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Bill McKibben. Eaarth: reviewed by Javier Sethness

August 18, 2010

Earth has died … but Eaarth offers few solutions

Bill McKibben. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9056-7

reviewed by Javier Sethness

According to North American environmental activist Bill McKibben, planet Earth has died.

Its replacement does not, however, constitute dialectical progress toward a higher or better state: the new-born planet, named Eaarth by McKibben in his book of the same name, follows instead from the brutality and thoughtlessness engaged in by much of humanity since its historical emergence.

In McKibben’s estimation, the Holocene geological epoch — characterized by a narrow range of fluctuation in average global temperatures that has allowed for humanity’s rise and development on Earth over the past 12,000 years — can no longer be said to exist, as a result of human interference with planetary climate systems and human-induced environmental destruction generally conceived. Eaarth, referred to elsewhere as the Anthropocene, jeopardizes the survival of much of humanity and the continuation of a great deal of life itself.

Such-world historical regression is “pretty outrageous,” as a climatologist McKibben quotes in the work has it; for McKibben, indeed, it represents “the deepest of human failures.” In light of such challenges, though, McKibben suggests that “we must keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit [the] damage” visited by constituted power on humanity and the planet. Like Noam Chomsky, he sees no legitimate alternative to struggle.

As an academic concerned with environmental studies, McKibben is cognizant of the dire nature of the present state of affairs. On the new Eaarth, he mentions that billion-person famines could be regular events by the middle of the present century, that the flow of the Euphrates and Nile rivers could decline significantly in the near future, and that glacier retreat in the Himalayas and Andes could cause the water supplies of billions to dwindle within decades.

In light of the various horrors climate catastrophe could visit upon us, McKibben suggests that humanity recognize limits to what Max Horkheimer terms its seemingly “boundless imperialism” — as Meadows et al. have emphasized since the publication of Limits to Growth in 1972— and jettison “the consumer lifestyle” altogether, instead adopting a “Plan B” characterized by the sharing of resources between Northern and Southern societies within the context of a joint effort to thoroughly re-arrange global society on rational-ecological grounds.

McKibben here re-affirms the goal of attaining an atmospheric carbon-concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm), noting that carbon-concentrations higher than 350 ppm jeopardize the capabilities of human society to function. Toward this end he endorses what he calls a “clean-tech Apollo mission” and an “ecological New Deal,” arguing that such thoroughgoing changes be accompanied by a return to small-scale organic agriculture on the part of humanity generally conceived. This final recommendation, it should be said, is not terribly different from those made by Via Campesina.

Despite the critical and important perspectives made by McKibben in Eaarth, in the end much of his argument offers little more than platitudes that reinforce existing power-arrangements.

McKibben blames the regression to Eaarth and for future catastrophes on “modernity,” which he defines as “the sudden availability” of “cheap fossil fuel” in the eighteenth century CE. There is no recognition at any point in the work, of the processes which resulted in the onset of the capitalist mode of production during this period of human history, and there is no critique of the highly destructive nature of capitalism in general.

It should not be surprising, then, that his present recommendations do not include a call for the abolition of capitalist social relations.

Furthermore, he rather bizarrely seems, against all evidence, to view the current U.S. president as some sort of messianic figure worthy of devotion, claiming Obama to be “a president using centralized power to good ends” who is working “aggressively” toward the creation of a global climate-change accord.

Such highly irrational views, of course, are typical of liberal environmentalists. By presenting the accession of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1981 as the onset of a markedly irresponsible socio-environmental regime — one he would have us believe as being dramatically different from that overseen by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter— McKibben once again betrays his ties to hegemonic politics.

Unsurprisingly, he also endorses the imperial scheme presently being considered to erect vast solar plants in North Africa for use by European consumers and seems to support the maintenance of existing dams and the building of new ones for the development of “clean” hydropower.

McKibben presents these reactionary perspectives while attributing responsibility for the current socio-environmental predicament to an amorphous ‘we’-as though the impoverished, the young, and other excluded groups have had any sort of choice on climate policy, let alone the course of history.

This contrasts significantly with views advanced by Chomsky, who in June 2009 suggested a thought-experiment by which North-Americans 50 years ago were to have been given the choice of directing resources either toward the development of “iPods and the internet” or instead the creation of “a livable and sustainable socioeconomic order”— a false choice, as Chomsky points out, for no such offer has ever been made.

Indeed, McKibben’s assertion of a vague collective responsibility has more in common with comments made in March 2010 by world-renown Earth scientist James Lovelock, who then alarmingly claimed humanity not yet to have “evolved” to the point at which it is “clever enough” to deal with climate change. That McKibben claims at one point in Eaarth that “[w]e don’t pay much attention to poor people” should need little comment.

In words, McKibben recognizes the catastrophes we face, but his solutions — a return to small-scale agriculture coupled with a “green Manhattan project” — fall far short of the challenge. And even then, Eaarth includes little reflection on the terrifyingly repressive actions that capitalists and their defenders may well take to attempt to maintain their privileges in a climate-destabilized world, as Gwynne Dyer does in Climate Wars (2008).

McKibben fails even to systematically examine the alarming impacts climate change could have on future agricultural production-considerations that may well prove important for the viability of his ‘back to the land’ project!

Though Bill McKibben is no Walter Benjamin, we can perhaps hope that parts of Eaarth can help move humanity towards Benjamin’s concept of revolution— the “attempt by the passengers” on a metaphorical train “to activate the emergency brake” before it plunges into the abyss.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.

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