As a huge fan of eco-activist writer Bill McKibben, I’d been looking forward to reading his new book, "Eaarth" – especially after my fellow MNN bloggers Karl Burkhart and Jim Motavalli both gave "Eaarth" two thumbs up. After all, McKibben’s "Deep Economy" — which draws connections between sustainability, community and human happiness — is one of the most uplifting green book I’ve read. "Deep Economy" changed the way I think about both the world and my smaller community — and in small but significant ways, changed my life.
"Eaarth" kicks off by listing all the environmental ills human have wreaked on our planet — ills that have caused such irrevocable changes that Earth needs a new name (thus the extra ‘a’). Bill details the eco-wreckage to expound on how we’ve already created — and will create a lot more of — war, mass migration, disease, and intense natural disasters, just to name a few. Then he goes into how many of these problems are impossible or near-impossible to fix — how even attempting to address them is tough due to “double and triple binds that make any action hard” in this new planet of ours.
This goes on for 100 pages. And just as my eyes started glazing over because I went from scared to depressed to slightly numb, Bill woke me up thusly: “Don’t let your eyes glaze over at this parade of statistics…. These should come as body blows, as mortar barrages, as sickening thuds.” Well, consider me KO’d.
Of course, for the readers who survive that first half of the book emotionally intact, "Eaarth" delivers a more sanguine second half, dedicated to solutions. Here, the Bill of "Deep Economy" returns, waxing lyrical about how we need to look to our local communities to sustain us in the future. Bill tells hopeful stories about local food systems — and even local energy systems that generate our power closer to home.
All of that’s heartwarming and somewhat encouraging — except after the dire news of irrevocable planetary damage expounded upon in the first half of the book, the solutions in the second seem somewhat pale and weak. Certainly, Bill makes clear that life as we know it on the planet is over: “We may, with some commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization, but it won’t be the same planet, and hence it can’t be the same civilization.” All we can do at this point is “try to manage our descent,” according to Bill, who urges us to think “maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding against the storm.”
What’s unclear is what sort of life we can hope to lead if we do all this hunkering down Bill encourages. At best, Bill says we “may” maintain “some kind” of civilization — which means at worst, we may not even get that. While Bill’s stories of local communities rising up are inspiring, they are stories, not promises — because Bill has no idea what the full consequences of global climate change will be.
What "Eaarth" points out is that we really don’t know what will happen, so all we can do is try our best and use our best knowledge — and hope for survival. Maybe that news is encouraging to some; it’s still rather depressing to me. Yet I too remain committed to doing what I can to help create as sustainable a future as possible. Perhaps the first and second parts of "Eaarth" reflect the inner conflict in many of today’s environmentalists: The feelings of helpless uncertainty and confusion about the future, coupled with the hope against hope expressed in activism and action.
Let me know whether you find "Eaarth" uplifting or depressing. The book is available in hardcover now for $24.