Eaarth | Reflections & Notes

Bill McKibben. eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. (261 pages)


On page 81, McKibben writes,

Global warming, though, is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don’t compromise.

I’ve had enough conversations now to propose–a bit snarkily–that humans don’t either. After all, we’re fast heading into the year 2020, and we are, as McKibben writes, no longer on the planet we have known. This all could have been avoided by bold and fairly simple actions from previous generations since we’ve known about climate change projections for well over 100 years now, and the models, unfortunately, have faired both accurate and slightly too conservative (scientists don’t like to exaggerate.) Add to that the delinquency of current global leadership on climate and, we have suffient evidence for human stubbornness.

And so, I have a significant amount of trepidation in reviewing books like this, knowing that facts only entrench people further into their already deeply held beliefs and convictions, even though no one should believe in climate change. It is neither a religion nor a philosophy. So, the first half of McKibben’s book would not help much in a debate.

But the second half–the vision of a new human way of being on this new planet–is grounded in ethics that I think we all have in common, virtues and sensibilities that I believe are shared across the political and ideological divide, even on the topic of climate change. There is a kind of human flourishing that McKibben articulates as possible, that even those who doubt or dismiss climate science would find agreeable and beautiful.

Primarily, McKibben calls us to go small, local, and communal.

In the wake of the California PG&E fires that have the entire state calling fowl on the “bigness” and bureaucracy of the utility, going small, local, and communal would be a welcome “fix” for liberals and conservatives. And for the regulatory oversight of our food processing from a small number of very large producers, going small, local, and communal eliminates waste, inefficiency, government oversight, all while making our food better and more humane at the same time. There’s no doubt there are some other steps we need to take, such as transitioning off fossil fuels, like, yesterday. And, we’re going to have to let go of some cultural and ideological “norms,” such as “growth.” But these changes are not in contradiction to our core shared values of human flourishing and prosperity. They are fully in line with those values. To my friends who doubt or dismiss the current reports of climate science, I ask, Could we begin living more like humans in community and communion with one another, and our world?

It is perhaps the great poetic tragedy, that we’ve now inherited an “eaarth,”–a planet that is unlike what our planet has been–precisely because we’ve been behaving unlike what humans have been. We’ve become, “huuman?” Climate change calls us, begs us, implores us to stop living like the economic machines, political tools, and capitalistic targets we’ve conjured up in our modern mythologies, and begin living more like those humans we’ve been designed and created to be; present, relational, communal, caring, and deeply in tune with the world around us. “Eaarth” is our new home. The best way to inhabit it is to avoid being “huuman,” and strive to stay human.



The first point of this book is simple: global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality. (xiii)

And so this book will be, by necessity, less philosophical than its predecessor. We need now to understand the world we’ve created, and consider–urgently–how to live in it. (xiv)

1. A New World

…that earth has changed in profound 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. Or Monnde, or (2) Tierre, Errde, [Russian]. It still looks familiar enough–we’re still the third rock out from the sun, still three-quarters water. Gravity still pertains; we’re still earthlike. But it’s odd enough to constantly remind us how profoundly we’ve altered the only place we’ve ever known. (3)

We are trying to avoid the term ‘drought’ and saying this is the new reality. – executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia

They are trying to avoid the term drought because it implies the condition may someday end. (5)

People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide that the climate would be back to normal in one hundred or two hundred years. What we’re showing here is that that’s not right. – Susan Solomon

No one is going to refreeze the Arctic for us, or restore the pH of the oceans, and given the momentum of global warming we’re likely to cross many more thresholds even if we all convert to solar power and bicycles this afternoon. (17)

The scientists didn’t merely underestimate how fast the Arctic would melt; they overestimated how fast our hearts would melt. (17)

…if you took every government pledge made during the conference and added it all together, the world in 2100 would have more than 725 parts per million carbon dioxide, or slightly double what scientists now believe is the maximum safe level of 350. (20)

The only crucial question that human beings ask is: “What’s for dinner?” Or for much of human history, “Is there (23) any dinner?” (24)

We’re running Genesis backward, decreating. (25)

It makes sense to be bigger when it’s colder. As the world gets warmer, species will shrink. – Wendy Foden

