Bill McKibben Told Me So
Eleven years ago, an editor at The New York Times Book Review sent me a book by the author and climate activist Bill McKibben. Though I’m a dedicated freelancer, I write a fair bit for different sections of The Times and whenever The Gray Lady gives me an assignment, I have the habit of assuming a Times-ian, omniscient voice. In the case of this McKibben book, a book titled Eaarth, I poked fun at the title, quibbled with the unlikely possibility of realizing the lifestyle changes the author suggested and lamented that the only thing that could make us truly change our ways would be a kind of “environmental Lenin” beating us into behavioral submission.
That Lenin has yet to arrive. But Eaarth has. A hot, chaotic, difficult planet that is now our home.
Nearly every major headline in the IPCC report released this week was forecast in Eaarth. What follows is my view of Eaarth, back then, when we still had a fighting chance to limit warming to below 2 degrees C.
There ought to be a word, probably in German, for a book that makes the reader boil over with life-changing eco-enthusiasm only to find himself, a month later, reverting to his old Hummer-driving, planet-destroying ways. An informal survey of Germanists has failed to come up with anything. But Bill McKibben has found a planet where such books sell well. It is a world where environmental news goes from bad to worse, a place where ice caps vanish, crops fail, oceans acidify, activists rally and an oil company makes more money in three years “than any company in the history of money.” The place McKibben has discovered is an unpronounceable land called Eaarth. Where is Eaarth, you may ask? Unfortunately, you’re soaking in it.
“Eaarth” is the name McKibben has decided to assign both to his new book and to the planet formerly known as Earth. His point is a fresh one that brings the reader uncomfortably close to climate change. Earth with one “a,” according to McKibben, no longer exists. We have carbonized it out of existence. Two-a Eaarth is now our home. On two-a Eaarth, we are way past the bearable threshold — 350 parts per million — for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and well down the road to a devastating 650 parts per million. Our planet’s vital signs are already…