Science Talk

Bill McKibben's Eaarth, Part 2

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 2 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 2 of 2. Edited and produced by podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured).

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome back for the conclusion of writer Bill McKibben talking with Scientific American's Mark Fischetti in McKibben's home in Ripton, Vermont.

Fischetti:          In some sense, it's certainly [in the end of the book and] here and there and when you talk about food, it sounds like you might be talking about a switch from chemicals as the way to make farming more productive and more local, to information as a way of making farming more local and more productive, and I just wondered if you could explain a little bit more about that…

McKibben: …sure...

Fischetti:          …and maybe bring up a solution or two.

McKibben:  Yeah farming, we have lived to this period when we told ourselves and everybody else that farming, you could make it, you know, so that any idiot could do it, you know. Here's the system, you put this on and three weeks later you spray this and three weeks later you spray this and three weeks later you spray this and then it's time to harvest whatever. Well it's never [been] that simple, and it's caused all kinds of problems from the expense of doing that to the resistance that arises. What's [cool is] to see people a) figuring out alternative methods and b) figuring out how to spread them. So these, like, Indonesian farmer schools: Now hundreds of thousands of people have trained each other how to grow rice, what we would call organically, but that's not the point there; it's sort of low input, so it's not expensive to grow [and] high yield; you know, the spread of velvet bean across parts of Latin America; people figuring out how to enrich soil in really profound ways; really quickly much more quickly than the text book says it should be possible. And spreading the word person to person, organization to organization. And you can see the analogs even in this country, you know. Now [when] people want to learn how to grow things and they do want to learn how to grow things, Burpee seeds doubled its sales from the last two years; it's gone [through] the roof. It's the only thing that's been going great in our recession, you know. People don't, you know, work off some instructions from some seed company about how to do it, they go to YouTube and, you know, figure out how to compost, how to double dig, and how to do bio-intensive gardening, and how to do all these kind of things. One of the things that we need to really recapture and [in] places people are some of the old methods of spreading information which are really good extension services which all too often get kind of taken over by the chemical companies and fertilizer companies, especially in the developing world, but it's really good to see them being reclaimed in many cases.

Fischetti:          This is all sounding like it makes sense but how does it, sort of, feedback into [and] switch [from] growth to maintenance of [wealth] resources.

McKibben:  Probably the most important asset that you could have if you wanted long-term stability, especially in an era of ecological upheaval, is good soils, right; soils that allow you to grow [a] good amount of food; soils that are able to absorb a lot of water when it came because the amount of rainfall steadily increasing; soils that could hold that rainfall through the kind of extended droughts that are now becoming more common. You know, good soil is precisely what low-impact, low-input local agriculture builds and it's precisely what industrial agriculture destroys. You want a food system that doesn't depend on immense amounts of fossil fuels, so [among] other things it doesn't depend on immense amounts of travel hither and [yon]. You know, so you build things that, you dispense a little bit with the argument that, you know, Kansas is better suited to growing wheat than any place in the world, so let's grow all the wheat there and realize [that] it still make some sense to grow some wheat in Vermont too, which now people have started to do. The bread we had at lunch was, you know, was with wheat grown here.

Fischetti:          That's a good point because the mindset of certain industrialized agriculture is, well let me step back a second. People argue against it by saying, "Hey, you know the carbon footprint of flying food thousands of miles is ridiculous so we should grow [things] locally" but the counter argument is, but if you can grow so much wheat sufficiently in Kansas even including the transportation for thousands of miles it's still more efficient in terms of resources.

McKibben:  Yeah, and there are you know these are kind of calculations that'll start to sort themselves out once you remove the sets of subsidies from fossil fuel and food and things; [we'll] begin to get a better sense. We don't really know the answer to that question at some level. But clearly it will make a lot of sense to grow a lot of things closer to home. You know, in the same way it doesn't, [in] the world that we've are coming into, it doesn't make sense to generate all your energy in a few centralized places anymore and disseminate it around the world. Those deep beds of top soil were sort of like deep beds of coal or something; they're running out, you know, they depend on to be used at least the way we're using them now, tons of synthetic fertilizer, immense amounts of water, which in much of the world, we're running out of. I mean, the way that the water table is dropping in the Punjab and the north China plain, I mean that's one of the scariest single indicators in the whole world; especially since, you know, [in] a hotter world, every acre or foot of water that comes to the surface goes much less far than it used to. Evaporation rates [don't just go up] just a little bit, they go up a lot when you raise the temperature a degree or two.