Here’s all I’m trying to say: The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists. The stability that produced that civilization has vanished; epic changes have begun. … We may, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization, but it won’t be the same planet, and hence it can’t be the same civilization. the earth that we knew–the only earth that we ever knew–is gone. (27)

If that stable earth allowed human civilization, however, something else created modernity, the world that most of us reading this book inhabit. That something was the sudden availability, beginning in the early eighteenth century, of cheap fossil fuel. (27)

Without petrochemicals, medical science, information technology, modern cityscapes, and countless other aspects of our modern technology-intensive lifestyles would simply not exist. In all, oil represents the essence of modern life. – Richard Heinberg

That we’ve wasted it so mindlessly is depressing. (30)

Since oil is in everything, it’s price affects the entire economy. (32)

These are the kinds of traps we fall into on this new planet. We can’t burn more oil because it’s running out. The stuff we can still find to burn triggers even more global warming. The most vicious of cycles. (33)

| We know, definitively, that the old planet “worked.” That is, it produced and sustained a modern civilization. We don’t know that about the new one. (33)

In truth, though, our new planet is much more complex and interesting. It’s not just that the things we used to do are getting harder; it’s that these initial and obvious effects lead us into a series of double and triple binds that make any action hard. (38)

So let’s review. The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Artic… The oceans… The vast inland glaciers… …the giant snowpack of the American West… The great rain forest of the Amazon… The great boreal forest of North America… The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization. … We have traveled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science (45) fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn’t. I know that I’m repeating myself. I’m repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened. (46)

2. High Tide

In the world we grew up in, our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth; it’s the reflex we’re going to have to temper, and it’s going to be tough. (47)

…now that we’re stuck between a played-out rock and a hot place…our new planet growth may be the one big habit we finally must break. (48)

So, for the record, I support a green Manhattan Project, an ecological New Deal, a clean-tech Apollo mission. … These are the obvious and legitimate responses of serious people to the most dangerous crisis we’ve ever encountered, and to a real degree they’re working. (52)

Bu tit’s 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 (52) forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on. (53)

It’s true that in a decade we were able to land three men on the moon–but this time we’re talking about sending all of us into orbit. (54)

For the foreseeable future–and in my horizon that is to the middle of the century–the world will continue to rely dominantly on hydrocarbons to fuel its economy. – Rex Tillerson, CEO Exxon Mobile

It’s quite true that nuclear power plants don’t seem as scary as they did a generation ago–not that they’ve gotten safer, but other things have gotten nastier. I mean, if a nuclear plant has an accident, it’s bad news, but if you operate a coal-fired plant exactly according to the instructions, it melts the ice caps and burns the forests. (57)

[via: A Bill Gates back company, TerraPower, has a solution, and is looking at coming online soon.]

The new planet we live on is inherently more expensive than the old one. (63)

What we can’t afford is the cost of complete uncertainty–or, rather, the cost of certainty that we’re going somewhere new and unstable. (66)

What we have seen in recent years in terms of insurance losses are but a harbinger of things to come. Insurance is priced based on statistics and probability. What climate change has done is create ambiguity and uncertainty in the pricing scenario. – Tim Wagner, cochairman of the Climate Change and Global Warming Task Force for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners

| Swiss Re, the world’s biggest insurance company, wanted to figure out some of these possibilities, so it contracted with Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment for a report on the most likely outcomes, which was published in 2005. The Harvard team modeled two “climate change futures,” one with the kind of gradual change we used to expect, and the other with the kind of disruptive, quick, and nasty change we’ve already seen. (The team didn’t even bother modeling a worst-case scenario–“slippage of ice sheets from Antarctica to Greenland, accelerated thawing of permafrost with release of large quantities of methane”–that comes closest to what we’re experiencing on the new earth.) Even in the milder scenario, climate change “threatens world economies.” But their second, more real-world simulation predicts that as storms and other disruptions become more frequent, they “overwhelm the adaptive capacities of even developed nations; large areas and sectors become uninsurable; major investments collapse; and markets crash.” Pay careful attention, despite the bland phraseology:

