Podcast • May 6, 2010

Bill McKibben: Coming into View, Another Eaarth

“That picture… a beautiful blue-white marble floating through the black empty void of space… is as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. It’s kind of the reverse of my high school yearbook ...

3134273868_06fdc0a0a2“That picture… a beautiful blue-white marble floating through the black empty void of space… is as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. It’s kind of the reverse of my high school yearbook photo. I have more white up top; the earth has less. It’s a very different place.”

Bill McKibben in conversation is counting a few of the ways that earth has changed since Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman on his fourth turn around the moon in December 1968 tilted his craft and saw the earth rising, “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life,” Borman said. “It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was simply black or white. But not the earth.” Bill McKibben has a revised spelling for a changed place in his new book: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

Pretty much name a physical feature of the planet. Take the great boreal forests that dominate the northern hemisphere across, say, North America. We’ve lost now tens of millions of acres of pine trees. You get up in a plane and, horizon to horizon, there’s not a living tree because the pine bark beetle that had always been there… no longer has those cold winter temperatures to contend with. Last winter was the warmest winter ever recorded in Canada, and hence the beetles are spreading almost literally like wildfire, and in their wake comes actual wildfire as those dead trees burn. When they burn they put a whole new plume of carbon into the atmosphere.

Forest fire season across the west which used to be confined to warmest driest months of the year, three or four months of the year, now stretches from March to whenever snow finally falls in the fall. The number of fires goes up just astonishingly.

The great storms that circulate across the stormy bands around the middles of the earth are more powerful than they’ve ever been because of course they draw their power from the heat in the first few meters of the earth’s surface. So we see astonishing storms, Katrina being one example but by no means the only one.

Last summer the chain of typhoons that marched across Asia was a sight to behold. One stalled for three days over the mountains of Taiwan and before it was gone there were villages there that had received nine and a half feet of rain. Needless to say those villages are no longer there.

Those kind of things are happening on a new earth.

Bill McKibben wrote the first popular warning about climate change, The End of Nature, 21 years ago. These days he spends relatively less of his boundless energy writing than he does organizing a global grassroots mission, 350.org, to bring the carbon content in the atmosphere back down to a sustainable 350 parts per million. In key dimensions Bill McKibben and 350.org are mirror opposites of Tom Friedman and Hot, Flat and Crowded. The Friedman drumbeat is for a competitive corporate super-tech and, of course, super-profitable American-led greening of a global economy. It sounds to McKibben like “butch environmentalism.”

Look, it’s a nice fantasy that we would just keep the machine going as it’s going, but rip out the internal combustion engine and toss in a solar panel. And on we would fly. I don’t think it’s a realistic one. I think among other things it just completely ignores the physical difference between fuels. Fossil fuel was the most important thing about modernity. It’s what modernity was. It describes why we live the way we live. It’s dense, rich in BTUs, concentrated in a few places, easy to get at and easy to transport…

That’s not the world we’re moving into. The kind of energy we can afford to use, sun and wind and such, is very different. It’s omnipresent but it’s diffuse. It’s dispersed. The logic that goes with it is almost exactly the opposite logic.

We need a farmers’ market in electrons, and a farmers’ market in food… We need to figure out how to spread out and become stable and resilient, and part of that’s being smaller.

What’s the most important phrase of the last three years? If you ask me, it’s got to be, “too big to fail.” It wasn’t just our banks that were too big to fail. Much worse than that is our food system and our energy system. If they go, then we’re in much deeper trouble. They’re just as centralized, just as deeply linked and just as shaky as the banks ever were. And that’s why it’s encouraging that we’re at least beginning to think about how we might build those things down.

Bill McKibben in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 30, 2010.