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350 Degrees of Inseparability

The good news about the very bad news (about climate change.)

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 11:55 AM PDT

V for Viable

The early part of Eaarth offers the grim news about the way one species, ours, remade our world—so radically that it has become a turbulent, surprisingly inhospitable new planet.  And here's the bad news: no matter what we do, it will continue to get worse, at least for a while, though how much worse depends on whether we act.

Fortunately, the second half of McKibben's book offers a kind of redemption and a lot to do, and so gives the book the shape of a "V," if not for victory, then for viability: you tumble into the pit of bad news, then clamber up the narrative of possibility—of what our responses should look like, could look like, must look like. This is where this particular book diverges from the mountains of recent publications on the facts around climate change: if the first half is a science jeremiad, the second half is a very practical handbook.

My friend Patrick Reinsborough of the Smart Meme Project likes to talk about the "battle of the story, rather than the story of the battle," of the need for activists to pay attention to narratives, because at least half of any battle turns out to be over just what the story is, and who gets to tell it. If we're ever going to get much of anything done about climate change we're going to have to change the story—not the scientific story about parts per million of carbon, and black soot, and methane in the atmosphere, which we need to find ways to broadcast over the white noise of corporate-funded climate denial, but the story of what we might want to do about it.

Right now, the story that everyone tends to tell, no matter what their political positions on climate change, is about renunciation: we'll have to give up cars, big houses, air travel, all our toys and pleasures. It's a story where we get poorer. No one but saints and ascetics likes giving things up. What's exhilarating about Eaarth is that McKibben has a surprisingly different tale to tell.  His version of the solution would make most of us richer—even if not in the ways we are presently accustomed to counting as wealth.

His vision is kind of delicious, at least if you like participatory democracy, local power, community, real security, and good food. Okay, it requires renunciation—but of things a lot of us would love to give up, including the whole alienated mode in which both power and production are centralized in remote and politically inaccessible sites—from food produced overseas to decisions made in furtive board meetings of multinational corporations. These things are awful for a lot of reasons, but the salient one is that they're part of the carbon-intensive conventional economy. So they have to go.

Eaarth is actually an exceedingly polite, understated cry for revolution, but one that makes it clear how differently we need to do a whole lot of basic things. If it's all about how you tell the story, then McKibben tells one that hasn't, until now, been associated with climate change, one in which life, in ways that really matter, gets better. And it's a winner, maybe even a game-changer.

Cheap Is the New Expensive

Another writer, David Kirby, was on my local radio station, KALW, the other day talking about his book, Animal Factory, and making the case that cheap meat is actually very expensive—if you count the impact on human health and the environment. Swine flu, which killed tens of thousands, sickened millions around the globe, and cost us a lot in terms of vaccines and treatments, likely evolved on one of the giant animal concentration units that pass for farms nowadays, and so host antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as concentrations of pollution from animal waste that harm hundreds of thousands or millions directly.  "Should the multibillion [dollar] cost of swine flu be factored into the cost of every pork chop sold?" he asks, and adds, "And if so, what would that come out to, per pound?"

In the same way, the American way of life—often portrayed as a pinnacle of affluence—is in many ways deeply impoverished. We're not poor in material goods, from new houses to hamburgers, though their quality is often dubious, and the wealthiest country the world has ever seen produces surprising amounts of hunger, poverty, and homelessness through the misdistribution of that wealth.

Even for the affluent, everyday American life is often remarkably impoverished, if measured in terms of free time, social connectedness, political engagement, meaningful work, or other things harder to calibrate than the horsepower of your engine or the square feet of your McMansion. And this way of living produces the carbon that is replacing the planet we evolved on with McKibben's Eaarth—about as high a price as we could pay, short of extinction.

Cheap oil requires our insanely expensive military whose annual budget amounts to nearly as much as the rest of the world's militaries put together, a crazy foreign policy, and in the past decade, a lot of death in the Middle East. It also pushes along the destruction of nearly everything via climate-change, a cost so terrible that the word "unaffordable" doesn't begin to describe it."Unimaginable" might, except that the point of all the data and data projections is to imagine it clearly enough so that we react to it.