Fischetti:           Let me get back to the complexity idea and a little more specific[ally]. You start[ed] to talk about [this a little earlier,] but the Obama administration only a few days ago [said that] a few financial [institutions that are too big to fail should have a] plan in place to disassemble themselves if there's crisis. You know, some economists would say that you should just break these institutions up now, because [they're too big and too entangled.] So [I was wondering] would you agree with that and [would that] apply to other types of…

McKibben:  To me, absolutely. To me one of the great lessons of the last couple of years is a lot of things [that] are [too] big. Our senator, [the wonderful Bernie Sanders,] recently introduced the Too Big to Fail is Too Big to Exist Act in the Senate; that we, instead of treating them like these are nuclear reactors, we have to figure out some, you know, safeguards and cooling systems and stuff for when, [instead] no, if there's [that] much danger of a meltdown, then it's too not safe to have them. I mean, clearly these things are way more dangerous than nuclear reactors, you know, and [run] far more cavalierly, you know. I mean, you know, it almost beggars the imagination to think of what these, today's story is that Dubai is melting down economically. Who could have predicted, who could ever predict it that building in an indoor ski mountain, you know, in the middle of the Arabian Desert might not turn out to be a great business strategy, you know? I have no idea how anyone could've ever predicted that. You know, I think it makes great sense to think the reason that we built things so big is because it's allowed for faster growth, right? If the thing that you're mainly aiming for is growth, then there are efficiencies to be gained through size that allow quicker growth. But that's not what we need now. We need stability, we need solidity, we need things that don't wreck apart. I think the analogy I use in the book is you know we don't need a racehorse exquisitely bred to go as fast as possible, but whose ankle breaks [the minute] there's a [divet] in the track. We need [a ploughhorse] built for not for speed but for durability. And just even the language that we used to think about things is very important. Growth has been our mantra for so long [that] we're just completely used to it as the obvious idea. But at this point I think it's much easier to make [the] case that durability needs to be our mantra or, you know, [that]instead of expansion that hunkering down is the metaphor for what we need to be doing now.
Fischetti:           [Not to be too trite about words], but it seems like you need a word like durability because hunkering down has this negative [connotation.]

McKibben:  And sustainability means essentially nothing to anyone.


Fischetti:           Yeah, I know right. Sustainability is sort of too neutral to really survive.

McKibben:  I like durability, I've always liked [it.] Maturity would be the word we really want, but it's been stolen by the AARP.

Fischetti:           And maintenance is another word which …

McKibben:  Not very flashy is it?

Fischetti:           Yeah that's right, right, it's hard to sell that, right.

McKibben:  [But] durability is a virtue, ruggedness, some of these things people really, I mean, sufficiency is very much, you know, an American virtue; at least it was,

Fischetti:           Right, right, [self sufficiency.]

McKibben:  Yeah, the problem with sufficiency is that it quickly becomes all that your own little off the grid paradise [where] you shoot anyone who comes near to your vegetable patch. So community, you know, some [mix] of sufficiency and community is a useful thing to be thinking [about].

Fischetti:           Any industries [or types of institutions] that you can single out as needing to be broken up?

McKibben:  Well the financial system, the energy system and the agricultural system share enormous similarities, it seems to me. A very small number of players, incredibly [interwoven] and so you get these cascading effects if something goes wrong. Your chicken pot pie gives you botulism, and it turns out that they're, you know, in 48 states and no one can figure out, you know, which [one] came off what truck and how, so you know. This house runs on solar panels, right? If the solar panel fails, well, I have a problem, but it's not a problem for anybody else. It's one, we're tied into the grid, so it's one tiny node on the system and there's 0.00001 percent less energy flowing into the grid, I guess. But you know, if some terrorist comes in the night and attacks my solar panel, I have to fix it, but it doesn't spew deadly solar particles into the atmosphere, it doesn't shut down the eastern United States power grid, it doesn't…

Fischetti:           That's an interesting thing to think about though. In the part of the book [where you're] talking about energy, it sounds I think  [you use] the state  [or] states [as] the definition of local and so other definitions might be towns…

McKibben:  Or regions for that [matter].

