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This article is from the In-Depth Report Earth Day at 40: New Perspectives on the Planet's Health
Science Talk

Bill McKibben's Eaarth, Part 1

Writer and activist Bill McKibben talks to Scientific American's Mark Fischetti about his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet Part 1 of 2. Edited and produced by podcast host Steve Mirsky

Writer and activist Bill McKibben talks to Scientific American's Mark Fischetti about his new book Eaarth: Making A Life on a Tough New Planet. Part 1 of 2. Edited and produced by podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured).  

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to the special edition of Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on April 21st, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast...

McKibben: …The growth experiment worked really well for some people for a long time, and now it isn't working well, now it's bumped up against its limits.

Steve:          That's writer Bill McKibben the scholar in residence at Vermont's Middlebury College. He's also the founder of 350.org, an international climate campaign. McKibben's first book was the 1989 best seller, The End of Nature. It was the first book for [a] general audience about climate change. He has written numerous books since the latest of which is called, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. In it he argues that relentless growth is fundamentally altering the environment and our ability to live in it, and that maintenance of wealth and resources instead of expansion must be society's new driver. He spells Earth E-A-A-R-T-H to point out of the fact that the Earth today is a very different place from the one on which he was born. The April issue of Scientific American includes an exclusive excerpt from the book and Scientific American's Mark Fischetti recently visited McKibben at his solar-powered home in Ripton, Vermont. They talked for little over an hour, a conversation we've broken in to two parts. Here's part 1.

Fischetti:          So chapter 1 to me seems like it's basically saying, "Hey, we have heavily altered the earth; it no longer works the way it used to. We've still [got to] try to reduce [atmospheric] carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million to prevent worse damage, but we've [got] to accept [that] we are on a fundamentally different planet.

McKibben: That's right—that without knowing it, we've, sort of, taken a voyage and landed on a planet that's superficially and in certain [ways] similar to the one we grew up on, but in certain other ways quite different. And different enough that it's going to require us to change the way we think and the way we act. And for me, it was, you know, having written the first book about climate change 20 years ago, it was, at that time, this was a theoretical proposition. And the damage that I was talking about then was as much philosophical as anything else to our idea of the natural world and whatever. And 20 years ago, we would not have thought that this would happen this quickly. People underestimated how finely balanced the planet's physical systems were. But it turned out that they were finely balanced indeed, and so we've begun to see this really quite staggering changes. And I think very few people have come yet to grips with that but the perception still is that this is a future issue, a threat that we're heading off something, as I say in the book, for our grandchildren to deal with. But it's not. Today [there's] an almost science fiction cast [to it]. I really wanted people to understand this. Really that's the point I was trying to make: that we were born onto a different planet than the one we now we live on. It's not entirely different. You know, gravity still applies; it's still mostly ocean and whatever, but fundamental things like the way the seasons progress, how much rain falls; where, you know, the meteorologists have said recently that they think that the meteorological tropics have expanded about 2 degrees north and 2 degrees south.

Fischetti:          Yeah, right.

McKibben: And that's pretty powerful, you know especially since it shifts the dry subtropics ahead of it; that's [the] reason that Australia is turning into, you know, one large fire zone. You know, this is a very, very different world.

Fischetti:          So chapter 2 then basically moves ahead to say that the new Earth or the alter[ed] Earth could no longer support the economic or population growth that's [driven] society at least in the last 200 years.

McKibben:  Yeah.

Fischetti:          And that history shows that over time this kind of overgrowth causes societies to collapse. And people [are] saying, "You've to grow the economy to get out of the situation, [but] the planet [no longer] has the…

McKibben: The spare capacity….

Fischetti:          …capacity right, to support that.

