'Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet'

A family enjoying a respite with a retreating glacier in the distance. Life Outdoors/Shutterstock

Mother Earth is not happy; in fact, she’s so angry with what we’ve done to her green planet that she wants us to start calling this damaged orb “Eaarth.” OK, fine, Eaarth it is — a far less hospitable home than we’ve heretofore known.

Read the detailed and horrifying tally of global warming effects that make up the first part of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" by Bill McKibben (Times Books/Henry Holt, $24), and you’ll understand the urgent need for action. The tipping point, as established by such respected scientists as Dr. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we’ve long since soared past that.

McKibben is hardly the first environmental writer to note a planet in dangerous transition. I edited a book, "Feeling the Heat', on already extant global warming effects back in 2004. Hansen himself has just written one, "Storms of My Grandchildren" (Bloomsbury). But McKibben was the man for the job, because he knows how to make the grimmest news palatable, leavening with humor and seasoning with anecdote.

The author, an inveterate traveler with (like me) a much bigger carbon footprint than he’d like, goes to Tibet and is guided up a remote mountain where sits a glacier, intact through recorded history but now melting. “We were 100 miles from a school,” McKibben writes, “far from TV; no one in the village was literate. So out of curiosity I asked the young man: ‘Why is it melting?’ I don’t know what I expected — some story about angry gods? He looked at me as if I was visiting from the planet Moron. ‘Global warming,’ he said. ‘Too many factories.’ No confusion there. We hiked back to his hut and shook hands. I climbed into the Land Cruiser, which took me to the airplane. And so forth.”

I like a writer who understands the ironies inherent in a situation like that. It’s why I made it through this book in one sitting and — I’m sorry Dr. Hansen — didn’t finish "The Storms of My Grandchildren". Like many global warming books, the latter one is set in the cozy scientific world of conferences and academic papers, and despite the author’s best efforts to humanize the story, is a tough slog.

McKibben synthesizes the papers and summarizes the conferences. In the first half of "Eaarth" he gives us the best short analysis so far available of our planetary predicament.

But it’s precisely because the first half does such a masterful job of convincing us that the planet is in crisis — the number one problem for us, not our grandchildren — that the second half is much less effective.

McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, and he loves his locally focused adopted state. In fact, he sees it as a role model for surviving on Eaarth. With just 621,000 people, sane politicians, a relatively high education level, plenty of water and a farming base, it’s a manageable place — no wonder some people there want to secede from the union.

What McKibben finds in Vermont — diners that serve local food, community supported agriculture, composting, neighbors who actually act neighborly — is indeed commendable, I belong to a CSA, and fail at composting. But it seems inadequate as a solution to the mountainous challenges so clearly delineated in the opening chapters.

How do we sell the Vermont lifestyle to the billions of people living subsistence lives in environmentally stressed cities? As I wrote in E Magazine, quoting U.N. projections, people are moving away from the land, not back on to it.

The destination of choice is the world’s mega-cities, with populations over 10 million. Developing countries will absorb nearly all of the world’s population increases between today and 2030, when more than half of all Asians and Africans will live in urban areas. Latin America and the Caribbean will be 84 percent urban by then, says the U.N.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, “In 1950, fewer than 30 percent of the world's 2.5 billion inhabitants lived in urban regions. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world's estimated 10 billion inhabitants — or more than the number of people living today — will be part of massive urban networks.”

China is rapidly urbanizing, with as the New York Times put it, cities as big as New York sprouting up “almost overnight.” Just 3 percent of Chinese own cars now, but China has the world’s fastest growing auto population — sales there outstripped the U.S. last year. Imagine the climate impact if China motorized on a Western scale!

McKibben says without equivocation that we have to give up on fossil fuels, and that’s a great goal — fossil-fueled transportation, for instance, is 33.1 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. Going local cuts down on the absurd fact that apples travel thousands of miles before we eat them. But even Vermont’s local farmers still use gas-powered trucks to get their produce to the coop.

"Eaarth" should have a sequel, just as wonderfully written, that takes on the big picture, addressing not just a sustainable future for the Green Mountain State but one that also includes a way forward for those factory workers in Mumbai and Bangkok. Can we pry the SUV keys out of the hands of the Texas blue-collar worker who tows his boat on weekends, and divert those aspiring Chinese drivers into zero-emission electric cars? Can we shut down the belt of coal plants that powers the Midwest?

The COP-15 international climate talks were a dispiriting mess, but we have to try again. It’s a global problem, and it needs a global solution. Eaarth is the only planet we got.