Editor’s introduction: Scientists have proposed compelling steps to ease specific kinds of environmental damage and slow consumption of certain resources [see “Solutions to Environmental Threats,”]. But Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College and co-founder of climate action group 350.org, maintains that to truly stop ruining the planet, society must break its most debilitating habit: growth.

In his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben argues that humankind, because of its actions, now lives on a fundamentally different world, which he calls “Eaarth.” This celestial body can no longer support the economic growth model that has driven society for 200 years. To avoid our own collapse, we must instead seek to maintain wealth and resources, in large part by shifting to more durable, localized economies.

In the following text, excerpted from parts of the book, McKibben makes his case. And in the sidebars, also condensed from the book, he provides examples of successful local farming and energy production operations.

New planets require new habits. If you walk out of the airlock on your Martian base and start breathing, you’ll be sorry. We simply can’t live on the new earth as if it were the old earth—we’ve foreclosed that option.

In the world we grew up in, our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth. For the 250 years since Adam Smith, we’ve assumed that more is better and that the answer to any problem is another burst of expansion. That’s because it’s worked, at least for a long while: the lives of comfort and relative security that we Westerners lead are the product of 10 generations of steady growth in our economies. But now that we’re stuck between a played-out rock and a hot place, it’s time to think with special clarity about the future. On our new planet, growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.

I understand that right now is the worst possible moment to make this point. The temporary halt to growth that we call a recession has—in an economy geared only for expansion—wrecked many lives. We’re deep in debt, as individuals and as nations, and in an effort to climb out from underneath that economic burden we’ve bet yet more money that we can get growth rolling once more. That’s what an “economic stimulus” is—a wager that we can restart the growth machine and make back not just the amount we spent stimulating, but the debt that caused the trouble in the first place.

Far worse, of course, is the ecological debt we face—the carbon accumulating in the atmosphere and reshaping the planet. And there, too, the most obvious way out is a new round of growth—a giant burst of economic activity designed to replace our fossil-fuel system with something else that will let us go on living just as we do now (or, better!), but without the carbon. We’ve seized on the idea of green growth as the path out of all our troubles.

For the record, I support a green Manhattan Project, an ecological New Deal, a clean-tech Apollo mission. If I had money, I’d give it to Al Gore to invest in start-ups. These are the obvious and legitimate responses of serious people to the most dangerous crisis we’ve ever encountered, and to a real degree they’re working. We really do need to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2020, or produce all our electricity from renewable sources within a decade, or meet all the other targets that good people have identified. These actions are precisely the way our system should respond. But it’s not going to happen fast enough to ward off enough change to preserve the planet we used to live on. I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match.

That perspective may sound a tad grim. But we can build durable and even relatively graceful ways to inhabit this new planet. First, we need to come to terms with where we are. We need to dampen our intuitive sense that the future will resemble the past and our standard-issue optimism that the future will be ever easier. Eaarth is an uphill planet now.

I think we know that in our bones. I think we felt it even before the Bush recession settled over us. For Americans, the crucial moment may have come in early 2008, six months before the big banks started tottering, at the moment when the economy still seemed to be roaring but the cost of gasoline spiked to $4 a gallon.

If the American idea has one constant, it’s motion. We arrived here from distant shores, we crossed the continent, we built the highway, we invented the GPS box that sits on your dashboard telling you that you missed your turn. Everything was moving right along. And then, all of a sudden, really for the first time, that motion began to lurch. It began to slow. Each month Americans drove less than the month before. You couldn’t sell your old house—but you really couldn’t sell your old Explorer.

Then something odd started happening. As the price of oil spiked, shipping things long distance started to seem less attractive. By May the cost of sending a shipping container from Shanghai to the U.S. was $8,000, up from $3,000 at the beginning of the decade. Cargo volumes began to fall—Ikea opened a plant in Virginia, not China. “The low-hanging fruit of globalization has been picked,” a Morgan Stanley currency strategist said. Jeff Rubin, an analyst with CIBC World Markets in Toronto, was blunter: “Globalization is reversible.” Indeed, Midwest steelmakers reported a surge in demand, Rubin said, precisely because “soaring transport costs, first on importing iron to China and then exporting finished steel overseas, have already more than eroded the wage advantage and suddenly rendered Chinese-made steel uncompetitive in the U.S. market.” As the price of oil rose, and with it the demand for ethanol, the cost of food also soared—and suddenly nations began deciding that free trade was not as blindingly obvious as they’d once insisted.