In effect, parts of developed countries would experience developing nations conditions for prolonged periods as a result of natural catastrophes and increasing vulnerability due to the abbreviated return times of extreme events. (67)

If it seems that I am callously reducing the danger we face to dollars and cents, that’s correct. Money, in our system, equal information. Its how we understand risk; it’s how we measure possibility; it’s the only gauge we have for understanding our collective future. If you have a lot of money, you have a lot of options, and if you don’t have much, your options narrow. On this new planet we’ll have less money than we thought we would, and hence fewer choices. (69)

And the fact that so much of the world remains so poor is also one of the biggest obstacles to actually doing something about the climate. Just as we come into this crisis with an infrastructure deficit and an overhang of debt, so we also suffer from a justice deficit that will slow any attempt at action. (67)

Global warming, though, is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. Which is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don’t compromise. (81)

Well, that’s a tad grim. Not really the career I trained for, fighting other adult males over the fall harvest. And I don’t think we need to go there. The second half of this book is based on the premise that we can build durable and even relatively graceful ways to inhabit this new planet. (85)

| But first we really do need to come to terms with where we are. We need to dampen our intuitive sense that the future will resemble the past, and our standard-issue optimism that the (85) future will be easier. We do not live any longer on the flat Earth that Tom Friedman postulated. Eaarth is an uphill planet now, where gravity exerts a stronger pull than we’re used to. There’s more friction than we’re used to. You have to work harder to get where you’re going. (86)

cf. Limits to Growth.

They concluded three things:

  1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion (91) continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years.
  2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his or her individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success. (92)

You can ignore environmental problems for a long time, but when they catch up to you, they catch up fast. (95)

Basically, it turns out they were right. (97)

The way our economy works at present, any cessation of growth equals misery. If foot traffic at Fuddruckers ebbs, the cook can’t get health care. And if we can’t grow, we can’t easily pay off the massive debts we’ve incurred. It would be nicer to fire up the engines one more time, à la Reagan. But we can’t grow. General Growth Properties saw its stock fall from fifty-one to thirty-five cents a share in the great crunch. Then it went bankrupt. There’s too much friction. We’re on an uphill planet. So we’d better change.

* * *

…one of the main lessons to be learned from the collapses of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, and those other past societies is that a society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power. – Jared Diamond, Collapse.

The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility–that we might choose instead to try to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline. (99)

The future is no longer what it was thought to be, or what it might have been if humans had known how to use their brains and their opportunites more effectively. – Founder of the Club of Rome

But we’re not entirely out of possibilities. Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take. (99)

| Number one is: mature. (99)

We Americans are progress junkies. We think that today should be better than yesterday and that tomorrow should be better than today. – Robert Samuelson, Newsweek

Every politician who has ever lived as said, “Our best days are ahead of us.” But they aren’t, not in the way we’re used to reckoning “best.” On a finite planet that was going to happen someday; it’s just our luck that the music stopped while we were on the floor. (100)

Step number two: we need to figure out what we must jettison. (101)

We’ve turned our sweet planet into Eaarth, which is not as nice. We’re moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back–and with far more power. But we’ve still got to live on that world, so we better start figuring out how. (101)

3. Backing Off

…scientists are far more guilty of understatement than exaggeration, and our economic troubles are intersecting with our ecological ones in ways that puts us hard up against the limits to growth. This book has been dedicated, so far, to the idea that we’re in very deep trouble. Now we must try to figure out how to survive what’s coming at us. And that survival begins with words. (102)

  • Durable
  • Sturdy
  • Stable
  • Hardy
  • Robust

These are squat, solid, stout words. They conjure a world where we no longer grow by leaps and bounds, but where we hunker down, where we dig in. They are words that we associate with maturity, not youth; with steadiness, not flash. They aren’t exciting, but they are comforting–think husband, not boyfriend. (103)

| Here’s a better metaphor: the economy that has defined our Western world is like a racehorse, fleet and showy. It’s bred for speed, with narrow, tapered legs; tap it on the haunch, and it accelerates down the backstretch. But don’t put it on a track where the rain has turned things muddy; know that even a small bump in its path will break its stride and quite likely snap that thin and speedy leg. The thoroughbred, like our economy, has been optimized for one thing only: pure burning swiftness. (Also, both are now mostly owned by sheikhs.) What we need to do, even while we’re in the saddle, is transform our racehorse into a workhorse… (103)

Can we imagine smaller? That is the test of our time, both practical and psychological. How can we adjust to the fact that we’re not going to get bigger? (104)

The whole intellectual edifice collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the last two decades, a period of euphoria. [Sue Kirchoff, “Heated Day of Testimony Exposes His Ideas as ‘Flawed,'” USA Today, October 23, 2008.