McKibben's vision of a world in which we might survive and even lead decent lives features decentralized food and energy production. Farewell, mega-corporations! (though, unlike me, he's pretty polite about their influence on our society and the environment).His suggested mode of doing things—a vision of an alternative to capitalism as we know it—could be flexible, adapted to the peculiarities of regions, and low-carbon or carbon-neutral, unlike the systems on which we now rely. It would also require people to become more involved in local economies, ecologies, and policies, which is the scale at which viable adaptation seems likely to work best. (This is ground he covered in his 2007 book Deep Economy.)

His is, in fact, a vision of the good life that a host of flourishing institutions like farmers' markets and community-assisted agriculture, organic farming, and small-scale farms are already embracing. In many ways, the solutions to our crisis are under development all around us, if only we'd care to notice.  

They are here in our world in bits and pieces, as well as in parts of the so-called underdeveloped world that someday may turn out to be the sustainably developed world. They need, however, to be implemented on a grand scale—not by scaling them up, because their smallness is their beauty and efficiency, but by multiplying them until they become the norm. If they require losing what we have, they promise to recover what we've lost.

(Not So) Titanic

McKibben ends his book by marshaling a host of statistics and stories about just how this kind of agriculture works, now, around the world, and ways, in the future, alternative energies could be similarly innovative and effective. So, of course, could a commitment to energy efficiency. The first changes we could make, starting tomorrow, undoubtedly involve reengineering everything from buildings to transit in the name of energy efficiency.  

I live in a state that decided to implement such efficiency measures after the oil crisis of the 1970s.  As a result, the average Californian now uses about half as much energy as the average American, not out of saintliness, but out of sophistication. We need to reduce our energy consumption by a huge percentage, but McKibben points out we could achieve the first 20% of the necessary reduction through efficiency alone, which is a painless step. I can testify that it doesn't feel like renouncing anything to live in better-built structures with better-designed machines.

To survive, McKibben suggests, we'll also need a lot of flexible, responsive institutions that aren't too big to fail or too big to adapt to the coming climate chaos. Describing a little inner-city savings and loan in Los Angeles, he writes:

There's nothing that Broadway Federal could do to trigger a recession, and that's the other advantage of smallness: mistakes are mistakes, not crises, until they're interconnected into a massive system. Many small things breed a kind of stability; a few big things endanger it—better the Fortune 500,000 than the Fortune 500 (unless you want to be an eight-figure CEO).

A lot of people don't even want to take in the reality of climate change, let alone do anything about it, because it seems so overwhelming. Eaarth's most significant strength lies in the way it breaks our potential response to climate change's enormity down into actions and possible changes that not only seem viable and graspable, but alluring. One of the most interesting phenomena of the Bush era was the way addressing climate change here in the United States devolved to the level of states, regions, and cities—the U.S. Council of Mayors got behind doing something for the environment (and us) at a time when the federal government was intent only on making the world safe for oil barons.  It was in this same period that the state of California set emissions standards for vehicles that the Obama administration has now adapted.

But that administration isn't doing nearly what's required either. Last year, speaking of the economy, Barack Obama said: "Look back four years from now, I think, hopefully, people will judge [our] body of work and say, 'This is a big ocean liner, it's not a speedboat. It doesn't turn around immediately.'"

It's an unfortunate thing to say, since the most familiar image of ocean liners in popular culture involves a calamitous meeting with an iceberg 98 years ago. If we were imagining climate change as a movie, our ship of state would still ram the iceberg, but this time the passengers would have debarked ahead of time.

If the ship of state can't turn in time to avert catastrophe, it's time to jump ship and put ourselves into small, mobile lifeboats, canoes, outriggers, and kayaks. The age of the giants is over; the future belongs to the small fry. If we want to have a future, that is. It's really your choice because, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you're also starring in this movie.

Rebecca Solnit, author most recently of A Paradise Built in Hell, is a good person with solar panels and a bad person with lots of work-related frequent-flyer miles, as well as a regular contributor and a great believer in non-electoral politics and direct action in the street. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Solnit discusses what hope can do in the worst of circumstances click here or, if you prefer to download it to your iPod, here.

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