McKibben: Or the spare money at this point. Systems always try to react to problems in the way that they are used to reacting to things. Our systems' huge bias to address every problem as one that can be addressed by growing the size of things more, which is why we instantly start talking about building, you know, endless huge, green transmission corridors, and, you know on and on and on—smart houses. All of which is very sensible in [some] sense. I just, my analysis is that we are unlikely to come up with the wherewithal to do that in the time that we have. Certainly we're not going to do it in time to prevent big changes—[they're] already happening. But whether we can even do it in time to prevent, sort of, catastrophic-level changes is, I think, very, very questionable, in fact highly unlikely. And I think a more likely analysis is that we've hit those limits to growth that people started talking about in the 1970s and [that] for a while it seemed to have been, you know, I have already said, "Oh, limits to growth; [there] are no limits; morning in America; Paul Ehrlich is an idiot." You know, on and on and on and on it; but we're clearly running up into them now in powerful ways, the amount of food per capita, grain per capita, grown on the planet has been shrinking steadily; catch of fish around the world has been declining steadily; there are more higher number [and] percentage of people [who are] hungry now than there were a few years ago, so on and so forth. And so one [of the] points I wanted to make is that is if we're already starting to run into limits that those are going to be seriously exacerbated by the problems that we're now encountering with the shifts in weather and with the advent of peak oil. So you know we think that our technological challenge is going to be building, you know, transmission corridors hither and [yon] and huge green power things to supply [them] and whatever you know. Close to home our technological challenge is figuring out how we're going to keep our road that you just drove up from washing completely away, you know, the next time we've one of those record rainstorms. [Our] one link to New York across Lake Champlain at Ground Point Bridge is now closed forever because it's been allowed to rot after 80 years, you know on and on and on. Everything that we're talking about is infrastructure, one way or another, and it's not as simple as just let's build some more new green kind.

Fischetti:          So [the] third chapter makes that point really that [trend] has always been towards bigger world for the last 200 years.

McKibben: Yep.

Fischetti:          For the last 200 years the [trend has always been] towards bigger centralized economies, and there is no more room for bigger, as evidenced by the sort of shocking realization that are, we have more and more institutions that are "too big to fail". And it's not just banking but it's food, it's energy, and I think you sort of end there by saying it's not just the size but it's the complexities, [this] intertwining of all these monstrous institutions, companies, and then that probably is maybe more of a problem [than sheer size]

McKibben: Yeah, it could be and [they] are very interrelated because the thing that's allowed that complexity [and] that size is the access to endless amounts of cheap fossil fuel, which we no longer are going to have, a) because we're starting to run out, b) more powerfully because we can no longer safely burn it. And so I think that the logic, you know, the logic of fossil fuel was a centralizing one, it occurred in a few places, it was highly efficient to take it to other centers, easy to transport, you can take it some centralized place, and burn it in mass quantities, produce power that you then distributed widely. The logic of what comes next is very different; but that's a hard emotional logic, among other things, to get your head around. The United States in particular we're very used to the idea of bigness of measuring progress in those ways, you know, and right up through the interstate highway system, whatever it is. And even though we've kind of run out of big projects to work on it, [on some level], that's still where we naturally tend to go out. And for those of us who've had the privilege, or [the] accident of living in small places, we have something useful to add to this debate, and Vermont is a really interesting exception to a number of American [rules], including the fact that it takes seriously the idea that it's supposed to govern itself locally and so on.

Fischetti:          Right, so this works naturally into the last chapter, which is the [way to] untangle [this society is to] return to the distributed economy.

McKibben: Yeah, distribute a lot of things,

Fischetti:          Yeah.

McKibben: And that's the logic of renewable power above all else. It's diffuse, it's scattered,  you know. I've [got] solar panels out in the yard, there will be wind towers up on the ridge, you know. It's diffuse and so by its nature it lends itself to a more diffuse and scattered way of understanding the world. So does the food system, once you get away from growing food [in] oil which is our current preoccupation and one that isn't going to last much longer, the need for local production and control and whatever food has the same, and I was trying to argue at the end I think much the same thing is sort of happening with culture as well, that we have simultaneously this incredibly interesting global thing, the Internet and it's allowing you to live very locally and globally at the same time.

Fischetti:          So is that a fair [summation]?

McKibben: Very much. No I think [you] got it. I mean, I'm very interested in the global scale on the one hand, that's where I spend much of [my] time working, and on the local scale on the other and I think we're going to find out that those are the scales we need to work on and then many of the intermediary ones no longer make as much as sense as they used to.

Fischetti:          I do have various questions [but] since we started [talking] about the Internet and global culture…

McKibben: Yeah, yeah.

