The following is a response to Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, which EJ first reviewed in April. ~Ed.
With a flood of books now hitting the shelves on climate change, it can be quite a challenge deciding which volume to read. One trail to follow is well known names. James Lovelock had some harsh words for us in his 2009 book The Vanishing Face of Gaia and James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute, who warns that we could be on the way to turning our planet into a second Venus.
It was when reading Hansen’s 2009 book Storms of my Grandchildren that I came across Bill McKibben, who was seeking scientific direction on what the upper limit of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere should be to have a safe climate. Hansen describes how he held off responding until he could say with certainty that beyond 350 parts per million (ppm) CO2, we are in the danger zone and the higher the level rises, now 390ppm and rising by 2ppm per annum, we are heading deeper into danger year by year.
After James Hansen raised the issue of climate change in the United States Congress in 1988, Bill McKibben followed his lead in 1989 with the first book on the issue for a general audience called The Death of Nature, which has been compared with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and was reissued in 2006.
Once McKibben received the news from Hansen, he moved into campaign mode with 350.org, aimed at mobilising people around the World to demand action on greenhouse gases and returning the planet to a safe climate. Like many thousands globally in October 2009, I participated in a 350 event, which included many local environmental concerns.
In this book McKibben holds up a beacon of hope that if we act we can save our world, but he cannot see such action happening in time to save our hides. He deplores the failure of the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, describing it as a fiasco, where the commitments offered would lead to an escalation in the CO2 level to 725ppm, committing the planet to irreversible changes.
McKibben believes that we have now lost the old planet and need to give this dangerous planet a new name; thus the title of the book with an extra ‘a’ in Earth. Like Lovelock, McKibben sees the need for local survival and writes of militias in his home state of Vermont and the need to “Think globally – act neighbourly.” He describes in detail why we will need to rebuild local communities that are self-sufficient, in the hope that we can “Survive the damage that we can no longer prevent.”
He also hopes that the Internet will survive, as a way for all to access survival information.
McKibben urges the reader to give up on grand dreams for the future of civilization and look to a “graceful decline.” Mention of the movie Mad Max reveals the world that he sees coming, with a large die-off of humanity in climate change catastrophes. This future is certainly predictable, as recent cataclysmic floods in Pakistan and the heat wave and crop failures in Russia revealed. They are exactly the events that climate scientists have been warning about.
McKibben’s plan for local survival offers many useful tips for neighbourly action and community cooperation. He does not, however, attempt to describe what will happen when the world we know flies apart because of sea level rise, fiercer storms, spreading deserts and dying oceans. He is an activist beating a drum for local action that may help communities to survive on a dangerous new Earth.
Eaarth is worth reading, offering a vista of living history in the age of climate change and many handy tips on being an effective activist. If, however, the reader is interested in a vision and plan that will keep the wheels of our global civilization turning, this is not the book.
McKibben does not offer a way to end poverty in this Mad Max window into the future, where survival comes down to growing food with neighbours and defending it with militias, where—like Switzerland—”every adult male is a soldier.” Writers like Nicholas Stern in his 2009 book A Blueprint for a Safer Planet hammer the point that both climate change and global poverty must be addressed together, but then, McKibben is not attempting to save us from climate change.
His text is a 1970s style survival book. It follows in the vein of Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species, where hope has slipped from the hand. If there is any hope in this hour, it might be found in Lovelock’s haunting comment: “We are deeply impressed by the power of our weapons, yet they are puny compared with the most powerful weapon of all: creative intelligence.” (page 157, The Vanishing Face of Gaia).
I see hope for the future, if we decide to secure a confident survival position in space, a sustainable presence beyond Earth, which I call the Liberty Line and beyond which all further space development will be essentially free. In this vision of hope we would be able to work toward a healthy Earth, keep the wheels of our amazing global civilization turning, make poverty history and avoid a mass loss of life from dangerous climate change and the resulting global wars that could all too easily slide toward nuclear madness. There could be more air travel, but not by jet: airships could reach any location on Earth with passengers and freight and be powered by the Sun. The main energy source for the future could be Earth-based solar power generation; though a spin-off of space development could be to build solar power stations in space and beam this power to Earth. With this energy we could desalinate any volume of ocean water and pump it to where people need it to survive and grow food, especially as many millions of people are forced to move inland and across national borders to escape from a rising sea level brought on by collapsing polar ice sheets. Access to energy and water will also allow protected communities, which I call Earth Oasis, to be kept cool in a hotter world, even in the hottest desert. Earth Oasis could also serve as arks for life if our planet becomes dangerous, until we can make the Earth safe again using the muscle of space technology, when the doors of the arks can be opened to allow life to return to our planet.
This vision is explored in part in my 2006 document ‘Creating A Solar Civilization‘.
I am now hammering this document into a book in the light of subsequent insights and our growing appreciation of climate change. I suggest that climate change can more accurately be called ‘Earth change’, because the problem is impacting on the whole planet and all of life. Earth change begins by poisoning the atmosphere with an overdose of carbon dioxide (CO2), that in turn drives global warming, the melting of polar ice, climate change, changes in plant biology, sea level rise and ocean acidification that could at worse lead to algal blooms that release deadly sulphur dioxide (SO2) gas that can destroy the ozone layer, making life in the open too dangerous for life. In short, to survive on Earth, we may need to live on Earth more as if we were living in space, until we can make the planet safe again.
Do we want a dangerous future on a hot desert spaceship Earth become a prison hulk in space, when with just a little effort by each member of the Human family, we can build a safe future with unlimited creative opportunities for all Earth’s children and open the way to the stars?
The future is in our hands. We need to become celestial, to act globally and be effective locally. Without survival, no other activity is possible.
Kim Peart was born in 1952 and raised in Tasmania, where he became a visual artist, launched a Viking Society, pursued environmental studies, became involved in the space settlement movement in 1976, journied to India in 1986 to delve into the inner self and settled in the country the following year to connect with the life-force of the Earth. Since 1987 Kim has been seeking to see how humanity could live in harmony with Nature and came to conclude that the emergence of a conscious species in Nature that has developed space technology is a significant step in the journey of life. Kim sees our failure to act on serious space development in the 1970s as a critical mistake, as this would have included solar power stations in space providing unlimited energy for Earth and we would not have burnt all that fossil fuel that has brought us to the perfect storm of catastrophes with climate change and ocean acidification. Kim wonders if our way forward will be through catching up with the future that we missed in the 1970s and use the energy of the Sun to build our way through the gathering crisis, on Earth and in the celestial realm. Kim is currently writing a book on these views, exploring how we can save the Earth and move on to a whole new future beyond Earth. Kim currently lives in a log cabin in Mountain Creek in Queensland.