April 26, 2010

Attention Eaarthlings! Bill McKibben Talks to the Planet. ~ Jim Schnebly

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon set in the jungle in which one gorilla turns to another and says, “We have to believe we’re not endangered or we’ll all go mad.”

If we laugh at the joke, it’s probably not so much because gorillas are endangered but because the joke is on us. The cartoon gives voice to the fact that we, the world’s the most talkative primates, can’t bring ourselves to think about our own extinction via environmental suicide.

The writer and activist Bill McKibben has never been afraid to believe that we’re endangered. He’s had a lot of practice doing just that for more than 20 years, and will undoubtedly do it again when the Boulder Bookstore and Transition Colorado host him at Boulder’s First United Methodist Church (421 Spruce Street) on April 27, at 7:30 p.m.

McKibben has toiled as a professional journalist for decades, and has covered such disparate topics as nordic skiing, genetic engineering, and the effects of watching too much cable television. Despite the diversity of subject matter, he’s a bit like the obsessive guy at a cocktail party who has the uncanny ability of continually steering the conversation back to the one thing that fascinates him. For some it’s baseball, others might turn fanatic about computer games. McKibben’s lapel-clutching cri de coeur has always been the dangerous impact of humans on our planet. For example, his book-length study on cross-country skiing, Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, is checkered with reminders that our winter kicks will likely soon be a thing of the past as a result of our addiction to fossil fuels.

And he’s had a chance to hone his message because he’s been talking about it for decades. McKibben’s The End of Nature was the first book to address global warming for a general audience when it appeared in 1989, and he’s revisiting the topic with his new work, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He’s an eloquent correspondent on enivornmental change, and manages to inform in a level-headed and often downright witty tone. For a guy who can’t help but remind us how bad off we are, he’s a real charmer. He might have a frightening message, but he’s never shrill.

That said, the first half of the new book is bleak in its assessment of what’s happened and is happening to our planet. It makes for brutal reading. If Stephen King makes you squirm, McKibben will have you climbing the walls. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the fact that the poles are melting, the atmosphere is heating up at rates scientists couldn’t have even imagined 10 years ago, and people around the globe are facing catastrophic food shortages and the irreplaceable loss of habitable land—and he backs it up with tons of references and quotes from those on the front lines, scientists who have collected the data and interpreted it as well as those individuals who have been directly affected by climate change.

Hitting close to home, McKibben addresses the mountain pine beetle that has decimated millions of acres of forest across the Western U.S. He quotes Jay Jensen, executive director of the Council of Western State Foresters: “We’re seeing the end of some forests as we know them.” Anyone who has spent time in the Rocky Mountain high country over the last decade knows that it’s impossible to miss the damage the pine beetle has wreaked across the state’s alpine ecosystem. It’s a potent reminder that something drastic is happening, and that you don’t have to live in an area prone to hurricanes or rising sea levels to have firsthand experience of the effects of global warming.


One of the scariest themes of the book refutes the old canard that human activity today is destroying the planet for future generations. McKibben takes us back to late 2007 when NASA climatologist Jim Hansen announced that the “safe” level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 330 parts per million, and then informs us that we’re currently approaching 390 and that the number continues to grow by year.  “Forget the grandkids,” insists McKibben, “it turns out this was a problem for our parents.”

In another passage he writes: “Here’s all I’m trying to say: The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists. The stability that produced that civilization has vanished; epic changes have begun.”

Such statements hammer the reader again and again. Toward the end of the book’s first chapter, following a virtual litany of statistics that appear to point to nothing but gloom and doom, he admits to sounding like a broken record in terms of how bad things are. “We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn’t. I know that I’m repeating myself. I’m repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.”

Game over, right? The message would seem to imply that it’s too late to do anything because we’re all riding on a sinking ship. The oceans are heating up, we’re burning fossil fuels at record rates, and the forests around the world—once our best hope for the absorption of the exorbitant amounts of CO2 we’ve produced since the beginning of the Industrial Age—are dying en masse and releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere than ever before.

Whereas a lesser mortal might give up the ghost after adding all the dread data, McKibben instead begins to pick up intellectual speed. The subtitle of the book, “Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” points to his tempered optimism in the book’s second half. Making a life, he says, not ending it.

Our world might be changing in drastic ways over a startlingly short period, but he suggests that we can probably slow those changes by shifting our focus from “growth” and instead start thinking about holding on to what we’ve got. Echoing the legendary dictum of the prescient 1970’s economist-sage E.F. Schumacher, McKibben points out that “small is beautiful” all over again. He insists that our thinking must rapidly evolve from the current push for more and bigger economic progress to living simply and well in our own neighborhoods and our backyards. The days of subsidizing fossil fuel providers and megafarms need to end. Hybrid vehicles and produce from small-scale, organic farms aren’t just for the well-to-do yuppies anymore; they’re a part of our future.

“We still have things we need to do, of course; we still have projects,” he writes. “But in the rich world”—i.e., the developed “West,” and the U.S. in particular—“at least those projects no longer center on expansion and growth. . . From now on we’re about keeping what we’ve got. Maintenance is our mantra.”

There’s no room for organizations that are “too big to fail” in McKibben’s vision of our future. On our weird, new planet “big is vulnerable.” Small is beautiful, small is smart, small might just survive.


Remember that eye-opening comment from climatologist Jim Hansen who said that 330 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is a “safe” level? What about the ugly truth that we’ve shot past 390 ppm? Climate scientists generally agree that 350 ppm is the upper limit of what can be considered “safe” for the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and McKibben and a handful of other optimistic individuals latched onto that number for a new worldwide organization determined to make a difference: 350.org.

Via 350.org, McKibben and others are encouraging activism designed to convince governments around the world to reduce their carbon output 80 percent by the year 2050. Thousands of people worldwide came together for 350.org events last October 24, and the group did its best to have a positive influence on the climate talks held in December in Copenhagen, Denmark. Despite the disappointing response and lack of participation on the part of some of the world’s wealthiest nations in Copenhagen, McKibben and 350.org continue to rally people to the cause and appear ready to do so until, well, 2050.

This Tuesday, April 27, you’ll have an opportunity to hear McKibben speak at Boulder’s First United Methodist Church. If you want to make a good impression on the author and the planet, you’ll catch the bus, ride your bike, or walk to the church. The temperature’s supposed to be pleasant that evening. . . make sure you treasure that kind of weather while you can.

Click here for more info on the event!

Jim Schnebly is a freelance writer who rides and abides in Denver, Colorado.

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