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Eaarth: Making A Life On A Tough New Planet

June 2010: Various words come to mind when thinking of Bill McKibben: writer, activist, environmentalist, neighbour, family man, humanist, would be among the nouns. Indefatigable, tireless, persistent, dogged, brilliant, humanist, would be among the adjectives. There’s humanist again, noun and adjective. Yes, Bill McKibben, in my book anyway, is above everything else, a humanist.


There are environmentalists who are a bit  misanthropic, (or more than  a bit, I occasionally count myself among them), there are environmentalists who don’t reveal a particularly pro- or anti-human being stance one way or the other, and then there are what I would  call the “humanist environmentalists.” At the top of my list of the latter is Bill McKibben.


Bill, whom some of you may have met because he has traveled the length and breadth of India (and countless other countries), pleading for climate sanity in his role as founder of 350.org, loves people and cares deeply about the future of humanity and the human project. The pages of his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, exude warmth for his fellow human beings, while simultaneously excoriating some of them for the mess they’ve sunk our one and only planet in. Bill’s anger at those human beings, many of whom let all of the rest of us down when they refused to undertake serious commitments to combat climate change at the Copenhagen summit last December, is apparent in the first word of this new book’s title: Eaarth. No, it’s not a typo. Mckibben posits that even if we are able to reverse course, and move back to a world of 350 (350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere is the number scientists have concluded the earth needs to maintain life and climatic conditions as humans have known them in their brief 10,000-year stint on this little outpost in space), we have already set in motion natural forces that will change forever what astronaut Jim Lovell, upon seeing earth from his window on Apollo 8, called “a grand oasis.”


We no longer live on that planet,” McKibben says, italicising his words for emphasis. “The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet.”


But McKibben is determined that we face facts, and in the first half of his book, he lays them out, rivetingly, one after another. We have all become accustomed to the fairly steady media hum regarding climate change, including the ongoing efforts by the jokers at Exxon-Mobil and elsewhere to convince us that it’s all a big hoax, that the world isn’t steadily warming, and besides, Technology with a capital T, Growth with a capital G, Capitalism with a capital C, are standing by to save us. But as accustomed as we are to climate change facts and figures, to speeches and news stories and mega-storms, after you read, and you must, McKibben’s first 100 pages, you will know your way around the global data, trends and statistics in a way that will leave absolutely no room for that slender thread of climate hope you may still be clinging to.


The point, says McKibben, is that 200 years of fossil fuel use in the West has caused run-away climate change that will affect the lives not just of  everyone’s children and grandchildren, the bill is due for payment NOW. It’s caused disparities between North and South that we cannot afford to solve with further growth. It’s created a world where, unless we adapt by “backing off” in the developed world, and find non-growth-dependent methods of ensuring the health and well-being for the poor in the less-developed world, our survival as a species is at stake.


The second half of Eaarth steps back from the relentless reality check embodied in the first, and lays out a vision, with the focus on the West, of what the future will need to look like. The future, that is, if we are lucky, if we manage to avoid the pestilence and plague and water wars and vast, panicked migrations of environmental refugees that the physics and chemistry of climate change have already begun to dictate.


The humanist McKibben and the humanist in McKibben shine through in the book’s final chapters, where he outlines ways in which people might learn to live “lightly, carefully, gracefully,” on the new eaarth. (My computer just tried to adjust my spelling of “eaarth” to “earth,” but I had to gently insist that that spelling is archaic.) Twenty years ago, in The End of Nature, Bill offered one of the earliest warnings about global warming. That book was a love song to earth, to a lovely, natural world that just barely still existed, in its deepest woods and oceans, and its highest mountains, untouched by Homo sapiens. That world, troubled as it was by one species’ industry, was still familiar.


Now, eaarth is melting, drying, acidifying, flooding and burning in ways no human has ever seen . McKibben continues to mourn the loss of nature. Deeply. But in this work, his focus has turned to the things human beings must do to save themselves, and rethink their notions about “the good life,” particularly the long-held consumerist priorities of the West, in ways that will create harmonious, dignified lives. If we are to have any security on a more tumultuous, less predicable planet, says McKibben, it will be because we have  reconfigured ourselves, our societies, and our economies to work more on a much, much smaller scale.


Please read this book. Face the realities that McKibben and others like him are courageous enough not just to face themselves, but to insist we all acknowledge. Then each of us, as individuals, and as members of communities and nations, must do the work of bringing our food and energy activities in line with a hurt and hurting planet. Not “just” for the planet’s sake – for our own.


Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
By Bill McKibben
Published by Times Books, 2010, Hardcover, 253 pages, Price $24.00/-


Reviewed by Jennifer Scarlott


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