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Eaarth by Bill McKibben

Phil England

6th April, 2010

Pioneering environmentalist Bill McKibben hopes to take his readers by the collars and shake them in his new climate change wake-up call, Eaarth

Even those of us who have done our best to look climate change squarely in the eye have had to retreat into comfort zones and shield ourselves from time to time from some of the worst messages coming out of the scientific community. Now, in the wake of the failure of Copenhagen, McKibben challenges us to take the blinkers off.

McKibben was the first author to write a book about climate change for a general audience (The End of Nature in 1989, after James Hansen had first raised this issue in Congress in 1988). Twenty years later, his principle message is that climate change is no longer just a nebulous threat to our grandchildren or to our children; it’s a real and present danger, here and now.

McKibben takes us by the hand and leads us through the profound, and in some cases largely irreversible, effects of the 1C rise in global average temperatures that we have experienced already:

Changes in rainfall patterns are causing permanent drought in places such as Australia and the American Southwest, increasing the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and cyclones and extending the wildfire season in California by 78 days compared to the 1970s and 1980s, with fires burning four times as long.

Increasing temperatures have caused rapid melting of the Arctic, an expansion of the tropics by more than two degrees of latitude both north and south, and provided the conditions for the Mountain Pine Beatle to lay 33m acres of forests in the Rocky Mountains to waste. Ocean acidity is up by 30 per cent and coral reefs are threatened with permanent extinction. Increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather is affecting food security and impacting especially on those who live directly off the land. Natural feedback mechanisms that threaten to accelerate the warming process are starting to kick in.

And, as if to add insult to injury, our predicament is complicated by the fact that we are entering an economic crisis that is likely to become permanent once we fully understand the implications of peak oil. A 2008 study that compared the business-as-usual scenarios of the pioneering 1972 'Limits to Growth' report with thirty years of reality concluded we are indeed on the path to collapse.

In with the new

If you survive this ghost-of-climate-present survey of our ‘new’ planet and make it to the second half of the book, you’ll find that in order for us to survive, McKibben advocates a new mindset that jettisons ideas of growth, consumer lifestyles, bigness and complexity.

Surprisingly for the person who has spearheaded the 350.org’s global campaign to put the latest science at the heart of the global talks on climate change, he has little to say about what a science-based and just global climate deal would look like. When discussing the 'grand bargain' needed to seal an international climate deal, he flags up the parlous state of the economy and the fact that Americans would balk at extra taxes to fund windmills in China, but doesn’t mention any of the alternative sources of finance that are available to negotiators, for example, the proposed 'Robin Hood' Tobin tax on financial transactions.

Rather than discussing the alternatives to economic growth put forward by Herman Daly or Tim Jackson, McKibben proposes that the idea of 'maintenance' should replace 'growth' or 'expansion' as a guiding principle. In an economically broke, climate-changed world what role is there for national government? After a protracted look at American history McKibben concludes, ‘not much’.

Community focus

His solutions are mainly community-based and focused on meeting our top-line needs: food, energy and, surprisingly perhaps, the internet. He is fantastic on food, highlighting both the impressive upswing of initiatives across the US as well as inspirational solutions for food security in poor countries. Here it is clear that we need to relocalise and go small not because, as Mckibben puts it, 'mammals get smaller in the heat and so should governments', but because our current system of industrialised agriculture is vulnerable to peak oil, threatens food security in poorer nations and is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gases. Small, smart, labour-intensive, natural systems are undoubtedly the way to go.

He is less convincing on energy, dismissing national projects in favour of domestic solar and wind (perhaps he needs to have a chat with George Monbiot about that). McKibben rounds off by arguing that we should make every effort to save the internet - a boredom-saving, information sharing, transport bypassing, low-energy device that facilitates low-carbon services (such as car sharing and Freecycle). It’s also a window on a liberal culture that might otherwise be stifled in a small community, and has enabled the amazing, local-yet-global campaigns (Step It Up and 350.org) that he has spearheaded and fronted.

Phil England is a freelance journalist

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