Bill McKibben's Eaarth

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Earth has died … but Eaarth offers few solutions

Bill McKibben. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9056-7

reviewed by Javier Sethness

According to North American environmental activist Bill McKibben, planet Earth has died.

Its replacement does not, however, constitute dialectical progress toward a higher or better state: the new-born planet, named Eaarth by McKibben in his book of the same name, follows instead from the brutality and thoughtlessness engaged in by much of humanity since its historical emergence.

In McKibben’s estimation, the Holocene geological epoch — characterized by a narrow range of fluctuation in average global temperatures that has allowed for humanity’s rise and development on Earth over the past 12,000 years — can no longer be said to exist, as a result of human interference with planetary climate systems and human-induced environmental destruction generally conceived. Eaarth, referred to elsewhere as the Anthropocene, jeopardizes the survival of much of humanity and the continuation of a great deal of life itself.

Such-world historical regression is “pretty outrageous,” as a climatologist McKibben quotes in the work has it; for McKibben, indeed, it represents “the deepest of human failures.” In light of such challenges, though, McKibben suggests that “we must keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit [the] damage” visited by constituted power on humanity and the planet. Like Noam Chomsky, he sees no legitimate alternative to struggle.

As an academic concerned with environmental studies, McKibben is cognizant of the dire nature of the present state of affairs. On the new Eaarth, he mentions that billion-person famines could be regular events by the middle of the present century, that the flow of the Euphrates and Nile rivers could decline significantly in the near future, and that glacier retreat in the Himalayas and Andes could cause the water supplies of billions to dwindle within decades.

In light of the various horrors climate catastrophe could visit upon us, McKibben suggests that humanity recognize limits to what Max Horkheimer terms its seemingly “boundless imperialism” — as Meadows et al. have emphasized since the publication of Limits to Growth in 1972— and jettison “the consumer lifestyle” altogether, instead adopting a “Plan B” characterized by the sharing of resources between Northern and Southern societies within the context of a joint effort to thoroughly re-arrange global society on rational-ecological grounds.

McKibben here re-affirms the goal of attaining an atmospheric carbon-concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm), noting that carbon-concentrations higher than 350 ppm jeopardize the capabilities of human society to function. Toward this end he endorses what he calls a “clean-tech Apollo mission” and an “ecological New Deal,” arguing that such thoroughgoing changes be accompanied by a return to small-scale organic agriculture on the part of humanity generally conceived. This final recommendation, it should be said, is not terribly different from those made by Via Campesina.

Despite the critical and important perspectives made by McKibben in Eaarth, in the end much of his argument offers little more than platitudes that reinforce existing power-arrangements.

McKibben blames the regression to Eaarth and for future catastrophes on “modernity,” which he defines as “the sudden availability” of “cheap fossil fuel” in the eighteenth century CE. There is no recognition at any point in the work, of the processes which resulted in the onset of the capitalist mode of production during this period of human history, and there is no critique of the highly destructive nature of capitalism in general.

It should not be surprising, then, that his present recommendations do not include a call for the abolition of capitalist social relations.

Furthermore, he rather bizarrely seems, against all evidence, to view the current U.S. president as some sort of messianic figure worthy of devotion, claiming Obama to be “a president using centralized power to good ends” who is working “aggressively” toward the creation of a global climate-change accord.

Such highly irrational views, of course, are typical of liberal environmentalists. By presenting the accession of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1981 as the onset of a markedly irresponsible socio-environmental regime — one he would have us believe as being dramatically different from that overseen by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter— McKibben once again betrays his ties to hegemonic politics.

Unsurprisingly, he also endorses the imperial scheme presently being considered to erect vast solar plants in North Africa for use by European consumers and seems to support the maintenance of existing dams and the building of new ones for the development of “clean” hydropower.

McKibben presents these reactionary perspectives while attributing responsibility for the current socio-environmental predicament to an amorphous ‘we’-as though the impoverished, the young, and other excluded groups have had any sort of choice on climate policy, let alone the course of history.

This contrasts significantly with views advanced by Chomsky, who in June 2009 suggested a thought-experiment by which North-Americans 50 years ago were to have been given the choice of directing resources either toward the development of “iPods and the internet” or instead the creation of “a livable and sustainable socioeconomic order”— a false choice, as Chomsky points out, for no such offer has ever been made.

Indeed, McKibben’s assertion of a vague collective responsibility has more in common with comments made in March 2010 by world-renown Earth scientist James Lovelock, who then alarmingly claimed humanity not yet to have “evolved” to the point at which it is “clever enough” to deal with climate change. That McKibben claims at one point in Eaarth that “[w]e don’t pay much attention to poor people” should need little comment.

In words, McKibben recognizes the catastrophes we face, but his solutions — a return to small-scale agriculture coupled with a “green Manhattan project” — fall far short of the challenge. And even then, Eaarth includes little reflection on the terrifyingly repressive actions that capitalists and their defenders may well take to attempt to maintain their privileges in a climate-destabilized world, as Gwynne Dyer does in Climate Wars (2008).

