Skip to main content
review: non-fiction

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben has always struck me as a puritanical figure who needs to lighten up a bit. But he's a damn good New England writer and a "real deal" environmental activist. He wrote about climate change long before the Arctic ice shelf collapsed and the oceans started to acidify ( The End of Nature). He questioned the wisdom of letting mere mortals engineer different forms of life as casually as Mexican drug gangs cleansing a working-class neighbourhood ( Enough). And he's examined the meaning of Job, God and climate change ( The Comforting Whirlwind). You'd think he'd be ready to surf the waves on Hawaii's North Shore.

But not McKibben. He's the founder of the carbon-battling and a man with a gung-ho mission. To appreciate his old-fashioned radicalism, you have to understand his origins: He hails from Lexington, Mass. That's where the American Revolution started. The idea that small communities must revolt against big tyrannies just swims in his blood.

As such, McKibben, a Methodist, remains very much part of the New England congregational tradition, which still informs smart states such as Vermont. The congregational tradition, a small-government creed, holds that the route to a better life (as opposed to better buying) lies in the improvement of individuals, their families, communities and the local economy. Aboriginals call such thinking traditional knowledge. The Greeks call it wisdom and the psychopaths at Goldman Sachs would call it treason. McKibben is convinced it's the way forward.

His oddly titled new book Eaarth reflects our increasingly precarious global existence. (The wonky spelling just suggests that we've cooked the planet and it's no longer the same hospitable place, McKibben says.) Business as usual is over, but our elites can't admit it. The fouling of the atmosphere has ended ten thousands years of relatively benign climate and replaced it with shock-and-awe weather. In other words, the Titanic has left the dock: The ship's owners still worship at the Evangelical Church of Petroleum, and the passengers will have to look out for icebergs on their own.

The hard-core science, though effectively mocked by the moneyed hawkers of heavy crude, grows more alarming every year. The tropics have expanded more than two degrees of latitude north and south since 1980. A study on the freshwater discharge from 950 of the world's largest rivers shows half are declining. The amount of water entering the Pacific has dropped by six per cent. Thanks to fossil-fuel emissions, the oceans are 30 per cent more acidic than they should be. That's calamitous news for coral reefs, crabs and fish eaters. The Arctic ice cap has lost an ice mass equal to 12 nations the size of Great Britain. Misguided adventures with biofuels have increased the ranks of food-poor by 40 million. "We're running Genesis backwards, decreating," McKibben says.

But getting off oil, and the casino-like revenues that beget unethical governments, won't be easy. McKibben, unlike many greens, recognizes that it took 40 to 50 years to get hooked on our oil-energy slavery, and it will take decades to achieve hydrocarbon emancipation. But bigness won't provide the solutions. "The project we are 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 neighbourhoods, about blocks."

We need to know our place again and abandon old party lines, McKibben argues. "It's not clear whether a farmer's market or a local neighbourhood crime watch or a community-owned windmill is a liberal or conservative project. It's some of both."

Reform, he says, must begin with fundamentals: food and energy, the only two beats in journalism that have ever mattered. And the good news is that ordinary people have started the revolution. The number of small farms in New England grew from 28,000 to 33,000 between 2002 and 2007, increasing for the first time in 150 years. The Institute for Local Self Reliance reports that half of the United States could meet its own energy needs within its own borders. The Slow Money movement promotes the investment of local capital in small local businesses with the goal of making a living as opposed to making a killing. (Calgary's Podium Funds, for example, could well kick-start a national renaissance in local investment.)

McKibben even proposes a new vocabulary for living on this tougher, meaner planet: "durable, sturdy, stable, hardy and robust." That's Great Depression lingo. It's also the language cherished by modest folks for a long time. I might add to McKibben's sober-minded list a few key additions: truth, perspective and proportion.

All in all, it's an elegant and disquieting read and well worth the time. But two things struck me about McKibben's assessment of our overheated predicament. The first concerns its conservative tone. Our greed had sent us down uncertain paths, and the best we can now do is roll up our sleeves and find atonement in a garden, McKibben says. Greens just may become the renewed face of conservatism while alleged conservatives such as Sarah Palin continue their metamorphosis into petroleum savants.

The second remains McKibben's historic remedy: Small, diversified communities can withstand adversity. Jane Jacobs, Leo Tolstoy and E. F. Schumacher all said that small was sustainable, resilient and beautiful. G. K. Chesterton, by the way, brilliantly offered the same "outline of Sanity" nearly 100 years ago.

Although McKibben's analysis of the big problem (and climate change and peak oil are just that) rings mostly true, his earnestness and clean writing diminish the real conflicts that lie ahead. Like many U.S. military analysts, I suspect there will be blood. You can't end an addiction in a house rocked by repeated climate shocks without tribal and chaotic trauma. It might be more Egad than Eaarth.

Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, which won the Rachel Carson Book Award in 2009.