Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Where solar helps, but isn’t enough to turn things around on its own

bill-mckibben-quoteJust finished reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet.

For those who don’t know him, McKibben’s a long-time environmental activist, writer and journalist who’s written a number of books about the environment, including the groundbreaking The End of Nature, which more than two decades ago warned the world of the perils of global warming. He’s also been published in major news media outlets, from The New York Times and The New Yorker to National Geographic and Harpers.

In addition, McKibben is the founder of the increasingly influential global activist group, which is dedicated to waking humanity up to the realities of global warming and our part in creating this rapidly unfolding environmental crisis.

Eaarth is a sobering assessment of the current state of environmental affairs on the Big Blue Planet, which, because it has been so radically altered already, according to McKibben, must henceforth be known as Eaarth with two As rather than one.

Global warming is here now
As McKibben puts it early in the book, “Forget the grandkids; it turns out this [global warming] was a problem for our parents.

At the risk of oversimplifying 200-plus pages, all of them wonderfully written and jam-packed with well-documented and eye-opening statistics, here are McKibben’s primary points:

  • Global warming and its negative consequences are already here.
  • Our current way of life is unsustainable.
  • The modern economic growth paradigm must be altered and pared down.
  • The big, global, top-down model of production and distribution – of energy, of food, of consumable products, etc. – has to be downsized and localized.
  • There is still hope.

Local, distributed energy
Renewable energy forms, including solar, do get significant play in Eaarth. And McKibben – who has solar panels on his Vermont home — is all for more renewables, especially if they are deployed primarily on the local and community level, meaning, for instance, in the form of rooftop solar and local wind and geothermal.

eaarth-200In fact, McKibben takes a couple of shots at big electric utilities who he says are fighting to prevent the democratization and localization of power production through rooftop solar and other forms of distributed forms of energy.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when McKibben cites a quote from a utility professional which clearly illustrates Big Power’s antipathy to local, distributed energy forms such as rooftop solar.

Here’s the quote, from Ed Legge, of the Edison Electric Institute, one of the biggest national players on the utility scene, which states, in pretty naked fashion, Big Utilities’ opposition to local, community power generation:

“We’re probably not going to be in favor of anything that shrinks our business. All investor-owned utilities are built on the central-generation model that Thomas Edison came up with. You have a big power plant … distributed generation is taking that out the picture – it’s local.”

It’s a great moment in a book dedicated to the idea that local is the way to go, especially on power and food, though not quite so much on large consumer items such as computers, etc. McKibben is a realist: He acknowledges that not everything can be made locally anymore.

Eaarth has hope
Eaarth is definitely a worthwhile read – especially if hard data supporting the reality of global warming is one of your gigs (it’s definitely one of mine).

bill mckibben

I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the challenge; I think the system has met its match.
–Bill McKibben, Author and Environmentalist

If you’re worried Eaarth will be too dark and pessimistic with only dire proclamations of the inevitable end of global humanity, you might want to reconsider.

McKibben does serve up some pretty disturbing data and analysis. Perhaps the most unsettling reflections revolve around the way in which global warming is creating a snowball effect that essentially ensures it will continue to feed itself, for instance, by way of the release of vast amounts of methane trapped in frozen tundra which will almost surely melt as the earth warms, thus speeding up the warming process – and releasing more methane.

But Eaarth is not all gloom and doom. The final third of the book is devoted to highlighting efforts underway to do what McKibben says we need to do to ensure that our fall from the precarious place we’ve put ourselves in with our fossil fuel + overconsumption + big-is-better approach isn’t so traumatic as it might otherwise be.

350 ppm CO2
True, there is no going back and it’s pretty clear that it will take a long time for the world to push CO2 levels below the 350 ppm threshold experts now believe is the maximum level allowable for the earth to maintain its current climate conditions (we’re already at 388+ ppm and climbing). However, McKibben gives us hope that we can come somewhere close to treading water on climate change – if we truly commit ourselves on a global social scale to local, pared down living.

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“We’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created,” he writes. “We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed. ”

Getting smaller, more local and, most of all, getting enough people to see the inherent flaws of the endless growth paradigm are not easy tasks. But as difficult as these seem, the alternative – doing nothing – makes the arduous work of waking the world up to the consequences of our actions worthwhile.

Certainly, McKibben thinks so: He’s dedicated most of his adult life to doing just that.

[Photo Credits: BillMcKibben.Com and Wikipedia]

Sobering facts & quotes from Eaarth


  • The arctic ice cap is melting, the great Greenland glacier is thinning at rapid rates, the oceans are more acid, are warmer and levels are rising, inland glaciers in the Andes, Himalayas and the giant snowpack of American West are melting fast, threatening billions’ water supply, the Amazon rainforest is drying on its margins and is threatened at its core, the great boreal forest of North America is dying, and global oil reserves are half empty à And “every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization.”


  • In Oct. 2009, the journal Science offered new evidence of what the earth was like 20 million years ago, the last time we had carbon levels this high: At that time, sea levels rose 100 feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as 10 degrees.


  • Oil companies made two-thirds of a trillion dollars in profit during the Bush years, but in 2008, invested just four percent of their winnings in renewable and alternative energy.
  • America’s largest coal plant, Scherer Plant operated by Southern Company in Lamar County Georgia needs three full coal trains a day to keep it supplied. Each train is two miles long.


  • “I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match.”


  • We should have started 20 years ago, but we didn’t “precisely because it would have interfered with economic growth. And now – well, now we’re in the middle of the trouble … The waves are already breaking over the levee; the methane is already seeping out of the permafrost; the oil wells are already coming up dry. It’s going to be a little bit late.”


  • “If you took every government pledge made during the Copenhagen conference and added it altogether, the world in 2100 would have more than 725 parts per million carbon dioxide, or slightly double what scientists now believe is the maximum safe level of 350.”


  • “We’re moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back – and with far more power.”


  • We need a Plan B where the North decides to share with the global South and in return the South agrees to develop on a different, cleaner, path.
  • We need an economic system based on a workhorse model, rather than a racehorse model.
  • “Scale matters, and at the moment ours is out of whack with our needs . . . Our key projects are local now; that needs to be our focus.”

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