Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

by Bill McKibben

Henry Holt and Company, 2010

EaarthCoverI should have read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth upon its publication five years ago – so should everyone – but somehow I missed it. In a word, “Eaarth” is the new planet that human civilization has created over two centuries, perhaps with the best of intentions, but a planet now irreversibly compromised by resource extraction, environmental destruction, and resulting climate change.  This new planet is not coming – it’s already here. McKibben argues that we humans need to learn to live differently on our new planet.

The first half of Eaarth nearly drove me to despair. It is a litany of bad news, everything we have done to degrade our living conditions by spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and how we continued to do the same things – even accelerated the damage – over the past three decades, when we should have known better. I’ve read much about this before, but every time I revisit the story it strikes me as even more tragic.

The second half of the book focuses on adaptation. In McKibben’s words, “… we’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created. We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed.” These are fighting words to the captains of free market capitalism. In that respect McKibben’s message is just as explosive and polarizing as Naomi Klein’s in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

In truth, McKibben’s and Klein’s prescriptions for human survival are quite similar, but with different emphasis. Klein argues that dealing with climate change provides us with our best opportunity to advance environmental and social justice, while McKibben lays out in some detail the benefits of simplicity, control, security, and community that would result from decentralization of our food and energy production.

McKibben makes an additional point that, to my knowledge, no one has thought of before, or no one has thought significant enough to mention. The Internet has helped us connect with and learn about diverse peoples around the globe whose values, beliefs, and backgrounds are sharply different from our own. This has helped us, over time, to bridge cultural gaps and, sometimes, to understand, lift, and support one another. (At the same time the Internet has been used as a polarizing force, too. In these respects the Internet mirrors the society it serves.) McKibben says that, on this new Eaarth we’ve created, we won’t be jumping on airplanes much or traveling long distances to make physical connection with people outside our own locales. The Internet, though, and the computers we use to access it, run on a tiny fraction of the total energy we now consume. On our new Eaarth it should still be possible to maintain the Internet, and thus avoid becoming isolated within our communities, relapsing into suspicion and intolerance of outsiders.

You may think this new planet is a poor substitute for the one we Americans have enjoyed for the past six decades or so. I disagree. But whether we agree or not, our choice is clear. Either we can ease carefully, gracefully – and quickly – into the new world that Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein envision, or just stand idle and brace ourselves, as nature imposes upon us a kind of life and death that no one wants.

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