We are become as Gods, destroyers of worlds. – J. Robert Oppenheimer

Why, after a certain point, does bigness spell trouble? (106)

| For one thing, useful feedback diminishes as scale expands–you’re too far away from reality. (106)

Many small things breed a kind of stability; a few big things endanger it–better the Fortune 500,000 than the Fortune 500 (unless you want to be an eight-figure CEO). (108)

We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to survive on this Eaarth, but most of it needs to be done close to home. Small, not big; dispersed, not centralized. (120)

| And so we’re left with a big national government and small national purposes. Which is the worst place to be, because conservatives are correct about the inherent inefficiency of big government. (120)

Here’s another way of saying it: After a long period of frenetic growth, we’re suddenly older. Old, even. And old people worry less about getting more; they care more about hanging on to what they have, or losing it as slowly as possible. That’s why old people are supposed to keep their money in bonds, not stocks. Growth doesn’t matter. Security and stability count more than dynamic. (123)

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. Big was dynamic; when the project was growth, we could stand the side effects. But now the side effects of that size–climate change, for instance–are sapping us. We need to scale back, to go to ground. We need to take what wealth we have left and figure out how we’re going to use it, not to spin the wheel one more time but to slow the wheel down. We need to choose safety instead of risk, and we need to do it quickly, even at the sacrifice of growth. We need, as it were, to trade in the big house for something that suits our cir-(124)cumstances on this new Eaarth. We need to feel our vulnerability. It’s not just people in poor nations who are exposed to the elements now, but all of us. We’ve got to make our societies safer, and that means making them smaller. It means, since we live on a different planet, a different kind of civilization. (125)

Still, in less philosophical moments, there is much to worry us. Our ancestors, and we ourselves in the decades just past, piled up a great deal of wealth precisely by ignoring the finite nature of the planet. We also, through that willful ignorance, simultaneously wrecked the prospects for future growth. So we are heir both to the wealth and to the increasingly degraded planet it came from. We have to make that wealth last us. We had better not squander what inheritance we still have, and we had better figure out how to share some of it with the people already suffering from the environmental woes our profligacy caused. (127)

…the answer is the same–not bigger banks, but smaller banks, small enough that their failure (if it happens) can be absorbed. Food that comes from closer to home, not through an endless and vulnerable chain. Energy from your roof or your ridgeline–energy that doesn’t yield quite the power of a barrel of oil, but that doesn’t require an army to keep it flowing. Our Projects, if we are wise, will be myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the whole world. (128)

The most radical words in that most radical document, the Declaration of Independence, are right at the beginning: “When in the course of human events.” Times change, and when they do we must respond. (128)
…we need to rescue it; we need to make sure that community will become, on this (132) tougher planet, one of the most prosaic terms in the lexicon, like hoe or bicycle or computer. Access to endless amounts of cheap energy made us rich, and wrecked our climate, and it also made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbors. … Our economy, unlike any that came before it, is designed to work without the input of your neighbors. … We’ve evolved a neighborless lifestyle; on average an American eats half as many meals with family and friends as she did fifty years ago. On average, we have half as many close friends. (133)

…at farmers’ markets…sociologists found, people were having ten times as many conversations per visit. They were starting to rebuild the whithered network that we call a community. (139)

Embracing the local doesn’t mean abandoning the connection to something larger. (141)

And in ancient churches it’s easy to construct a vision of the medieval man or woman who once sat int he same hard pew–a person who understood, as we never can, his or her place in the universe. It was bounded by the distance one could travel physically; save for the Crusade years, it was probably easy to live a life without ever leaving the district. (Florentines speak of living an entire life in view of the Duomo.) And it was bounded just as powerfully by the shared and deep belief in the theology of the church. You knew your place. (142)