Fischetti:          I think the point there is that if people accept that you can create power locally, and we can [define what] local is well and through locally and that it sounds like you're saying that maybe the biggest or a big factor in resisting that notion is this being afraid that, hey my life is going to get too small.

McKibben: Too local.

Fischetti:          Too local.

McKibben: Absolutely.

Fischetti:          And so, but you know, you can have this relationship with the big, wide world.

McKibben: For a long time, you had to decide whether you're going to stay at home in your tight, local culture or whether you're going to go out into the world and make something of yourself that was how [we phrased] it, you know. And that's no longer [acute a] choice, you know. You can stay at home and be very tied into your local place and yet deeply, deeply connected to the rest of the world, and for me that's not at all an intellectual argument, that's the story of my last couple of years in my life. I mean, you know, me and seven 24-year-olds just organized the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history, with 5,200 rallies in 181 countries from every corner of the planet and, you know, we did it almost entirely through Skype, through, you know, our Web site, through making connections, you know. We did a certain amount of travel, too, but we organized it in such a way that all these things happen very locally and then we could take the unbelievable images that they produced and make them a global spectacle as indeed we did.

Fischetti:          If the vision of distributed—I [don't want to dwell on just] food and energy, although you talk about those most, uh, life? You can come up with [better terms than me.] [But] if that's the vision that has to catch on, now it's one thing to do [that in] Vermont, but to do it in New York City, you know, in New Jersey …

McKibben: I think it's in some ways much easier in cities than anyplace else and certainly around the world things like the urban agricultural movement and stuff are just booming. Cities, there's a lot of natural, easy human contact, you know, and it's really cool to see. You know, some cities are so built up that's it's a little difficult, but [even], you know, Shanghai produces something like half its own [fruit] and vegetables within the, you know, county limits. And you know, New York, you know, upstate New York or, you know, the counties to the north of New York are filled with abandoned ag-land, you know, [it's] quite possible to imagine this becoming a much more self-sufficient place than it is at the moment, because it was 100 years ago, when its population was just as large as it is now.

Fischetti:          Do you think the way that 350.org is spread and [works would] also succeed in trying to spread [this] vision [of distribution]?

McKibben: Well, it's not quite the same, because we're not, you know, we [wouldn't] try to, sort of, do a big political campaign around it, but it is the way that this, you know, the things like this locavore movement and local agriculture in general have spread very rapidly from local farmers' market[s] to the fastest growing part of the food economy in this country and have been for a decade now, they're just booming everywhere. And it's not because there's some central directorate [of] farmers' markets in Washington [that's telling] people to do it. If anything [the] opposite; everything Washington does makes it difficult to do on this stuff, but it's been people spreading ideas left and right, and it's been great. People do have a channel now to work around established institutions, and that's really important.

Fischetti:          The early [assertion] in the book about, I think it's being proved [out], [that] the earth really can't substantiate the resources that we're extracting from it or the waste that we're producing; and there's more studies that are coming out very recently even that are proving starting to put numbers on all of that, so the assertion is I think is that continued growth is not possible without greater resource consumption and [waste creation]. Is that true, first of all?

McKibben: Certainly as things are, as systems [are] set up at the moment. Now you can do things more efficiently and we should and everybody is trying to. But you know, I mean a classic example is looking say at the offer the Chinese made this week on how they're going to reduce the energy intensity of their GDP. We'll reduce it 40 percent by 2020, by 2020 everything we make we'll use 40 percent less energy per dollar or per yuan of value, okay; which is good, I mean, there's no argument to be made against them doing it, but their own economic projections indicate that their economy is going to grow so quickly that they'll be producing more CO2 instead of less at the end of that period. Clearly, we can to some degree or another break some of that absolute iron lock between more consumption and growth, but it's extremely difficult. I mean, it's the reason that Obama isn't willing to take on climate change in a really powerful way because, [everyone is saying] "Well, look at the damage it will do to the economy. The economy is in a rough place, we've got to get the economy back on its feet." At some level, the economy is more real to our, certainly to our policy makers than the physical world. You know we coddle it more, we sit there worrying more about it's, even the words—the economy, you know, [is] in a rough patch, it's ailing, you know, whatever. The inability to remember that the economy is a subset of something larger is a mark of [the modern] age, I'm afraid.

