‘Eaarth’ by Bill McKibben, Black Ink, 2010

With a flood of books now hitting the shelves on climate change, it can be quite a challenge deciding which volume to read. Well-known names is one trail to follow, such as James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia theory, who had some harsh words for us all in his 2009 book ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia’ and James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute, who warns that we could be on the way to turning our planet into a second Venus.

It was when reading Hansen’s 2009 book ‘Storms of my Grandchildren’ that I came across Bill McKibben, who was seeking scientific direction on what the upper limit of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere should be to have a safe climate. Hansen describes how he held off responding until he could say with certainty that beyond 350 parts per million (ppm) CO2, we are in the danger zone and the higher the level rises, now 390ppm and rising by 2ppm per annum, we are heading deeper into danger year by year.

After James Hansen raised climate change in the United States Congress in 1988, Bill McKibben followed his lead in 1989 with the first book on the issue for a general audience called ‘The Death of Nature’, which has been compared with Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and was reissued in 2006.

Once McKibben received the news from Hansen, he moved into campaign mode with 350.org, aimed at mobilising people around the World to demand action on greenhouse gases and returning the planet to a safe climate. Like many thousands globally in October 2009, I participated in a 350 event, which included many local environmental concerns.

In this book McKibben holds up a beacon of hope, that if we act we can save our world, but he cannot see such action happening in time to save our hides. He deplores the failure of the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, describing it as a fiasco, where the commitments offered would lead to an escalation in the CO2 level to 725ppm, committing the planet to irreversible changes.

McKibben believes that we have now lost the old planet and need to give this new dangerous planet a new name; thus the title of the book with an extra ‘a’ in Earth. Like Lovelock, McKibben sees the need for local survival and writes of militias in his home state of Vermont and the need to “Think globally – act neighbourly.” He describes in detail why we will need to rebuild local communities that are self-sufficient, in the hope that we can “Survive the damage that we can no longer prevent.”

He also hopes that the Internet will survive, as a way for all to access survival information locally and keep in tough globally.

McKibben urges the reader to give up on grand dreams for the future of civilization and look to a “graceful decline.” Mention of the movie ‘Mad Max’ reveals the world that he sees coming, with a large die-off of humanity in climate change catastrophes. This future is certainly predictable, as recent cataclysmic floods in Pakistan and the heat wave and crop failures in Russia revealed. They are exactly the events that climate scientists have been warning about.

McKibben’s plan for local survival offers many useful tips for neighbourly action and community cooperation. He does not, however, attempt to describe what will happen when the world we know flies apart because of sea level rise, fiercer storms, spreading deserts and dying oceans. He is an activist beating a drum for local action that may help communities to survive on a dangerous new Earth.

‘Eaarth’ is worth reading, offering a vista of living history in the age of climate change and many handy tips on being an effective activist. If, however, the reader is interested in a vision and plan that will keep the wheels of our global civilization turning, this is not the book.

McKibben does not offer a way to end poverty in this Mad Max window into the future, where survival comes down to growing food with neighbours and defending it with militias, where like Switzerland, “every adult male is a soldier.” Writers like Nicholas Stern in his 2009 book ‘A Blueprint for a Safer Planet’ hammer the point that both climate change and global poverty must be addressed together, but then, McKibben is not attempting to save us from climate change.

His text is a 1970s style survival book. It follows in the vein of Clive Hamilton’s ‘Requiem for a Species’, where hope has slipped from the hand. If there is any hope in this hour, it might be found in Lovelock’s haunting comment: “We are deeply impressed by the power of our weapons, yet they are puny compared with the most powerful weapon of all: creative intelligence.” (page 157, ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia’).

The Reviewer’s Perspective

I see hope for the future, which involves securing a sustainable presence beyond Earth, from where we will be in a confident survival position to work for a healthy Earth, keep the wheels of civilization turning, make poverty history and avoid a mass loss of life from dangerous climate change and the resulting global wars that could all too easily slide toward nuclear madness. In this future there could be more air travel, but not by jet: airships could reach any location on Earth with passengers and freight and be powered by the Sun. The main energy source for the future could be Earth-based solar power generation; though we may need to access solar energy directly in space and beam this to Earth, to make it through the gathering crisis and avoid global wars, by desalinating unlimited volumes of ocean water and pumping this to where people will need it to survive and grow food, especially as many millions of people are forced to move inland and across national borders to escape from a rising sea level. Access to energy will also allow communities to keep environments cool in a hotter world, where we may need to live on Earth more as if we were living in space.