Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Anything too big to fail is too big!

Why on Earth is it Eaarth with an extra ‘a’? Perhaps it is a smart trick to draw attention to the book: Eaarth: Making a life on a Tough New Planet. However I do realize that Bill McKibben has chosen this to convey a very serious message—the message that the blue-green grand oasis we have seen on the pictures taken from Apollo 8 has become a very different planet; our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that we never experienced before. “It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth”, he says.

In the first half of the book McKibben makes a strong effort to justify this dramatic expression. He does that well, I must say. The ice caps are melting, species are becoming extinct, wildfires are raging, record heat is being recorded every season and strong storms and floods are growing more frequent and severe, washing away our roads and bridges. He says that even “on the old stable planet” we are falling hopelessly behind. Today, one in every four bridges in the United States needs major repair or upgrades. And it's all going to get worse, even if we curb emissions today–which we clearly don’t.

Like many modern writers, McKibben focuses a lot on the connection between energy and economic growth. The more you produce the more energy you need and the more energy you use, the more things you produce. I believe this link is now well established.

Some people think we shouldn’t paint too gloomy a picture of the situation, as it may make people depressed and thereby passive. McKibben is clearly not in this camp. Neither am I. But even my appetite for doomsday meets its match here. I am afraid that spectacular weather events are somewhat overused to prove that global warming is here and that it is going to be hell. He claims that the “great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years”. I remember that I sat crying in my spruce forest some 30 years ago when we had a rapid dying of forests in Sweden and other parts of Europe. The whole forest would be wiped out we were told. Today we have more trees than ever before!

It takes a few examples like these to undermine the story. But I don’t want to do that. McKibben is basically right, even if he might be wrong in some details, and uses too many “events” and not enough science to build the case.

Perhaps he is also overemphasizing on climate change being the single most pressing issue for our civilization. He does point to peak oil and a few other indications to show that the system has reached its limits, but climate change stands out as clearly the number one issue to be solved. While I dread climate change, I do think human civilization can survive it. But it will cost. And when energy is scarce and many other resources are depleted, we might not be able to afford the things we need. Having said that, climate change is certainly a threat that needs immediate action and attention.  

On page 99 he shifts attention to “after the flood”. Because there will be an after.
”the trouble with obsessing  over collapse, though, is that it keeps you from considering other possibilities...There is no real room for creative thinking....The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility – that we might choose instead to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline.” From there McKibben tries to explain how such a new civilization would look like and how we would reach there.

And it is this part of the book that is most interesting—at least for someone who no longer needs to be convinced of global warming. While our current civilization heralds risk, speed, complexity and expansion, the new world will be built on robustness, dependable technologies, locality, and resilience. McKibben builds a credible case for how the local, slow and close will help us out, “we’re talking walk or trot or jog, not canter or gallop”, comparing the shift with the difference between a thoroughbred and a workhorse of sturdy build.

Written in the aftermath of the biggest bail-out in history (the book was first published in 2010), McKibben says that anything too big to fail is by definition too big, advocating smaller units and less complexity. His own small state of Vermont, small scale farming, farmers markets and distributed power (people producing their own power from wind, sun, biogas etc.) are examples of how smaller units can work well—and bring other qualities. For instance, on average, people visiting a farmers market have ten times as many conversations per visit than those visiting a supermarket. The change will partly be driven by us choosing to do things, buying local for instance, and things we are forced to do such as repairing the local road because the central government can’t afford it, or fixing a local power source when the central supply has collapsed.  

Bill McKibben sees mostly good things with the transition that will come, the transition that has to come regardless of whether we want it or not. But he is not immune to the advances of contemporary society and its value.

”... our national and global project has been about more than accumulation and expansion, more than cars and factories. It’s also been about liberation – the slow but reasonably steady progress of valuing more and more people....The process that made us anonymous to our neighbors carried real benefits not just costs”.

The Internet is the savior here; it is both a global project that knits us together and something that allows restless globetrotters such as McKibben and myself keep in contact with the rest of the world without necessarily accruing air miles. But is the Internet really so resource saving? I have my doubts about it.   

Much of what McKibben advocates make sense. My main concern is that he overlooks the effects of the enormous inequalities in societies and the logic of the capitalist economy. The models of communities working nicely together are not applicable for a civilization where one percent has fifty percents of the assets and where half of the population shares a mere one percent of all wealth. Capitalism is both a cause and a result of this unprecedented period in history and it seems unrealistic to believe that capitalism can survive the descent into a steady-state economy with a smaller footprint. And it seems even more unrealistic to expect that it will bring us there! Without addressing this, the graceful descent is not likely to come true, or at least not be graceful.

It is worth reading on both sides of the Atlantic, on both sides of the Pacific as well as at the shores of the Indian Ocean.  

Check out Bill McKibben's Official Site for much more information about Eaarth.
Bill McKibben (born 1960) is an American environmentalist, author, and journalist who has written extensively on the impact of global warming. In 2010, the Boston Globe called him "probably the nation's leading environmentalist" [3] and Time magazine described him as "the world's best green journalist."[4]
In 2009, he led the organization of, which organized what Foreign Policy magazine called "the largest ever global coordinated rally of any kind," with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries.

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