Fischetti:          Right, well some people would say that the tough [nut] in that is still trying to continue to solve basic human problems…

McKibben: Yep, it is the tough [nut].

Fischetti:          … poverty, hunger, disease, without growing.

McKibben: Absolutely. It is the tough [nut]. So here's the first thing you got to do is look realistically at what happens to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, if we keep doing what we're doing. And the answer is they get drowned, they get dengue fever, the fields on which they depend are either drought ridden or flooded. You take away, I mean, these are the people who in the immediate future have the most at risk from disintegration of ecological systems and are already feeling it in a deep way. As someone who's been to Bangladesh and gotten dengue fever, I can speak of that with a certain amount of firsthand sense. I didn't die, but [there were] a lot of people [dying] when I was there; it's a disease that's increased 200 percent across Asia and South America this decade. So that's the first thing: You don't do poor people any favor by further destabilizing the world. And even the, you know, those countries, their leaders are starting to realize this in a serious way. So then you have to ask what kind of world is, I think, all these questions is single most important thing you have to think about when you're answering them all is what is the impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable people on the planet? And so what is it that does work for poor and vulnerable people? I think the evidence is pretty clear that for instance, local, labor–intensive, low-input agriculture is the smartest option from much of the world, both in terms of providing jobs, security, stability and food, and in making those ecological systems robust enough to withstand the damage that's coming, that's already here.

Fischetti:          So then by helping poor peoples of the world to become more [self-sufficient]…

McKibben: Which means in energy terms, you know, lots and lot[s] of village-scale [solar]; and this is the kind of place where money, you know, and resources should be flowing very, very quickly and freely north to south. We screwed up the climate; it's our absolute responsibility to figure out how to allow poor people to have something approaching a decent life without burning all the coal that they've got. We've got to do that for more reasons and for very pragmatic one[s too].

Fischetti:          And the assumption there is that it's still going to be zero growth, I mean, it's balanced absolutely.

McKibben: Yeah, I mean, I don't sort of think about things in quite those terms. I'm much more interested in trajectories.

Fischetti:          That's what I was going to ask you. I mean, are you really calling for absolute zero growth?

McKibben: It's not sort of part of the analysis; it's like what do we find out, where do we move if we start moving in a different direction away from anticipating growth as [the] answer to things and start trying. And that's what good and hopeful: We don't know what happens, when we start trying to push on some of these other levers instead. So when you start thinking about localization of economies, when you start thinking about measuring things other than growth, as some countries have begun to do, try to measure satisfaction, [whatever.] Well you know that a lot of things change, but you don't exactly how, because it's not really an experiment [we've tried]. We've been so engrossed in the growth experiment that we've tried very little else. And the growth experiment worked really well for some people for a long time and now it isn't working well, now it's bumped up against its limits.

Fischetti:          So, you know, what's going to happen. These ideas are going to get boiled down and [people will] say, "Well there's no growth and that's bad, no growth is bad." So is it really smart growth or is it as you say more of just a philosophy?

McKibben: I'm more interested in, like as I say, in trajectory; in what happens if you start aiming in a different direction. And I don't know, whether I mean, my guess is that in sort of sheer, you know, sort of dollar value terms or whatever, you get less than you have at the moment. Economies measured in certain ways begin to shrink, but I think measured in other ways, things get much more robust and secure. You start having a food supply you can count on. You start having an energy supply you can count on and know that it isn't undermining everything else that you do. You start building—and this is very important—communities strong enough to count on. So your own individual collection of wealth becomes [less] important than the community in which you participate.

Fischetti:          Right.[You brought up] Paul Ehrlich [earlier]. His basic argument was population growth, mostly population growth, [mostly population growth and maybe rise in living standards too] will and outstrip the world's resources. [Lester Brown] more recently [he] has talked about [food scarcity causing] social collapse. But I [don't] think you['re] predicting those things but does this sound, in some way[s] similar.