It’s possible that just as we’ve seen the peak of oil, we’ve also seen the peak of economic growth—that we won’t be able to make the system bigger. Insurance costs climb, the price of oil spikes, the economy tanks, the money for new investment in energy evaporates, and when the economy starts to accelerate again the price of oil spikes. In May 2009 a study from McKinsey & Company called a new oil shock “inevitable.” Rinse, lather, repeat. Except that, because it’s cheap, countries start burning more coal. So, rinse, lather and then stand there with a head full of suds because the rising temperature has evaporated your reservoir.

Whoever dreamed growth might come to an end? Who indeed. Back in a very different time, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president, in the spring of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the Broadway opening of Hair, a small group of European industrialists and scientists met in a villa in the Italian capital. Their group—the Club of Rome—proposed to examine interrelated global trends, and they commissioned a report from a team of young systems analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By the time that team had finished its work and issued it as a book called The Limits to Growth, in 1972, the first Earth Day had taken place and Richard M. Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency. But few events in environmental history were more significant than the publication of that slim book, which was translated into 30 languages and sold 30 million copies. The small team of researchers concluded three things:

“1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years.

“2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his or her individual human potential.

“3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.”

What’s amazing, in retrospect, is how close we came to listening to their message. Around the world, people got to work figuring out how to slow population growth; educating women turned out to be the best strategy, and so we’ve watched the average mother go from having more than six children to fewer than three in short order. We were paying attention: these were the years of the first oil crises, the first big tanker spills, the first fuel-economy standards for cars. Heck, these were the years when we adopted the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit—when we actually slowed down our mobility in the name of conservation. In the late 1970s more Americans were opposed to continued economic growth than in favor, something that seems almost impossible to us now. We actually had a brief opening to steer a different course, away from the rocks.

We didn’t, of course.

The Club of Rome was not wrong, as it turned out. Just ahead of the curve. You can ignore environmental problems for a long time, but when they catch up to you, they catch up fast. You grow too large, and then you run out of oil and the Arctic melts.

I’ve belabored the point. I’ve belabored it because by now every force in our society is trained to want more growth. But we can’t grow. There’s too much friction. We’re on an uphill planet.

Another possibility exists, however. Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.

Number one is: mature. We’ve spent 200 years hooked on growth, and it’s done us some good, and it’s done us some bad, but mostly it’s gotten deep inside us, kept us perpetually adolescent. Every politician who ever lived has said: “Our best days are ahead of us.” But they aren’t, not in the way we’re used to reckoning “best.” On a finite planet, that was going to happen someday. It’s just our luck that the music stopped while we were on the floor. So if 2008 turned out to be the year that growth came to an end—or maybe it will be 2011, or 2014, or 2024—well, that’s the breaks. We need to see clearly. No illusions, no fantasies, no melodrama.

Number two: we need to figure out what we must jettison. Many habits, obviously—little things like the consumer lifestyle. But the big item on the list becomes increasingly clear. Complexity is the mark of our age, but that complexity rests on the cheap fossil fuel and the stable climate that underwrote huge surpluses of food. Complexity is our glory, but also our vulnerability. As we began to sense with the spike in oil prices and then the credit crunch in 2008, we’ve connected things so tightly that small failures in one place vibrate throughout the entire system. If America’s dumb decision to use a fraction of its corn crop for ethanol can help set off food riots in 37 countries or if a series of short-sighted bets on Nevada mortgages can close thousands of factories in China, then we’ve let our systems intertwine too much. If our bad driving habits can melt the Arctic ice cap—well, you get it.

We’ve turned our sweet planet into Eaarth, which is not as nice. We’re moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back—and with far more power. But we’ve still got to live on that world, so we better start figuring out how.

Bill McKibben, Challenged: Is Zero Growth Really Necessary?
Society always sustained itself locally, until the industrial revolution, when an inexorable march began toward bigger, centralized economies. In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben says relentless growth is now ruining the globe; maintenance of wealth and resources, instead of expansion, must be society’s new driver, or it will perish. Here staff editor Mark Fischetti questions his assertions.

Scientific American: Your basic message is that humankind must give up growth as its modus operandi. Why can’t we just grow more smartly?

McKibben: We can certainly do things more efficiently, and we should. But that’s not enough. We are finally hitting the limits to growth that people have talked about since the 1970s, and we are seeing staggering environmental changes. Few people have come to grips with that.

SA: Is absolute, zero growth necessary, or would “very slight” growth be sustainable?