Fischetti:           And so where local lies, [is going to] depend on what you're talking about; but in energy, just as you're [starting to] say, if the local entity has a problem and it's not intertwined with anybody else, then they have a problem. So is there some level of…

McKibben:  So there's plenty of good, I mean, it['s] nice to have an electric grid, right, that connects us. But the problem is that our[s] is configured so that all the power comes from a few centralized places along that grid and spreads out along it. And you want to think of a grid, I think, that works the other way, where power comes from every node, where it looks like a root system, you know, [of a] tree or something, with zillions of input points. Where [you] essentially have a farmers' market for energy. How exactly that will develop, I don't think it's at all difficult to start figuring, you know, envisioning scenarios [where], you know, the price that's being paid to me for producing solar power shifts in the course of a day, or, you know, there's demand shifts here and there; and I think it's fine, there's going to be lots of interesting intermediate technology to fit in it and all that, but its basic characteristic would be spread out and not centralized.

Fischetti:           [And for] that [to] work though, you need the grid, so who builds the grid [where] that's not centralized.

McKibben:  Well, you build pieces of it wherever you are and interconnect them, you know. I mean that's, we've built lots of things that way [over the years].

Fischetti:           So without any central control.

McKibben:  Who knows how it all; we're indulging in speculation, that's beyond my…. Because, again I'm interested in trajectory not eventuality; I'm not a utopian in any way. I don't have any sort of schema for how the world should come to rest. I'm just interested in what direction we're moving in any given moment.

Fischetti:  Though, this discussion of [the] power system as well as the break [up of] the financial system as well as the U.S. and other countries being so in debt. It seems like there's a transition, there may need to be a transition period, where even if locally distributed everything [or as much as] possible [were your] utopia it's not something you just…

McKibben:  No, exactly, and so the question becomes in effect, my sense is that all of this will happen more or less logically; that it flows from the physics and chemistry of the world that we're moving into, just like the centralized world floating logically from the physics and chemistry of fossil fuel. The question is, the most interesting and important political question, really the only political question is, can we make it happen fast enough to avoid all out collapses which are completely possible, plausible, maybe even likely under the patterns we're [operating] on [now]. And so that's why my, sort of, global work is all about trying to figure out how you force these kind of global changes that move these systems more quickly than they want to move. There'd be no urgency to any of [this] if we had 100 years in which to do that; but the science would indicate that we don't have 100 years and the results that we're already seeing from the world would indicate that we have incredibly small amounts of time, that we've already passed the point in some respects, and we best get to work, trying to force the spring as it were.

Fischetti:           Right, right. If you had to pick two or three key factors.

McKibben:  Change the price of energy to reflect the damage it does to the environment. If fossil fuel actually carried the cost that, you know, of its damage that it does, then we'd see all these things happening more rapidly. That's why, you know, Copenhagen would've [been] really nice or whatever if, at some point putting a cap on carbon that raises its price is [sine qua non] for [getting] anything done. Because then all of a sudden, you're not just going to the local farmer's market because you want good tasting food or you like your neighbors or you have some ideological belief in localness, you're going because you're getting a very strong signal from your pocketbook that it makes more sense to grow food locally than to grow marinated in crude oil and ship it around the world. I think that's the biggest driver by far. And it's funny how there is a sense in which environmentalists, people who're these great believers in markets at some level, you know, at least in the information, because markets basically are just [an] information system, right. So, you know, we need to spread that message—fossil fuel is bad stuff—very far and wide and fast.

Fischetti:           There is one other aspect to this which is the psychology part of [it] and it's, the Treasury Department, I think a week or so ago started talking about this the increasingly ridiculous debt [that at least the] United States has; and they came up with four ways to solve it, and three, only one included "no pain" is the terminology [they used]. So one was inflation, [let inflation run rampant]; one was raise taxes [and cut services;] one is just default, but [that] has major ramifications right; and the fourth solution was growth, and growth is the one that's not [painful]. So if we don't choose growth, are Americans in particular ready to [shoulder some pain?].

McKibben:  Look this is one of these questions, we identify, I mean, the only answer to it is: [Do] you want to pay me now or [do] you want to pay me later? Because that's the whole premise of like economic stimulus, right, is we're going to jump-start this son of a bitch, and it's going to get going so fast [that] it will start throwing off money left and right, and you [won't] have to, we'll get all our money back times three. Well, you gotta be [a] pretty deep believer in Ben Bernanke or somebody to really make that case much longer. You know, [we're at] $2 to 3 zillion in debt, I don't know how much [it is,] $10 trillion; you know, an astonishing sum. It's pretty hard to imagine a scenario [where] we're humming along so fast that we grow our way out of our problems. [It's] much easier unfortunately to imagine a scenario like the one we're seeing around us, where more and more growth creates more and more problems. Now as I say, [I'm the furthest thing] from a utopian; I don't think there are easy ways out of the troubles that we're in. But I do thing that there're you know, [that] reality carries it owns kind of beauty and pleasure and that the world we're capable of creating will have certain redeeming qualities, including a much stronger sense of community, and probably a somewhat closer connection to the natural world, too.

