On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read. McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:
“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”
McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability. I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear. While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet. He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza. McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:
“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine. Windmills will sprout across the prairies. It will be exciting. But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match. We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”
McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust. McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:
“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project. The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”
At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government. The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.
McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food. “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I). McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition. Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.
Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner. Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change). The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face. The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives. One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to. Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future. However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.
Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences. Eaarth is out now. Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.
Walter Russel Mead, the Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a professor at Yale University, just wrote an unconventional and thought provoking analysis on the state of climate policy.
Mead, a Democrat who voted for President Obama in 2008, says, “the Big Green Lie is falling apart:”
“And it’s not about Climategate and Glaciergate. It’s not about the science. It’s not even about public confidence in the integrity of the green movement — although this confidence is unlikely to regain the levels of 2009. Humpty Dumpty has fallen from the walls, and all the establishment commissions and investigations in Europe cannot glue him together again… Both the greens and their opponents need to understand that the reason that the Great Global Green Dream is melting lies in the sad truth that whatever the scientific facts of the matter, the global green movement is so blind and inept when it comes to policy and process that it has deeply damaged the causes it cares most about.”
Mead compares environmentalists to anti-alcohol activists before Prohibition:
“Who convinced Americans that the problem of alcohol abuse was real, destructive, and likely to get worse unless addressed. These farsighted activists were absolutely correct: with the introduction of the motorcar alcohol was more destructive than ever; with more than 500,000 alcohol related highway deaths between 1982 and 2008, more Americans have been killed on our roads as a result of drunk driving since 1915 than have died in our wars. The problem is that the remedy proposed, Prohibition, not only failed to solve the problem — it made the problem of alcohol abuse worse, and it also reduced respect for the law and led to the rise of organized crime in the United States on an unprecedented scale.
The Prohibitionists were brilliantly, scientifically correct about the problem: they were foolishly and destructively blind about how to deal with it.”
Mead also compares environmentalists to Peace Activists who predicted World War II and tried to outlaw war to prevent it. He also brings up comparisons to the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s. Mead views the sum of Green policy prescriptions as Malthusian panic attacks, with anti-growth policies and corporate resentment sprinkled on top. He acknowledges that Global Warming is a problem, but what does he think we should do about it?
Mead proposes that we simply “nudge” the economy towards energy efficiency, and lower
taxes. Mead proposes local solutions that will not be organized under one grand agreement, but rather be aimed to work on local problems; he brings up the example of the Indian government pushing to end fuel subsidies. But will “relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with the climate” work?
Mead blithely describes criticism of neo-classical unending growth as “Malthusian fantasies” He ignores the real and growing evidence that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity, and we are creeping towards Earth’s limits. By comparing environmentalists to an alarm clock “making shrill and irrational noise,” one wonders if he truly understands what it will take to create a sustainable world. He prescribes, above all, serious attention and careful thought to the question of how to create that sustainable world. He pines for a humanity that leads “richer, fuller lives in a cleaner, sustainable world.” The mystery for me is how we will be able to continue this unending growth without reaching the Earth’s limits. Ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza are creating a new economics that boldly goes beyond the Copenhagen policies. Certainly, environmentalists would be well served to carefully consider what steps need to be taken. I agree that we will not solve our problems with one global treaty. However, we cannot simply rely on the whims of laissez-faire economics to deliver us to the sustainable future that Mead hopes for.
Dr. Robert Costanza, Professor of Ecologcal Economics at the University of Vermont, spoke last month at Yale University about ecological economics, a field that he helped create along with Herman Daly. In 1997, he wrote the seminal article “The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital,” which helped to define the economic worldview encompassed in ecological economics.
At Yale, Constanza spoke of creating a shared vision about a sustainable future:
“A key element in allowing us to do this is to create this vision of what a sustainable and desirable future would look like. A vision communicable enough to a broad enough audience, to make the point that it is not a sacrifice to make this transition, really it’s a sacrifice not to make this transition. I don’t think that choice has adequately been put before the public; I don’t think the public has been adequately involved in creating that vision.”
With ecological economics, Constanza is helping to create that vision. He contrasts the empty worldview, in which growth is limitless, more is always better, and no resource is sacred, with a more realistic view of a full world, which considers the natural capital that is not considered within traditional economic measurements like Gross Domestic Product. The full worldview considers the biophysical and sink services that the Earth provides, and many other assets that we take for granted, like water.
Constanza is onto something with his goal of creating a shared vision. Many people look at the environment as a competitor with the economy; a resource can be protected, but only if it doesn’t constrain growth. Unfortunately, that constraint is inevitable. Finding a way to break through that traditional binary logic is a key to involving people in this discussion.