Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2019
Book Cover Photo: Harry Strharsky
Bill McKibben is a founder of 350.org, the worldwide grassroots movement to fight climate change. He is a renowned environmentalist and also an accomplished author of 18 books written over the past three decades. A few of his books like “Eaarth” and “The End of Nature” have become best-sellers. It is about time I read one of them.
“Falter” is his most recent effort published last year. In the first part of the book, McKibben carefully paints a picture of the most significant, self-inflicted existential threats facing our species. Not only have we created a civilization and an environment at risk of destruction by nuclear war, but because of our increasing release of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries, we have bolstered many other deadly consequences related to climate change.
We all know the litany: melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, global water and air warming, surface heating, increased droughts and violent storms, megafires and super-floods, animal and plant extinctions, food scarcity, climate change refugees, etc. Although we have all been exposed to these dangers through writings numerous times before, McKibben’s treatment is peppered with engaging new examples written in a frightening, though conversational, and easy-to-read style.
“…above the Arctic Circle, in Siberia, a heat wave thawed a reindeer carcass that had been trapped in the permafrost. The exposed body released anthrax into nearby water and soil, infecting two thousand reindeer grazing nearby, and they in turn infected some humans; a twelve-year-old boy died. As it turns out, permafrost is a ‘very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark’ – scientists have managed to revive an eight-million-year-old bacterium they found beneath the surface of a glacier. Researchers believe there are fragments of the Spanish flu virus, smallpox, and bubonic plague buried in Siberia and Alaska.” That’s not exactly the kind of uplifting story you want to hear after being quarantined for many months because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s even this: if we keep raising carbon dioxide levels, we may not be able to think straight anymore. At a thousand parts per million (which is in the realm of possibility for 2100), human cognitive ability falls 21 percent ‘The largest effects were seen for Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy,’ a Harvard study reported, which is too bad, as those skills are what we seem to need most.”
McKibben founded 350.org with the hopes of holding carbon dioxide levels down to 350 parts per million—the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. On October 12, 2020 daily C02 levels were at 410.89 ppm and climbing.
Our language to describe the world around us has gained a new vocabulary to describe weather conditions in the past few years. We have all come to know “polar vortex” and “fire tornado” and “haboob” and “derecho.” This year (2020) in Northern Colorado we have been introduced to the “smokeado,” where you arise in the morning to see black ash drifts in your driveway from near-by mountain forest fires exploding overnight to hundreds of thousands of burnt acres.
Before one navigates just the first few chapters, it comes quickly to mind that McKibben has already answered his own question in this book’s subtitle in the affirmative.
Part Two of the book sort of veers off the rails, not itemizing alternative strategies for dealing with climate change or reasons why efforts so far to mitigate it have been so weak and paltry, but rather, a scatter shot elaboration of popular but disjointed diversions and preoccupations that don’t address the problem at all.
First is the long history of Exxon’s knowing obfuscations and denials, then a denunciation of the current levels of poverty and inequality, followed by the widespread government and individual embrace of the libertarian political philosophy of the novelist Ayn Rand. “Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft. You’re not the boss of me.” In a truly individualist society, society itself and the “common good” does not exist. “Altruism” is anathema.
Then comes a chapter on the Koch brothers, Robert Mercer, the election of Donald Trump and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. By the time one is half-way through reading this book and you stumble upon a discussion of “leverage,” there is no reorientation and by now you may find your head spinning.
But rather than circling back and providing some direction for action to take to slow down and reverse the escalating effects of climate change, McKibben takes another turn to discuss the frightening consequences of Silicon Valley’s unrestrained plunge into artificial intelligence (AI, robotics) and genetic engineering outlining the dangers of producing designer babies.
If you are not yet overwhelmed with the task of arresting the relentless march of the climate crisis, how about taking some responsibility for the excesses of modern technology? These advances in modern science, by the way, are guaranteed to widen the inequality gap in society. After several generations of the creation of a new gene-rich class of humans, who will control “all aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry,” ‘Naturals’ will work as low-paid service providers or laborers.” Prepare now for an occupation change and seek to secure a service job not easily robotized, like, for instance, personal assistant, life coach, physical trainer or sex worker.
After the libertarians have reduced government to the point of no need for taxes, we can all turn our attention to defeating death. In our quest for immortality, should we fully embrace cryogenics by putting our whole bodies on ice or should we simply go for the “neuro option,” sawing off and preserving our heads to be fused to some new bodily creation in the future?
By now, so exhausted examining all the existential threats to our future lives, I am ready to reach out and grasp for a simple answer for self and species preservation. Turns out that in Part Four of the book there is still an outside chance that “the human game” can still endure. It is not too late, yet. “Let’s be, for a while, true optimists, and operate on the assumption that human beings are not grossly defective (so we don’t need to modify our genes to turn from selfishness to altruism). Let’s assume we’re capable of acting together to do remarkable things.”
To reverse course and achieve these “remarkable things,” McKibben encourages the use of two tools. The first is the “miracle” of solar power, captured in solar panel technology. For a long time now, environmentalists have been educating the world for the need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy to cut off the flood of carbon into the atmosphere. McKibben steps ahead to explain how the solar panel can really change lives by taking a dive into several communities in rural Africa. He finds that solar power can be a technology of “repair,” both social and environmental. As it helps repair the atmosphere above us, it can also reduce the social inequality among us that grows from the few who control world gas and oil deposits.
Photo: Gustavo Fring from Pexels
The second tool McKibben offers as a “practical hope” is nonviolence. It is the job of nonviolent movements to build the political will “to deploy renewable energy fast enough.” And so nonviolence works hand-in-hand with solar panels.
“When I say ‘nonviolence,’ I do not mean only, or even mainly, the dramatic acts of civil disobedience that end in jail or a beating. I mean the full sweep of organizing aimed at building mass movements whose goal is to change the zeitgeist, and, hence, the course of history.” He gives the example of the demonstrations that built the U.S. movement following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the first Earth Day in 1970. So many people in the street upset the balance of power for a few years so that major corporations lost one battle after another and Richard Nixon had little choice but to sign the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
McKibben is further encouraged today by widespread political action sending thousands in the street to fight the Keystone pipeline, to ban fracking in many countries in Europe, and Greta Thunberg’s inspired worldwide “school strikes.”
Photo: Life Matters from Pexels
There is still an “outside chance” to save the human species from our own willful acts of self-destruction because, “people, alone among creatures, can decide to put limits on themselves.” “We can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it… But we can also not do that.” Enough time, ever diminishing, yet remains for us to make the choice so the “human game” can continue.