Reviewed by Edward Wolf
Twenty-one years ago, a young writer named Bill McKibben published a bombshell of a book, The End of Nature. Remembered now as "the first book for a general audience about global warming," it arrived just a year after the scorching summer of 1988 brought wildfires to Yellowstone, drought to the Corn Belt and climate scientist James Hansen to the halls of Congress to tell a panel of senators that global warming had begun.
As McKibben was writing that book, the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere climbed past 350 parts per million, a level Hansen later would call the key to preserving a "planet similar to that on which civilization developed."
Apocalypse leaned close that year, and its whispers changed McKibben's life. Leaving a plum position as a staff writer at The New Yorker, he has since written a series of environmental books (among them, Hope, Human and Wild and Deep Economy) and led a personal crusade to combat climate change that began as a march of friends across Vermont and grew to a nationwide movement and a worldwide day of action.
Now nearing 50, McKibben remains determined to alert readers to the present reality of climate change and the path he believes we must walk to "protect the core of our societies and our civilizations."
His new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet sounds a clarion at a time when the findings of climate scientists have been all but drowned out by skeptics and right-wing bombast. McKibben, however, does not doubt that facts will trump ideology. "The world hasn't ended, but the world as we know it has," he writes. "Even if we don't quite know it yet."
McKibben is an eloquent advocate for deep emissions cuts to slow global warming, but making that case is not the purpose of his latest book. Instead, he aims to alert us that on a planet we have altered so profoundly that it deserves a new name ("Eaarth"), we need to shift our lives in light of new realities.
The book surveys the evidence for climate-driven impacts on the planet's major features, challenges the notion that we can grow our way out of this predicament and celebrates locally based, decentralized approaches that McKibben believes can supply food and comfort on our newly volatile home.
In a chapter titled "Backing Off," McKibben turns to colonial history to argue that the debate between big and small solutions is quintessentially American. James Madison and his fellow Federalists won that debate on behalf of "big" the first time around thanks to a unifying national project, the conquest of the West. That project is finished, McKibben points out, leaving us with "a big national government and smaller national purposes." Scaling back begins to sound almost inevitable.
McKibben is inspired by "the quieter movement for what might be called functional independence," the practical folks developing local food systems, insulating homes and making communities work. He clearly believes that every corner of America harbors similar post-peak patriots.
Eaarth offers an imperfect but provocative look at "the architecture for the world that comes next, the dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent."
Not quite ready to face that world? Consider this: In 2010, carbon dioxide levels are expected to top 390 parts per million. As McKibben and his colleagues agree, here on Eaarth it's time to get to work.
Books mentioned in this post