“Eaarth”: The Same But Different

Hegel, in the words of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, says that a good portrayal looks more like the person who is portrayed than the person itself.  In other words, a good portrayal makes reality more what it already is.  Its goal, as Zizek points out, is to introduce a change that makes us “see better.”

Bill McKibben’s latest book “Eaarth” is a work of non-fiction about global warming that attempts, with limited success, to help its readers see better what is happening to the planet.

The paperback edition was published in March, at a time when the environmental community is arguably losing ground in the ongoing public “debate” about global warming.  In fact, congress recently voted to eliminate funding to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international scientific body on climate change.

McKibben’s strength as a writer is his ability to convey technical scientific information in an informal, yet scientifically accurate way.  Indeed, he has been doing this for over two decades.  In 1989, he wrote “The End of Nature”, the first book on global warming for a general audience.

Whereas “The End of Nature” was a philosophical argument about the dangers of global warming, “Eaarth” is an account of the profound changes that have already happened.  McKibben explains that global warming is a “huge experiment.”  For ten thousand years, the Earth’s stable climate has enabled human civilization to evolve and reach unprecedented levels of wealth.  During those years, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 275 parts per million.  In 2007, NASA scientist Jim Hansen gave a short talk explaining that beyond 350 parts per million, the Earth’s climate system would no longer be within a historically stable state.

We are currently close to 400 parts per million, which leads McKibben to suggest that we no longer live on the same planet on which civilization evolved.  He calls the new planet “Eaarth” because it resembles the planet we know, but behaves in a fundamentally different way.  It’s a risky tactic, and one that ultimately falls flat as technique for helping readers “see better.”

To be sure, the book succeeds in presenting strong evidence that the planet really has changed in profound ways.  A considerable amount of the book explains why we’re not going to get back to the planet we used to have.  Humans, McKibben says, have been responsible for the “sudden surge in greenhouse gases and hence global temperatures, but that’s starting to change, as the heat we’ve caused has started to trigger a series of ominous feedback effects.”

McKibben relies on numerous statistics and anecdotes to describe the individual problems we have created by burning fossil fuels.  Yet, he seems ambivalent about presenting his argument in this form.  “The trouble with this endless collection of anecdotes,” he writes in one of many self-reflective moments, “ is that it misses the essential flavor of the new world we’re constructing.”  He would prefer his readers appreciate that we’ve changed the fundamental dynamics of the world in which we live, and we’re now dealing with a “spooky, erratic climate.”

After presenting the state of the planet, “Eaarth” does not propose ways of “solving” global warming. Rather, it suggests how we “might aim for a relatively graceful decline” in the years to come.

A considerable problem with McKibben’s rename-the-planet strategy is that this book preaches to the choir. When McKibben implores his readers to imagine we live on a different planet, or cites examples of people who have already started to live differently, it is unclear to whom he is directing his message. McKibben dedicates the book to his colleagues, and they seem to be his intended audience.  But the people who really need to read this book are our public leaders – the ones who won’t fund research on climate change.  It is hard to imagine they will take this type of messaging seriously.

McKibben understands that people do not change their behavior based on facts alone – even though Eaarth is full of facts.  He understands the need to bring coherence and urgency to the public conversation about global warming.  To that end, suggesting we rename our planet to reflect its changed nature reinforces that fundamentally new processes now govern our climate.  Nevertheless, the strategy feels contrived.  It lends an element of corniness to the title, and to the tactic, and is unlikely to expand the circle of people willing to engage with the important scientific information “Eaarth” otherwise eloquently communicates.

Photography from: icicp.com

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