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The Future Is Now

Michael P. Branch

EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Bill McKibben. xviii + 253 pp. Times Books, 2010. $24.

In 1989 Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, which is widely regarded as the first book on global climate change to be addressed to a general audience. The profound effect of that text on public consciousness came less from the environmental science it contained than from the disturbing central idea it conveyed: What we used to call “nature” is now so thoroughly conditioned by anthropogenic forces that the concept of nature as outside of human influence is already archaic, a sentimental relic of a preindustrial past. When we gaze at a river, or a cloud, or a puddle of rain, McKibben argued compellingly, we are now observing something that is, at least in part, a product of human culture. Even weather and climate, he claimed, were being shaped by the environmental consequences of a global, fossil-fuel–consuming economic system.

That was more than 20 years ago, and although the disconcerting reality of climate change is now old news, the new and more distressing news is how quickly it is proceeding and how little we have done to effectively address the problem. Enter Eaarth, McKibben’s most recent and most strident attempt to awaken readers to a postnatural world in which the effects of global warming are considerably worse than was predicted several decades ago. Just as the essential stratagem of The End of Nature was the claim that nature outside human influence was gone forever, the corollary gambit of Eaarth is the assertion that the planet we most fear—a planet on which the devastating effects of global warming are changing the fabric of our ecosystems, weather, agriculture and economy—is in fact the planet on which we already live. McKibben’s use of the odd spelling “Eaarth” is intended to distinguish this “tough new planet” (as he calls it in the book’s subtitle) from the old, to suggest in an unsettling way that the Earth we inhabit is so altered, damaged and fallen from the grace of the vanished original that its very name must be changed to mark the alteration. “We may, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization,” he writes, “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.”

McKibben is neither an academic nor a scientist, but rather a nonfiction writer and activist of considerable influence, the man Time magazine called “the world’s best green journalist.” His books since The End of Nature have engaged a number of environmentally related issues. For example, Maybe One (1998) addressed the need to reduce the human population, Enough (2003) warned of the dangers of nanotechnology and genetic engineering, and Deep Economy (2007) outlined the environmental benefits of a shift to a decentralized economic system. McKibben’s scientific information is usually reliable and clearly presented. But the power of his work comes from his literary sensibility, which allows him to convey that information through compelling narratives that not only inform us but ultimately encourage us to change. And it is change that McKibben wants, a goal clear both in his writing and in his leadership of, a grassroots movement aimed at reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million in an attempt to stem the most severe effects of global warming.

In Eaarth, McKibben combines his skills as an environmental journalist and his talents as a storyteller to promote his aims as a climate activist. His objective is the creation of a climate-change call to arms, much as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) functioned as an expression of heightened environmental awareness and an agent of cultural change for an earlier generation. McKibben devotes most of his book to a rather numbing rehearsal of the appalling impacts of global warming, and in this respect he may risk alienating the popular audience he seeks. “Don’t let your eyes glaze over at this parade of statistics,” he admonishes; instead, facts regarding the alarming effects of climate change “should come as body blows, as mortar barrages, as sickening thuds.” The question is how many such thuds readers will tacitly agree to endure before requiring of an author a pragmatic strategy for how to respond to the problem at hand. Eaarth does shows structural evidence of an aspiration to balance a severe jolting of its readers with specific proposals for reform—two of the book’s four sections are nominally devoted to our unfortunate situation, the other two to how we might adjust to living on Eaarth—but even its more sanguine passages tend to revert to an apocalyptic recitation of disturbing statistics.

I don’t fault McKibben for his failure to be cheerful about the worst environmental problem we’ve ever faced, and I admire that he wishes to inspire the cultural change upon which a sustainable human civilization may depend. But his book does move me to ask what rhetorical mode may be most effective in prompting people not only to acknowledge the problem of global warming, but also to change their lives in order to help solve it. The jeremiad, with its scathing castigation of our environmental sins? The elegy, with its stylized mourning for the loss of a nature outside human influence? The data-laden policy tract, with its irrefutable mountains of impersonal facts? Cinematically speaking, should we be using the language of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Everything’s Cool (2007) or An Inconvenient Truth (2006)?

Eaarth does eventually offer proposals for how we might respond to climate change. Some of these suggestions are predictable: Aggressively pursue renewable energy, reform our oil-intensive food system, rein in excessive consumerism, break ourselves of an unsustainable automobile habit. But in wisely rejecting the blithe hope that either economic business as usual or technologies not yet developed will save us from ourselves, McKibben asserts the radical idea that the entire scale of our lives must shift fundamentally toward the local. He argues that new, small-scale systems of local agriculture, transportation, commerce and energy production (“distributed generation”) represent our best hope. In order to survive on Eaarth, he claims, we need to become “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.” On Eaarth, he suggests, the paradigm of the growth economy itself must be abandoned.

It remains to be seen whether Eaarth employs the rhetorical approach most likely to persuade readers to adopt the difficult changes necessary for real progress in the fight against global warming. It is certain, however, that this forceful, accessible book will draw new attention to the urgency of the global climate-change problem, for it is McKibben’s explicit goal to compel us to admit that a disconcerting future is already upon us. “Forget the grandkids,” he writes. “It turns out this was a problem for our parents.” Eaarth challenges us to acknowledge that we already inhabit a fundamentally changed planet—one for which we must now accept a new kind of responsibility.

Michael P. Branch is professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno; book review editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; and coeditor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His books include John Muir’s Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa (Island Press, 2001) and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden (University of Georgia Press, 2004). He also writes a monthly blog essay, called “Rants from the Hill,” for High Country News.

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