Making a Life on a Tough, New Planet

Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

(Image: Times Books)

The months after the initial publication of Eaarth saw some of the most intense environmental trauma the planet has ever witnessed, events that exemplified the forces I have described in the book.

For Americans, the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began on April 20, 2010, may have provided the most powerful images—there was, after all, an underwater camera showing the leak up close. (Leak? This was not a leak—it was a stab wound that BP inflicted on the ocean floor, a literal hole in the bottom of the sea. If you ever had any doubts about peak oil, all it took was one view of the extreme places and pressures the oil companies now had to endure to find even marginal amounts of crude. The well that BP was drilling would have supplied only about four days’ worth of America’s oil consumption.) The pictures reminded us of the thing we’ve been trying to forget since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly fifty years before: “Progress” and “growth” come with a dark side, in this case an easy-to-see dark black side. Just a couple of weeks before the spill, President Barack Obama had reopened much of the coastline to oil drilling, arguing, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” By midsummer, a chagrined president was reduced to telling the nation that he’d only lifted the moratorium “under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe.”

But that’s the point – there’s nothing absolutely safe anymore, not when we’re pushing past every limit. There’s not even anything relatively safe; we’re overloading every system around us. If it’s not too big to fail, it’s too deep to fail, or too complicated to fail. And it’s failing.

As it turns out, however, the BP spill was not the most dangerous thing that happened in the months after this book was first published. In fact, in the spring and summer of 2010, the list of startling events in the natural world included:

  • Nineteen nations setting new all-time high temperature records, which in itself is a record. Some of those records were for entire regions—Burma set the new mark for Southeast Asia at 118 degrees, and Pakistan the new zenith for all of Asia at 129 degrees.
  • Scientists reported that the earth had just come through the warmest six months, the warmest year, and the warmest decade for which we have records; it appears 2010 will be the warmest calender year on record.
  • The most protracted and extreme heatwave in a thousand years of Russian history (it had never before topped 100 degrees in Moscow) led to a siege of peat fires that shrouded the capital in ghostly, deadly smoke. The same heat also cut Russia’s grain harvest so sharply that the Kremlin ordered an end to all grain exports to the rest of the world, which in turn drove up world grain prices sharply.
  • Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air (as explained in chapter 1), scientists were not surprised to see steady increases in flooding. Still, the spring and summer of 2010 were off the charts. We saw “thousand-year storms” across the globe, including in American locales like Nashville, the mountains of Arkansas, and Oklahoma City, all with deadly results. But this was nothing compared with Pakistan, where a flooded Indus River put 13 million people on the move, and destroyed huge swaths of the country’s infrastructure.
  • Meanwhile, in the far north, the Petermann Glacier on Greenland calved an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan.
  • And the most ominous news of all might have come from the pages of the eminent scientific journal Nature, which published an enormous study of the productivity of the earth’s seas. Warming waters had put a kind of cap on the ocean, reducing the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water from below. As a result, the study found, the volume of phytoplankton had fallen by half over the last sixty years. Since phytoplankton is the world’s largest source of organic matter, this was unwelcome news.

Indeed, all of these observations were unwelcome, if at some level expected. They were further, deeper signs of earth transforming itself into Eaarth. And they had reached the level where few who lived through the events wanted to deny their meaning. Here was the president of Russia, Dimitri Medvedev, after watching the fires that shut down Moscow for weeks: “Everyone is talking about climate change now. Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global cli- mate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” (This from the president of a country whose economy totally depends on the endless production of oil and gas.)

And here was The New York Times, which had spent years piously explaining that there were two sides to the question of warming. In mid-August 2010, above the fold on a Sunday paper, the Times ran three huge photos of flood, melt, and fire, and beneath them a story that declared: “These far-flung disasters are reviving the question of whether global warming is causing more weather extremes. The collective answer of the scientific community can be boiled down to a single word: probably.” Okay, probably is still a weasel word—but for the Times, a breakthrough. “The warming has moved in fits and starts, and the cumulative increase may sound modest,” the paper reported. “But it is an average over the entire planet, representing an immense amount of added heat, and is only the beginning of a trend that most experts believe will worsen substantially.”

There is no satisfaction at all in saying I told you so. I’ve been saying it for two decades, ever since the publication of The End of Nature, and it’s never been sweet in the slightest. I’d give a lot to have been wrong instead.