McKibben: I’m not a utopian. I don’t have any schema for where the world should come to rest. A specific number is not part of the analysis. I’m more interested in trajectories: what happens if we move away from growth as the answer to everything and head in a different direction. We’ve been so engrossed in the growth experiment that we’ve tried very little else. We can measure society by other means. Some countries measure satisfaction. If we measure the world in other ways, individual accumulation of wealth becomes less important.

SA: The subtext here is that large, centralized, monolithic systems of agriculture, energy and other commerce drive growth. Are you saying big is bad?

McKibben: We built things big because it allowed for faster growth. Efficiencies were gained through size. That’s not what we need now. We don’t need a racehorse that is exquisitely bred to go as fast as possible but whose ankle breaks the minute there’s a divot in the track. We need a plow horse built for durability. Durability needs to be our mantra, instead of expansion.

SA: Is sheer size the culprit, or is it the complexity that size brings? You say that not just banks but more basic industries are “too big to fail.” Should such institutions be broken up or disentangled somehow?

McKibben: The financial system, the energy system and the agricultural system share great similarities: a very small number of players, incredibly interwoven. In each case, cascading effects occur when something goes wrong; a chicken pot pie spreads botulism to 48 states. My house runs on solar panels. If it fails, I have a problem, but it doesn’t shut down the eastern U.S. power grid.

SA: So you’re advocating a return to local reliance. But since E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, dedicated people have been trying to implement local food and energy systems around the world, yet many regions are still struggling. How small is “local”?

McKibben: We’ll figure out the size. It could be a town, a region, a state. But to find the answer, we have to get the incredibly distorting subsidies out of our current systems. They send all kinds of bad signals about what we should be doing. In energy we’ve underwritten fossil fuel for a long time. It’s even more egregious in agriculture. Once subsidies wither, we can figure out what scale of industry makes sense.

SA: Don’t local products cost more?

McKibben: We would have more farms, and they might be more labor-intensive, but that would also create more jobs, and the farmer would reap more of the revenue. Economically, local farms cut out many middlemen. Buying vegetables from CSA [community-supported agriculture] farms is the cheapest way to get food. Meat might still be more expensive, but frankly, eating less meat isn’t the end of the world. The best news in my book is the spread, in the past few years, of all kinds of smart, technologically adept, small-scale agricultural techniques around the developing world.

SA: It sounds like the key to local agriculture, at least, is to teach people how to raise yields, without more fertilizer....

McKibben: Yes, and it depends on where you are. There will not be one system that spreads across the entire world, the way we’ve tried to spread industrial, synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture. The solutions are much smarter than that. Instead of spreading chemicals, which causes all kinds of problems, we are figuring out alternative methods and how to spread them.

SA: Okay, even if local agriculture works, how does that support durability instead of growth?

McKibben: Probably the most important assets we can have for long-term stability, especially in an era of ecological upheaval, are good soils—soils that allow you to grow a good amount of food, that can absorb a lot of water because rainfalls are steadily increasing, soils that hold that rainfall through the kinds of extended droughts that are becoming more common. Good soil is precisely what low-impact, low-input, local agriculture builds, and precisely what industrial agriculture destroys.

SA: Local reliance sounds attractive, but how do countries like the U.S. get out of huge debt without growing? The U.S. Treasury Department says the only painless solution is growth. Do we need a transition period where growth eliminates debt, and then we embrace durability?

McKibben: Well, “painless” is just delay. You know: “Pay me now, or pay me later.” The primary political question is: Can we make change happen fast enough to avoid all-out collapses that are plausible, even likely? How do we move these transitions more quickly than they want to move?

SA: What is the most important action to take first?

McKibben: Change the price of energy to reflect the damage it does to the environment. If fossil fuel reflected that cost, we’d see these new systems and transitions happening much more rapidly. A cap on carbon that raises its price is sine qua non for getting anything done.

SA: A price on carbon is a tough sell....

McKibben: There’s no easy way out of the trouble we’re in. But the world we’re capable of creating has redeeming qualities, including a much stronger sense of community and a closer connection to other people ... as well as to the natural world. We have assiduously traded community for consumption for a long time. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has focused on building bigger houses that are farther apart. That has destroyed community. The average American has half as many close friends as individuals had 50 years ago. It’s no wonder that by every measure, we are less happy with our lives, even though our material standard of living has trebled. That insight makes it possible to imagine the kind of change we need. Giving up growth for durability will not be all loss. There will be some loss, and there will be some gain.