'Adapting to a new, warm world'

Last modified: 5/6/2010 12:00:00 AM
Last winter after our annual '100 year' ice and wind storm knocked out the power, I began researching low energy ways to make dinner. Browsing Amazon for thermal cookers (think slow cookers without electricity) I noticed the little section marked 'Customers Who Bought Related Items Also Bought' contained, among other things: solar panels, a meat cleaver, assorted books about the second coming, backyard farming, food preservation and the title When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes.

I had the strange sensation that I had stumbled into the center of some societal Venn diagram, the place where a red circle titled 'Survivalists' and a blue circle labeled 'Environmentalists' merged to form a purple center.

This purple niche has a new occupant, Bill McKibben's book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. And before all you typo-hawks out there begin sending me irate e-mails, I haven't misspelled the title; there really are two a's in Eaarth. As McKibben explains 'The world hasn't ended, but the world as we know it has - even if we don't quite know it yet. . . . It needs a new name. Eaarth . . . odd enough to remind us how profoundly we've altered the only place we've ever known.'

In some sense, Eaarth reads like a nonfiction version of a post-apocalypse novel, the apocalypse in this case being the climate catastrophe McKibben believes we are already experiencing and which will only get worse with time. It is a survival guide for living in the kind of harsh

world that until Hurricane Katrina scarcely any living Americans had ever experienced. And as dark as its message is, Eaarth is also a sometimes humorous, hopeful and, well, patriotic book, a testament to the durability and flexibility of American democracy.

Only a writer as good as McKibben could pull off this feat. He began his career straight out of Harvard working for the New Yorker, and his writing is still infused with something of that magazine's signature style - erudite, wry, and oh-so-readable. Beginning in 1989 with the now-classic The End of Nature, one of the earliest warnings about the dangers of global warming, McKibben has become our nation's most popular and influential environmental writer, with more than a dozen books to his name.

Vermonter McKibben is also an activist, the founder of 350.org, an organization dedicated to rolling back CO2 levels to 350 parts per million (we're already at 390 ppm), a level that NASA scientist James Hansen has identified as the maximum at which we can avert the annihilation of mankind. And until recently, McKibben was very definitely an inhabitant of the Venn diagram's blue circle - a believer in the notion that things like bicycles and thermal cookers could yet save the world from disaster. These days though, McKibben has one foot in the red circle.

The first half of Eaarth puts to rest any fantasy that the effects of global warming aren't real and already trashing the planet. Among McKibben's pieces of evidence (all documented in 25 pages of notes): a two degree latitudinal increase in the tropic zone since 1980; permanent droughts in the American southwest and Australia; the expected massive release of methane from beneath the world's rapidly melting frozen regions; super-storms like Typhoon Morakot, which recently dumped 9« feet of rain (yes, feet - I looked it up to make sure it wasn't a misprint) on one province of Taiwan in a single day; and the rapid and irreversible acidification of the oceans, a change that will probably wipe out coral reefs, shellfish, and perhaps the plankton upon which the whole ocean ecosystem is built.

The second half of Eaarth addresses the age-old question 'How are we to live?' Before peak oil and global warming, the answer to that question seemed to be 'Any way we want to.' But McKibben believes those days are already gone. If we don't begin planning now for a future when food, drinking water, material goods and the ability to travel and transport are all scarce, while disease, violent weather, famine and war run rampant, we may not survive.

Interestingly, McKibben's answer to the question of how we'll live on our new Eaarth holds appeal for both the red and blue groups, touters of small government and locavores alike. We will (and must), he posits, move away from globalization and our dependence on centralized government and distribution systems and rely instead on local economies - and individual gumption - for food, energy and infrastructure.

In the end, Eaarth leaves the reader both pessimistic and hopeful, imagining a hybrid-future that's part Blade Runner and part Morning in America. Only time will tell if McKibben is right. Meanwhile, I'll be investing in that thermal cooker.

(Bill McKibben will be reading and signing his book tonight at Gibson's Bookstore, 27 South Main Street in Concord. For more information call 224-0562.)




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