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 f