as we currently use it with wind. One huge problem is that of the sunk costs that are in our existing fossil fuel infrastructure. We have $10 trillion invested in this system, with capital costs not even being paid off for another 10-50 years. Someone has to eat that cost and, understandably, no one is willing to do it.

So, what will the new eaarth look like? A warmer planet means more drought; more disease. By mid-century 700 million of the world's 9 billion people will be climate change refugees. The government will not save us. We cannot save the world that we currently live on. It's already gone. Instead, we have to manage our descent and aim for a "relatively graceful decline." This must be done with small, localized government and individuals working together to improve their local systems. Instead of betting everything on red, this is the equivalent of placing a million small wagers in order to spread out the risk as widely as possible. Nothing should be "too big to fail."

"We need cultures that work for survival--which means we need once more to pay attention to elders, to think hard about limits, to rein in our won excesses. But we also need cultures that work for everyone, so that women aren't made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places." Live lightly, carefully, gracefully.


  1. thanks for your review! another one to add to my to-read list. Hope you are feeling well!!

  2. He came locally when this book came out and I couldn't make it to the book signing. Can't wait to check it out at the library now!

    Hope you are feeling a bit better!