Earth: Making a life on a tough new planet

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 Most of us are familiar with this practice:  a nonfiction author writes a book about a current event or issue and the book is published.  Then, maybe five to ten years later, the book is republished with a “New Introduction” so the author can discuss changes that have occurred since the book was originally released.

Last week I read the book Eaarth, by Bill McKibben, in which the author discusses the effects of global warming on our planet and proposes ways to cope with these effects.  The first thing that struck me was that the book was published in 2010, and yet the paperback copy I purchased, in June 2011, already had a “New Afterword” included so the author could update his audience on changes that had occurred since 2010.

Such is life on a warming planet – things are moving much faster than anyone anticipated.

In this book McKibben explains, in understandable language, and utterly clear and convincing detail, how the changes wrought by global warming have created the planet Eaarth, a new name for a new planet.  This new planet, radically changed by global warming, is a much more difficult place on which to live than was the old Earth.

Reading Eaarth is like reading an Old Testament prophet – Isaiah or Jeremiah.  Like these prophets, McKibben uses uncompromisingly direct language:

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.

This book is full of hard truth and compelling data.  T.S. Eliot once said, “Mankind can only bear so much reality.”  Here’s a full dose, up to the brim and overflowing.

But I think most of us are like the man or woman who says to their doctor, “Tell me straight up, Doc.  Don’t pull any punches.  It may be hard to hear, but I can deal with it if I can only hear the truth.”  It is actually empowering to be able to understand what is happening to us, even if it’s hard to hear.

In the second half of Eaarth, McKibben sketches the beginnings of a way to live on our new planet.  Our goal is twofold: (1) to learn how to live with the changes we can’t escape, and (2) to do whatever we can to prevent the changes we can escape.  He says we need a new language for a new planet.  We can’t rely anymore upon the idea of “growth,” or even of “sustainability”, since that implies that we can keep on as before.  

Here are my candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future:  (1) durable, (2) sturdy, (3) stable, (4) hardy, and (5) 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.

In addition to a new language, McKibben says our life on Eaarth will require a new sense of scale:

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, and about blocks.

In the book’s last chapter McKibben looks at three things he considers essential to our future and how we should relate to them in order to stave off a worse crisis than already exists.  He examines our relationship to food, energy, and the internet.  Interestingly, he considers the internet, because of its decentralized nature, to be potentially one of our strongest weapons against further global degradation. 

Eaarth is 220 pages long.  I purchased it and finished reading it on the same day.  Then I started reading it again.  I urge you to get it and read it.  It will frighten you, but it will also shock you into much needed action.  As well-known author Barbara Kingsolver says, “Read it, please.  Straight through to the end.  Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.”

Have you heard the phrase “take a chill pill?”  Well, pick up Eaarth and “take a real pill.”

Submitted by The Rev. Jim Wright, Vicar, Christ Episcopal Church, Cedar Key

This column is a project of Cedar Key’s Energy Advisory Panel, which welcomes first-person accounts of how individuals are conserving (or, even, aspiring to conserve) our community's natural resources.    Your submission may be made via email to eileenlbowers@yahoo.com.  Please include your full name and your phone number.