We all know Bill McKibben---one of the shining lights of the national (and international) environmental community, who's been educating us about climate change longer than most any journalist. His creation of 350.org was crucial to a new stage of climate activism.
But because most folks know him for climate change, they don't know that he really has a deep philosophical understanding of the way we live that undergirds his analysis. That is, he's not just telling us climate change is a problem or just explaining it as a consequence of fossil fuel use, but he goes further to explain the root of our environmental predicament: growth. His most recent book, Eaarth, which may be the best book I've read in the past few years on any topic, actually only devotes the first of four sections to climate change.
Climate change is the backdrop. It's already here, and it's going to keep happening. What McKibben wants to talk about is what got us here and what we need to change to get us out. I'd like to explore his extremely well thought out argument here today.
1. We have changed the planet. This point isn't one that I imagine there'll be a lot of dispute about here at Daily Kos, but there are aspects of it that are worth mentioning, specifically because of some persistent misconceptions. First, McKibben, after laying out data from numerous scientific studies:
Don't let your eyes glaze over at this parade of statistics...These should come as body blows, as mortar barrages, as sickening thuds. The Holocene is staggered, the only world that humans have known is suddenly reeling. I am not describing what will happen if we don't take action, or warning of some future threat. This is the current inventory: more thunder, more lightning, less ice. Name a major feature of the earth's surface and you'll find massive change.One of the main things McKibben conveys is that the rhetoric on the timeframe of climate change is totally wrong:
People spoke mostly about global warming in the future tense; the word was always threat, right up through the 2008 presidential election...So how did it happen that the threat to our fairly far-off descendants, which required that we heed an alarm and adopt precautionary principles and begin to take measured action lest we have a crisis for future generations, et cetera----how did that suddenly turn into the Arctic melting away, the tropics expanding, the ocean turning acid? How did time dilate, and "100 or 200 years from now" become yesterday?Not only is his point that problem of climate change already here, but that the responses we thought would "fix" it actually won't. At least not in the way we think of fixes. McKibben describes his reaction to James Hansen's major scientific paper on how 350 parts per million of CO2 was the upper limit:
...the safe number was, at most, 350 parts per million. The day Jim Hansen announced that number was the day I knew we'd never again inhabit the planet I'd been born on, or anything close to it. Because we're already past 350---way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We're too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents.He goes on to discuss how we can, very slowly head back downward, but that the damage that has been done and that's already baked into the climate system won't be undone for centuries or millenia, if ever:
We're not, in other words, going to get back the planet we used to have, the one on which our civilization developed. We're like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack. Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on the treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue.McKibben goes through more details than I can go into here, but the bottom line is that the planet we knew---Earth---is gone. We're on a new planet---Eaarth, he calls it---which seems the same in many ways, but has some major differences. He details how we're running low on the oil that made our modern industrial society what it is today, just at a time when we're facing growing climate challenges. It's a different planet than one we, and most economists, know.
2. We need to change our most engrained habit: growth. That's the case that McKibben makes next. As he puts it: new planets require new habits:
But now, now that we're stuck between a played-out rock and a hot place---it's time to think with special clarity about the future. On our new planet growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.When I've suggested as much in previous posts here, invariably someone will point out that in a bad economy, I'm just arguing against people getting jobs again, etc. McKibben addresses this:
I understand that this is the worst possible moment to make such a point. The temporary halt to growth that we call a recession has...wrecked many lives.He details the many advocates for "smart" growth and "green" growth, from Tom Friedman to President Obama. He acknowledges that they are least paying attention that we need to do things differently, but that they once again get a fundamental part of it wrong:
As usual, though, grandchildren is the tip-off. Smart people are starting to understand the size of the problem, but they haven't yet figured out the timing; they haven't yet figured out that the latest science shows that this wave is already breaking over our heads...If we had started twenty years ago, when we first knew about global warming, and when we had the first hints of peak oil, such a plan might have made sense...But we didn't do it twenty years ago, precisely because it would have interfered with economic growth.This was his build up to perhaps the most important thing he says:
We really do need to cut carbon emissions...or meet all the other targets that good people have identified. They are precisely the way our system should respond. And in large measure that's how it will respond. The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we'll adopt electric cars far faster than most analysts imagine. Windmills will sprout across the praries. It will be exciting. But it'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 posses the margin we'd require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on. That is a dark thing to say, and un-American, so I will try to make the case carefully.It's a stark statement from someone who's been on the front lines reporting on these challenges for decades, who has seen everything he's reported on come to pass. And McKibben does proceed to make the case for this very carefully, with remarkable detail, and I won't try to excerpt from it because his argument is impeccable and I don't want to water it down. Suffice it to say that the time has passed when we can avoid the limits to growth, and the end of economic growth.
McKibben isn't alone in observing that growth is almost the only thing we know how to do as an industrial economy. As Dennis Meadows observes:
Growth advocates change the justification for the paradigm rather than changing the paradigm itself:(Read that last one again!) If you'd like an example of such a justification/response to the idea of limits to growth, consider this one McKibben cites from our good friend Larry Summers:
- 1970s: There are no effective limits [to growth]
- 1980s: There are limits but they are very far away
- 1990s: The limits are near, but technology and markets can evade them easily
- 2000s: Technology and markets do not always evade the limits, but the best policy is still to pursue GDP growth, so we will have more resources to solve problems
- 2010s: If we had been able to sustain economic growth, we would not have had trouble with the limits.
There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future...The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.3. What should we do instead of growth? I can't do better than McKibben does:
We recoil when faced with a future different from the one we imagine. And it's hard to brace ourselves for the jump to a new world when we still, kind of, live in the old one. So we tell ourselves that the scientists may be overstating our environmental woes, or that because our stock market has climbed back from its lows we'll soon be back to the old growth economy. As we've seen, though, scientists are far more guilty of understatement than exaggeration, and our economic troubles are intersecting with our ecological ones in ways that put us hard up against the limits to growth.He goes on to make the case that we need more small businesses, small farms, small energy providers, small banks, rather than the too big to fail institutions we have across the board. As he puts it, we need the Fortune 500,000, not the Fortune 500. Beyond simply the danger to our nation of sticking with large, growth-based institutions, he reiterates the point he's made in previous works of his, such as Deep Economy, that growth objectively isn't making us any happier, so we really should question why we're pursuing it.
We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale. We're so used to growth that we can't imagine alternatives; at best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim that we can keep on as before. So here are my candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future:
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.
I hate to end here, but the bottom line is that McKibben and others have identified the one central issue that defines our present already and for certain our future: limits to growth on a finite and changed planet Ea[a]rth. Every issue we discuss and debate that this site, in our communities, with our families, in the public arena are affected by this. It's the one all-encompassing challenge of our time. Will we face it head on?