McKibben:         I think they were less prophetic, Ehrlich and others, interesting [and] important, [but] less prophetic than the original MIT team that produced Limits to Growth. I went back and looked at that as I was doing this book, and everybody should, it's a quite remarkable document. You know it's computer calculations I mean it was the first sort of computerized attempt to forecast the future and, of course it's models are crude, and there's a fairly small number of variables, but they keep…

McKibben: Yeah, the M.I.T. Limits to Growth, by William Behrens, Donella Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers. They picked incredibly good proxies, almost you know with a great deal of [prescience]. The proxy they picked for environmental degradation is CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, even though in 1971 no one was paying any attention to CO2. But it was just something, they [weren't] able to say exactly why or what we were going to run out off or what we were going to produce too much of but they were able to make a pretty compelling case that this was the inevitable consequence of a kind of exponential growth world. And much more than population, which proved to be pretty [elastic], you know; fertility rates—and some small part of this is due to Paul Ehrlich's work—dropped immensely. People started figuring out that if you educated women and gave them, empowered them, then fertility rates would change dramatically. We never did figure out what would change consumption rates because we didn't want to. [The whole] point was to consume more, and hence they've gone on a straight-ahead rocket [ride] up for 50 years or 40 years since Limits to Growth [came out]. And we are now, you know, now we are seeing what happen[s]. So they couldn't ' have predicted exactly what the set of events was going to be, that would, because we didn't know about climate change at least  [in the way] we know it now. But their timeframe was about right.

Fischetti:          Another historic, kind of, angle on this might be, well in the '70s [during the] so-called first energy crisis, E. F. Schumacher published this book Small is Beautiful, [which basically said, "big is bad" and I think it was mainly pitched against industry more than anything else.] But, part of the point was that to be sustainable you could still have a big organization as long as it was [done] in a way that was a bunch of small related organization. And I think [when] people hear "local energy, local food", they're thinking really, [in their town] more or less. But maybe that's not…

McKibben: And maybe it's not. We'll figure out, sort of, what's sensible, you know, ways. One of the things—and Schumacher, by the way, is very interesting, much more complicated and interesting than people give him credit for. I'm writing [a] forward to a new edition of Small is Beautiful and enjoying it immensely. One of the things that we need to get out of this system in order to really get a sense of what [will] work is that incredibly distorting set of subsidies that at the moment send all kinds of bad signals about what we should be doing. So in energy they're very obvious. You know, we've underwritten fossil fuel for very long time and continue to, you know; even the new energy bill is supposed to you know give unbelievable gifts to the nuclear industry; the "clean coal" industry, on and on and on. It's even more egregious in agriculture and food, you know, where almost all of the world's, the country's cropland is now diverted to growing corn and soybeans—not because there's this unbelievable demand to eat corn and soybeans but because there's a federal subsidy for growing them, a subsidy basically written into the law by a few huge corn and soybean consuming companies, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, whatever, who control the senators of the corn states, you know, and have enough power to enact [egregious] policy [into] law. You know as those things began to wither, and I think they probably will in a world where money becomes somewhat scarcer—I mean look at the size of the deficits we are now running. We have less room to maneuver than we used to, and eventually, you know, even some of these toughly guarded policies will begin to falter—then we'll start to figure out a lot more [about] what scale of organization makes sense. One of the points I make in the book, I have talked about my friend Tod Murphy who runs this great institution called the Farmer's Diner—we probably should've gone down to Middlebury to eat lunch at the Famer's Diner—he always talks about how [what] he needs to make his operation work [are] not huge factory farms because he doesn't want that or buy from them, and really not teeny, tiny you know boutique farmers where you know the name of each of your 10 cows, you know. I need sort of 1950s-scale farms, the kind, the exact kind that are impossible to have in a world, you know, where we subsidize the wrong things.

Fischetti:          Right. You make that point also in the book that at least the vision of what the answer would be for food production are more farms where they would be more labor intensive.

McKibben: Yep.

Fischetti:          Human-labor intensive…

McKibben: Yep.

Fischetti:          … instead of industrialized but that would create more jobs and more interest in farming…

McKibben: Yep.

Fischetti:          … because the farmers, kind of, reap more of the money.