But if there’s one development that chafes above all others, it’s political: the decision by the U.S. Congress in the summer of 2010 to punt, spectacularly, on doing anything about climate change. During the Bush years, of course, inaction had been a given. But with the advent of Democratic majorities in Congress and then the election of Barack Obama, some hope emerged that Washington might decide to act. That action would never have been dramatic or decisive; in June 2009 the House passed a weak bill that would scarcely have cut emissions in the next few crucial years. But at least it was something, a token effort that might have boosted the world’s morale enough to help put international climate negotiations back on track, even after the debacle at Copenhagen six months later. When the legislation reached the Senate, however, it stalled for more than a year. Big coal and big oil didn’t care for it, and so their squads of lobbyists went to work. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was leading the charge on the legislation, didn’t so much charge as retreat, again and again and again. Here’s how he put it on the eve of the final battle: “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.” With leadership like that, what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, the White House did nothing that might have added to the pressure for change. Instead of using the horrible BP spill as a reason to act, President Obama failed to draw the obvi- ous connection: that fossil fuel is dirty stuff, whether it spills into the Gulf from a broken well or spills into the atmosphere from the tailpipes of our cars. With no help from the administration, the outcome was such a given that the Senate decided not even to vote—the members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” simply walked away. The best guess of various observers was that, after the GOP sweep in the midterm elections, we may have to wait until 2013 to see another legislative opening.

As readers of Eaarth know, I think it’s unlikely that bills of the scale proposed in Washington, or agreements of the magni- tude considered in Copenhagen, will make any substantive difference in the outcome. Our leaders have failed to come to terms with the actual size of the problem: that unless we commit ourselves to a furious push to get back to 350 parts per million, the damage will be overwhelming. (The scariest thing about the scary summer of 2010 was that it happened with only one degree of warming, globally averaged; we face five or six degrees this century if we don’t take crisis action to get off fossil fuel.) Hence, in some sense, the failure of these various legislative efforts is disgusting but not decisive.

In certain ways, in fact, it clears the air. For years, the effort to build a movement to do something about climate change in the United States has been hampered by the presence of these weak bills. It was hard to rally people to a banner when that banner hung so limply. Now that there is no real chance of tough action in the next year or two, a real opportunity exists to build a powerful, angry movement, in the United States and around the world—a movement capable of pushing for real change on a scale that matters. That’s what organizations like are trying to do, exploring strategies that range from planet-scale art projects to concerted civil disobedience.

At the same time, since we’re not going to forestall some really disastrous climate change, the need to make communities more resilient continues apace. And sometimes these two thrusts can be combined. On October 10, 2010, coordinated 7,400 different actions in 188 countries into a Global Work Party. In far-flung places, people put up solar panels, dug community gardens, laid out bike paths—all the kinds of things that will help make those places more likely to endure in a warmer world. But they also used the occasion to send a strong political message to their leaders. At day’s end, they put down the shovels, picked up cellphones, and left the same message: “We’re getting to work, what about you?”

These are the two strands we must simultaneously undertake. We’ve got to harden our communities so they can withstand the couple of degrees of global warming that are now inescapable. (And, as the summer of 2010 showed, that’s no easy task.) At the same time, we’ve got to cooperate internationally to force legislative change that will hold those increases below the four or five degrees that would make a difficult century an impossible one. Much will depend on how effective that movement-building turns out to be.

In the end, the BP spill that dominated the headlines for much of the summer of 2010 turned out to be the less important sign of environmental crisis, and not only because its effect was smaller than, say, the Pakistani flooding. It’s because the BP spill was an accident. It was a one-off crisis: The proper response was to ban deepwater drilling till we know how to do it, to make sure all wells are as safe as possible, and to compensate fully everyone damaged by BP’s greed. In that sense, it fit in with our legacy idea of what constitutes pollution: something going wrong.

But the greatest danger we face, climate change, is no acci- dent. It’s what happens when everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. It’s not a function of bad technology, it’s a function of a bad business model: of the fact that Exxon Mobil and BP and Peabody Coal are allowed to use the atmosphere, free of charge, as an open sewer for the inevitable waste from their products. They’ll fight to the end to defend that business model, for it produces greater profits than any industry has ever known. We won’t match them dollar for dollar: To fight back, we need a different currency, our bodies and our spirit and our creativity. That’s what a movement looks like; let’s hope we can rally one in time to make a difference.

Excerpted from Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, published in paperback in March by St. Martin’s Griffin. Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Bill McKibben. Excerpted by permission of Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.