You knew your place in the sense that you were born into it, and there was little hope of leaving if it didn’t suit. Peasants were peasants and lords were lords, and never the two met. Inequality was baptized, questioning unlikely. The old medieval world made sense, but it was often an oppressive sense–hence the five-hundred-year project to liberate ourselves in every possible way. (143)

| And though Tuscany still looks comprehensible–making it the backdrop for profitable tourism and powerful travel fantasy–it’s now partly sham. (143)

But it’s coming back. Tuscany is one of the birthplaces of the Slow Food movement, which is slowly reclaiming those farms, making them appealing again to young people. In fact, small places are in certain ways now more real than the fantasy lands that dominate Washington or Wall Street, even when it comes to huge global projects. (143)

cf. Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI

So all I’m suggesting is that, on a hot and difficult planet, decision making will need to start sliding toward more local levels. The key projects aren’t national anymore. (144)

| And if we’re going to keep the roads intact and silos full, we won’t be able to keep underwriting some of the distinctly national indulgences we’ve long supported. The U.S. military, for instance, costs more than the armies of the next forty-five (144) nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending. (145)

In the new world we’ve created, the one with hotter temperatures and more drought and less big oil, big is vulnerable. We are going to need to split up, at least a little, if we’re going to avoid being subdued by the forces we’ve unleashed. Scale matters, and at the moment ours is out of whack with our needs. Mammals get smaller in the heat, and so should governments. Our key projects are local now; that needs to be our focus. (146)

cf. A Paradise Built In Hell

4. Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully

…technical changes in agriculture have led to enormous gains in yield, in productivity, and–bottom of all bottom lines–in calories per person. (152)

It’s not hard to think we all made a mistake. Because yields were rising, we never took seriously all the warnings. In much the same way that rising house prices lured people into ever deeper debt, the Green Revolution lured us into a kind of ecological debt we’re only starting to comprehend. (157)

Our food supply, in other words–by far the most important thing on earth, at least if you’re a human–is too big to fail. And it’s failing. (159)

In the last ten years academics and researchers have begun figuring out what some farmers have known for a long time: it’s possible to produce lots of food on relatively small farms with little or nothing in the way of synthetic fertilizer or chemicals. (166)

It’s not just making better use of space. Small farmers often make better use of time, too, figuring out how to plant more crops in a year. … World Bank economists, for instance, “now accept that redistribution of land to small farmers would lead to greater overall productivity.” Reexamining data from the last few decades, economists have found that small farms are more productive in (167) Africa, Asia, and Latin America. (168)

…in the new world we’re creating it’s like having a hundred small banks instead of one big one. If it gets too dry for squash, the coconut will probably see you through. You’re not putting all eggs in your basket–there’s some eggs, but there’s some eggplant, too. (170)

* * *

…it’s not what they don’t use that defines their farm. Mary-Howell Martens insists. It’s what they do use: “We see it as just as much precision farming as any other kind. But we substitute observation, management, planning, and education for purchased inputs.” (173)

[via: This is an example of technology atrophying our senses and sensibilities.]

But if our farming is really going to shift back–in time to let us deal with the new conditions we’ve unleashed here on planet Eaarth–it will take dramatic change. For one thing, all the kinds of innovative farming I’ve described share one feature: they require more people than conventional farming. (174)

For a hundred years we’ve substituted oil for people, which is why we have more prisoners than farmers in the United States; now we need to go the other way. (175)

By some estimates, seventy-five cents of every dollar spent on supermarket food covers the cost of advertising, packaging, long-distance transport, and storage; at a farmers’ market, by contrast, 95 percent of the price goes to the farmer growing the food. (176)