McKibben: Yep, and because, they're working on a project [and] at a scale that's fundamentally satisfying instead of fundamentally industrial [and degrading]. Less than 1 percent of Americans are now really farming at the moment, so there's twice as many prisoners as there are farmers in the United States. We are never going to go back to having 50 percent of America farming but we definitely need more than 1 percent of America farming if we're going to do [with]out vast quantities of fossil fuel, which we can no longer for many reasons continue to do, and I think that will be altogether healthy, and I think there'll be lots of people who will enjoy it immensely. I know that at Middlebury College where I teach [elite students at], a wonderful academic institution, graduates [every year] more than a handful of kids whose biggest desire is to go start farming some place. The college farm and garden is one of its great assets, one of the things that kids love and work hard at and it's incredibly beautiful and productive, and I find that really encouraging. And I mean, you know, given the choice, it seems to me it's a much better use of your talents than going off to Wall Street to, you know, grow a hedge fund of some kind.

Fischetti:          And in that system of food production is there a chance that prices would be higher because of the labor?

McKibben: Yeah. It depends. You cut out so many middlemen that, you know that I mean I spent a year eating that wasn't grown locally, my whole family; we still pretty much do a[s] you can tell by our lunch we just had but we were religious [about it] for years, a kind of experiment. Most things weren't more expensive; if you buy vegetables from a CSA, one of these community-supported agriculture farms, I think it's [got] to be [one of the] cheapest way[s] to get foods that there is in this country. But meat is more expensive, partly that's because raising grass-fed beef necessarily is, you know, more careful work and less, you know, industrial than just standing them in a cement lots someplace and tossing corn at them—[heavily] subsidized corn.

Fischetti:          Right.

McKibben: But frankly eating less meat isn't the end of the world for Americans. It's not like we are the healthiest people that ever live and that, kind of, among other things that we are now beginning to understand that that kind of grass-fed agriculture is exactly what we need to get a lot of carbon and methane back in the soil.

Fischetti:          What about in other countries. [You] know [in] Africa [a lot of very dedicated] people have struggled for a long time to try to get localized agriculture [to] work …

McKibben: Well no, agriculture is what they've, sort of, largely had but people [have], what's happened in Africa and certainly what's happened in Latin America [is] everybody has been kicked off the farm as we have industrialized agriculture. So you go to Mexico, and you pass NAFTA, and suddenly there's a million fewer corn farmers five years later because they can't compete with the subsidized stuff in the American Midwest. And you know what happens when you live in Africa, you know, [or] Mexico or something; you know, chances are [if you're in] Mexico, you might try to come across the border; and if you're in Africa you end up living in a cardboard box on the edge of the national capital. There are some places where that process has worked better. China is the one really powerful example, you know; people have [gone to the] city and, kind of, [gotten] richer and made better lives. But boy, it's on the edge of breaking down in China, too—and there's still 700 million people back on the farm.

Fischetti:          What about Africa? You know it comes [up a lot.]

McKibben: Yeah. I think it's very [heartening] to see, one of the things that really gives me [heart] in the book that some  [of the] best news in the book; this last few years, this spread of all kinds of smart and technologically adept small-scale agriculture around the developing world. That guy [Jules] Pretty that I quote in the book, that English agronomist, [whose the] real [fount of] knowledge about all this, and is one of the most encouraging guys in the world. In certain ways you know, place after place, it's not like it's just we're going back to traditional ways; I mean people have figured out lots of cool things to do, yeah. So you know, people learn how to double dig beds and do various soil conservation techniques; they learn how to intercrop, all kinds of things; agroforestry, learn how to grow large amounts of fish in [a] rice paddy, [so even] if you're rice yield declines a little bit your protein yield goes [through] the roof. This is all, like, very smart stuff. It depends on where you are so there's not going to be one system that spreads across the entire world the way that we've tried to spread industrial fertilizer- or synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture into every corner of the planet. It's going to be much smarter than that and it's much smarter than [that]; and happily farmers are some of the smartest people in the world, so they are completely capable of doing that.

Steve: Tune back in for part 2 of Mark Fischetti's interview with Bill McKibben. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky.

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