Fischetti:           And that's interesting feedback. You know there's this term "videophilia," that's sort of kicking around, this idea of, you know, the more kids spend in front of electronics [of all sorts], the less connected they [are] to the lands, that they're less likely—[and] it's just, [they're not even] going outside and playing, right, [it's not like they have to go [hike] in the woods, just going outside [and playing]—and so the less connected they are, the less they're going to care about these things.

McKibben:  You want to reverse that loop somehow, absolutely. That's one of the reasons it makes me so happy to see the big farm garden at Middlebury, you know. For a lot of kids it's one of their first experiences and they're suddenly, "Wow! This is kind of cool."

Fischetti:           So you might benefit from a feedback [loop in that direction].

McKibben:  We're going to have to hope that there's some serious feedback loops. And I think that there are, you know, that there are real pleasures to be had in the natural world, in contact with the natural world, and probably even [more] profoundly in contact with other people, you know. We've [assiduously] traded community for consumption for a long time. The main American project since the end of the second world war has been to build bigger houses farther apart from each other. That's had the effect of, among other things, destroying community. The average American has half as many close friends as they did 50 years ago. It's no wonder that by every measure we can find, we're less happy with our lives than we were 50 years ago, even though our material standard of living has [trebled]. So whether or not you locate the damage in the kind of climate change that comes with that material standard of living or the [loss] of community that comes with it, that's one of the things that makes it possible to imagine a change. It's not going to be all loss; there's going to be some loss and some gain.

Fischetti:           Let me get back to the Internet [point a little]; you know the knee jerk reaction—and I as a parent [have this myself—you know, kids are constantly texting, you know: You're in front of your little screen;] you're not with people. In a way they are. They will certainly say, "I'm with my friends all day, in real time."

McKibben:  The internet is a very interesting phenomenon. We have no idea yet what it means. It's such a, it's a thousand times more interesting than television. It took about 20 minutes for a smart person to figure out what the effects and limits and whatever of television are going to be. Clearly, you know, within a year people were calling it the idiot box and the boob tube and whatever else and there was never any reason to change that assessment; in the entire history of television, it was you know, it did more to damage. But the Internet is way more complicated than that. It has lots of terrible things about it. Who really wants to spend you know, a third of your working life answering e-mail, you know; and it gives you access to hideous things that shouldn't have access to. But it's deeply empowering; its ability to allow people to communicate is fascinating; it gives you extremely low barriers to entry to do remarkable things, you know. We built, with essentially no money and no organization behind [us], the most widespread [day] of political action in the planet's history. We couldn't have done it three years ago. It required not just the Internet, but all these sort of extensions of it into cell phones and tweets and SMS and whatever that has been built on it.

Fischetti:           This antidote to [your life being…]

McKibben:  Some of them are very local and there's this sort of larger world. I mean one way to think about it is, again this is [a] sort of a function of physics and chemistry, [physics in this case.] It's, you know, the energy load involved in moving a recipe around the world is very different than the energy load involved in moving the ingredients around the world.

Fischetti:           Are there places in the world where you see some of these things happening even it hasn't been deliberate. Yeah, you talk about [Vermont]…

McKibben:  Yeah, it's happening all around.

Fischetti:           Yeah, some of the European countries strike me as being ahead of us.

McKibben:  : Absolutely. No, hell, if we were all Scandinavians we'd be fine. I mean—they sort of do a lot of this stuff. There's big chunks of it happening, and there's parts of the Third World where you can see incredibly interesting things going on. I've written a lot about what I think as the most interesting city in the world, [Curitiba] in Brazil, which just developed along these lines for 25 to 30 years [or] more. Parts of India, there are amazing things happening in parts of China. There's no question that the main thrust all over the planet has been in [the direction] of a kind a homogenization and that homogenization is the product of reliance on fossil fuel more than anything else. As that breaks down, we'll see people turn more and more to all the kinds of odd experiments that have been going on. The local agriculture around the country is flourishing, the number of farms in this country has increased in the last five years, for the first time [in] I think, like, in 150 years and that's very good news.

Steve:          Bill McKibben's new book is Eaarth—that's spelled E-A-A-R-T-H—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. An excerpt from the book is in the April issue of Scientific American magazine. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky.

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