McKibben fails even to systematically examine the alarming impacts climate change could have on future agricultural production-considerations that may well prove important for the viability of his ‘back to the land’ project!

Though Bill McKibben is no Walter Benjamin, we can perhaps hope that parts of Eaarth can help move humanity towards Benjamin’s concept of revolution— the “attempt by the passengers” on a metaphorical train “to activate the emergency brake” before it plunges into the abyss.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.

7 Responses

  1. solargroupies September 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm |

    Gerard, NOAA and NASA have already surmised the “critical analysis of the breadth of change needed”. Their unbiased data and models and the fact that climate and weather are chaotic and fractal show us that the deed is done. We will neeed not only a leader, but the will to accpet responsibility and then it will take hundreds of year. Eaarth tells us a hard rain is gonna fall and gives us some ideas on how the wise can survive the collapse.

  2. Boyd Collins August 21, 2010 at 12:09 am |

    McKibben’s “…recommendations do not include a call for the abolition of capitalist social relations.” It often seems that the shriller and more geologically dramatic the predictions, the less deep analysis of the major culprit is performed. McKibben fears a label (“socialist”) that he feels would weaken his apocalyptic appeal. But is it possible to bypass the implication of his analyses that capitalism and that alone is the primary social mechanism which has led to the superexploitation of nature. Once again, we are treated to orgy of “feel-good” environmentalism that fails to look the perpetrator in the eye.

  3. Gerard August 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm |

    I think the above comments demonstrate why getting the result that’s needed ain’t gonna be easy, and as for the odds that because of this, we instead get taken to the brink, where planned system change cannot be done rationally. And we all know what that kind of world would look like….

  4. Roger Brown August 19, 2010 at 2:00 pm |

    “but free enterprise and lower profits for relocalized economies are entirely possible, as replacements for giant industry and transnational ventures.”

    I am not exacty sure what you mean by free enterprise and profit. Profit in the sense of exchaging a production resource for a valued output (e.g. gardening hours for tomatoes) will vanish only when the human race does, but profit in the sense of income for non-productive ‘owners’ of capital still requires growth even if the enterprises involved are locally financed rather than globally financed. Private finance has to be replaced by community finance in which risk is socialized if the growth imperative is to be overcome. It seems to me that a ‘free’ competition for domestic consumption rights at the local level would put pressure on local resources. We should be competing to see who can use resources most wisely rather than who can earn the most income. Such wise resource use requires some kind of sytems intelligence which goes beyond the relocalization mantra.

  5. Lorna Salzman August 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm |

    While I have had my differences with McKibben on his reluctance to engage with the American political process more aggressively, this review faults him for the wrong things. McKibben is entirely correct in fingering citizens as one of the groups responsible for global warming, though there are differences within this group, namely rich vs. poor. We are all passengers on the train headed for oblivion and we need to work together. As for capitalism, it is more than “social relations”. Capitalism as well as socialism relies on untrammeled economic growth: increase in exploitation of resources, development, production and of course consumption. Capitalism right now is threatened because the economic recession has drastically reduced consumption. The overconsumption to which Americans and others in industrial countries became accustomed relied on Cheap Energy and a failure to properly internalize the social, environmental and health costs of producing goods and energy. Cheap Energy is now ending, albeit too late, and it will never return. Unlike the left, which retains unjustified hostility to environmentalism and a studied indifference to ecological constraints and the rest of nature to boot, McKibben is cognizant of what everyone but the left already knows: the imperative to relocalize, scale down, and decentralize our economies. Instead of a global or national food supply that requires huge energy inputs for processing and transportation, we will need to rely on local food supplies as well as small scale renewable distributed energy sources, compact settlements in place of suburbia and exurbia, and a life style that is sufficient and equitable, not obscenely out of balance. Capitalism, insofar as it relies on economic growth, is at the heart of the problem, but free enterprise and lower profits for relocalized economies are entirely possible, as replacements for giant industry and transnational ventures. Americans, having been the largest consumers of cheap underpriced goods and energy, must be the first ones on line to cut back their profligate unsustainable life style. It is time that the left puts ecology, not ideology or rhetoric, first and foremost, and relinquishes its pointless role as perpetual enemy and its”anti-imperialism” rant, neither of which have accomplished anything whatsoever in the past century…and never well. Join the world, marxists, you have nothing to lose but your talent for failure.

  6. Gerard August 19, 2010 at 1:51 am |

    The book sounds like one that many of the millions of ‘concerned’ rich-country people would write – big on criticism and lament for lost chances, but weak of critical analysis of the breadth of change needed at every level of society and economy to rectify (ie, its one thing to put on the brakes in an emergency, another thing to lay tracks safely around the abyss and change into the new direction).

  7. Mary August 18, 2010 at 8:21 pm |

    Has humanity achieved nothing? Aren’t we part of nature too?

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