I’m not arguing for local food because it tastes better, or because it’s better for you. (It does, and it is. There’s really not much debate.) I’m arguing that we have no choice–that the new Eaarth has much less margin than the planet we grew up on, and hence we’re going to need to take advantage of opportunities we’ve passed by before. In a world more prone to drought and flood, we need the resilience that comes with three dozen different crops in one field, not a vast ocean of corn or soybeans. In a world where warmth spreads pests more efficiently, we need the (179) resilience of many local varieties and breeds; in the past century five thousand domestic breeds of animals and birds went extinct, and each time our danger increased a little. And in a world with less oil, we need the kind of small mixed farms that can provide their own fertilizer, build their own soil. (180)

…we need the local differences in variety, planting technique, and timing that have been designed over centuries of trial and error “to produce the most stable and reliable yield possible under the circumstances,” writes James Scott, an authority on peasant (180) agriculture. (181)

But here’s the thing: after the storm, a study of 1,800 farms found that small farmers using sustainable practices suffered far less damage than their conventional neighbors. Diversified plots had 20 to 40 percent more topsoil, greater soil moisture, less erosion. They suffered far fewer economic losses than their conventional farm neighbors. They didn’t enjoy the violent new weather we’ve created. But they survived it. (181)

* * *

So here’s the needle we need to thread: in the space of just a few years we’ve got to switch away from fossil fuel. (184)

Second: it would be nice to replace at least some of that fossil fuel with something else, so that we’re not returned entirely to a world of manual labor, where muscle power provides almost all the energy. Remember, a barrel of oil equals about eleven years of manual labor, and the average American uses the equivalent of sixty barrels a year. (184)

| Third: there is no easy way out. (184)

Job one, on almost anyone’s list, is conservation, because the less power we use, the less sun and wind we’ll need to capture. …we are energy wastrels. (185)

For two decades some farmers have built CSAs, or community-supported agriculture operations, where members pay an annual fee for a share of the produce. Now advocates like Greg Pahl are talking about CSE, or community-supported energy, and pointing at examples like the wind power associations and cooperatives that have built thriving facilities across Germany, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, and Canada. (188)

The engineers call it distributed generation, producing energy where it’s needed instead of ferrying it great distances. Coal plants need to be out of sight–they’re dirty, poisoning the air around them. But more and more companies are installing “micropower” plants, small gas turbines to power a building or a campus. Since you’re not losing electrons in transmission, it’s highly efficient–and so it accounted for a third of all new U.S. generation in 2008, far outstripping nuclear or coal. Windmills, too, can be in plain view, provided we can get past our reluctance to look at them, which has blocked their expansion in many of the most populated areas of the country. If we can see that spinning blade as something beautiful–as the breeze made visible, as the possibility for an energy future (190) that might actually work–we may be able to make rapid progress. (191)

“Liberal arts” is often one way of saying “not very practical.” (192)

So now we’re (theoretically anyway) well fed and warm. We can turn, then, to what may be the hardest part for most of us moderns to imagine about the future. I’m describing, the greatest worry of all. If we’re staying home, attending the garden, working with our neighbors, won’t life be a tad…dull? (195)

Which is why we’re lucky. The Internet may be precisely the tool we need; it’s as if it came along just in time, a deus ex machina to make our next evolution bearable. (196)

Here’s one of the oddest tricks the Net can teach: how to be a neighbor. (200)

IF you could increase social capital in a neighborhood–that is, your network of who you know and how well you know them–then your involvement increases. If you’re among strangers, you’re not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts. – Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone

My point throughout this book has been that we’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created. We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed. (204)

It’s also been about liberation–the slow but reasonably steady process of valuing more and more people. valuing people from all around the world, men and women, people who think and love and look different. The universal solvent of open enterprise, of easy communication, of every-increased mobility has broken down one wall after another, freed people in huge numbers from the life they would otherwise have been automatically assigned by their culture, their tradition, their gender. The process that made us anonymous to our neighbors carried real benefits, not just costs. (204)

We need cultures that work for survival–which means we need once more to pay attention to elders, to think hard about limits, to rein in our own excesses. But we also need cultures that work for everyone, so that women aren’t made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places. (205)

Eaarth represents the deepst of human failures. But we still must live on the world we’ve created–lightly, carefully, gracefully.


…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. (214)

cf. 350.org

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. (218)

* * *

But the greatest danger we face, climate change, is no accident. 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.

About VIA



  1. Pingback: A Life on Our Planet | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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