April 13, 2010

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben looks into the future of our changed planet
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Environmental scientist Bill McKibben has spent the last 20 years thinking about climate change. Since the release of his 1989 bestseller, The End of Nature, he has warned that without action, global warming would reshape our environment. Now, in Eaarth, McKibben argues that the window to change the future has closed. We have created a new planet (hence the new name, “Eaarth”). Preserving our current way of life will be impossible; to even survive we must alter our lifestyles drastically.

Presenting evidence from a wide range of sources, Eaarth is a manifesto without being a polemic. It puts many of the latest natural disasters in context (let’s just say McKibben asserts that the new Eaarth is even less stable than the old) and predicts a future that will give “act locally” a whole new meaning. Readers will walk away from McKibben’s latest with much food for thought, and a changed view of our changed planet.

You build a very strong case that our planet is already changed for the worse. At this point, is there anything people can do as individuals, or is a worldwide initiative our only hope?
There’s lots that people can do as individuals and communities—at 350.org, for instance, we’re organizing a huge planet-scale Work Party for Oct. 10 this fall—there will be solar panels going up, houses being insulated, community gardens dug. They’ll help—but they’ll mostly help because we’ll use all that activity to say to our leaders: Why aren’t you doing your job, which is passing the laws that would change the price of carbon and get us really moving on climate change. We work locally and globally at the same time—that’s the odd thing about 350.org, as I try to explain in the last pages of the book. It’s campaigning that looks like the architecture of the Internet

After 20-plus years of talking about it, why do you think it’s so difficult to convince people that climate change is happening?
Because of 1) the enormous vested interest of a few of the most profitable corporations on earth and 2) the enormous inertia in all our lives. Doing something about climate will require changing, and changing is hard. 

The book contains several favorable references to Obama’s environmental policies. Do you feel the changes he’s trying to make will have any effect on our current situation?
I think he very much needs to lead us in the changes I describe above. He’s the one guy with the platform to really make the case that climate and energy are the key issues for our time, and that we have to get to work. So far he hasn’t done it very powerfully, but we keep hoping!

The Internet, along with food and energy, is on your essentials list for the future, despite arguing that the world is going to have to get more local if we are to survive. Do you think sustaining the Internet is possible in the future you envision?
Sure—the Internet doesn’t use much in the way of energy—you can take a thousand trips on Google more efficiently than one mile in a car. I think it’s a crucial survival tool for the future—it’s what will let us live more local lives without feeling parochial and shut in.

What do you think is the biggest challenge we will face on the new Eaarth?
There are all kinds of practical challenges that I describe around food, energy and so on. But the biggest may be simply getting our heads around the idea that we can’t keep growing forever, that we need to mature quickly. (That’s for us. If you live in Bangladesh, the biggest challenges will be more . . . immediate).

The first part of the book describes a future that sounds quite dire—cities submerged, crops failing, dirty air, etc. Later on you say the new Eaarth will require a back-to-basics, local lifestyle that doesn’t sound all that bad and might even be appealing to the average overscheduled, overstimulated American. But will the changed planet be able to support these endeavors?
We’ve got some margin. We use most of our cropland growing corn to feed to cows—which is good, because it means we have good soil that we could grow food for ourselves on someday. We’ve got lots of wind and sun—we can’t use them as profligately as we’ve used coal and gas and oil. The real problem is that we’re going to need to be dealing with the ever-increasing effects of an unraveling climate, which will be costly and hard. But not impossible, not if we think clearly, calmly and as communities.

As conditions change on Earth, the effects of climate change often manifest in ways we haven’t been able to foresee (for example, the deforestation of the Amazon, in addition to the changes you would expect, also put the area at a higher risk of fire and disrupted the pattern of rainfall across the continent). Is there any way to predict what other complications might lie in our future?
The inability to predict everything is part of the problem—we’re gong from a world of very predictable stability, to one full of surprises. So far all the surprises (Arctic melting, say) have come faster and more violently than people imagined. And some things have appeared very unexpectedly: the acidification of seawater, say. Let’s hope we don’t have similar surprises with methane leaking from the Arctic, or monsoons shifting.

Climate change disproportionately affects poor people and people in third-world countries. How can those of us in better economic circumstances help alleviate their burden?
Two ways. We can send them the aid they need to leapfrog past fossil fuel and into the renewable future. (It’s money we essentially owe them, having filled the atmosphere and thus taken away their ability to burn coal and oil to get rich as we did). And we can cut our own emissions dramatically and quickly, which will help slow the progress of climate change that threatens them so badly.

When your first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989, could you have predicted that two decades later you would be writing a book about how the Earth has already changed into a fundamentally different planet? What do you expect to be writing about in another 20 years?
I understood the basic science in 1989, and it’s stayed much the same. But what no one knew was how quickly it would develop, or where the red lines would be. We didn’t know in 1989 that we’d have to cut back the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to 350 parts per million; we thought 550 ppm might be safe.

In 20 years? I have the feeling we won’t yet have solved this biggest of challenges. But hopefully I’ll be writing about some of the changes we’ve made, and how well they’re working.

What do you say to those who don’t agree with the conclusions you make in this book?
Boy I hope you’re right.




Get the Book

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

By Bill McKibben
Times Books
ISBN 9780805090567

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