Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Eaarth Numb-ers

Life on this planet’s getting tougher. That’s the main message of eco-warrier Bill McKibben in his new book Eaarth. McKibben paints a despairing picture of our evolving and increasingly alien planet—he even gives it a new name with an extra ‘a’—in the era of global warming. To be honest, I found reading the first part of the book so depressing I almost didn’t want to read on, yet felt like this is stuff I really should know about. Thank goodness in the latter part of the book he explores things we can do to cope with our new and changing habitat.  Not enough to fix it, unfortunately, but enough to allow survival. The future is not, however, rosy.

Let me share some of McKibben’s themes here:

Firstly, there’s the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—this is the CO2 greenhouse gas stuff that’s causing our planet to heat up. Historically, the earth’s atmosphere has been about 275 parts per million of CO2, and for a long time scientists could only guess how much we could allow that to increase—as a natural product of industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels—before the earth would be seriously, irrevocably in trouble. Today, the number scientists fix on is about 350 parts per million as being “safe”. But here’s the catch: We’re already well beyond that: approaching 390 ppm at the time McKibbon was writing the book (©2010), and at 391 now (see www.350.org) and rising. One computer model suggests that even if we take the steps pledged at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, the earth will hit 725 parts per million of CO2 by 2100. And that might not even be survivable.

So, what happens when the CO2 level goes up?  Well, the world gets warmer. When the world gets warmer the polar ice caps start to melt. Weather gets wilder, and more unpredictable. The permafrost in the Arctic starts to melt, both on land and under the water, letting off methane, another warming greenhouse gas.  And it’s already happening. One Arctic researcher reported methane bubbling to the surface of the sea like from a soda pop can, in some areas with concentrations 100 times greater than normal. And this is scary, because this isn’t global warming coming from our tail pipes, but a totally uncontrolled earth reaction to human-induced rising temperatures. Kick-start the global meltdown, and it becomes self-sustaining.

As the world gets hotter, droughts will increase. Floods will increase. Water supplies from mountain snow melt will fall—think the great Asian food basins supplied by Himalayan waters, think of Los Angeles getting water from the Rockies, the Sierras. Food production will fall. Sea levels will rise. Low-lying countries will be inundated with salt water from the rising seas—think Bangladesh, Kiribati, the Netherlands. Where will the people go? What will they drink? How can they farm?

And meanwhile, we continue to burn fossil fuels (oil, coal, etc.) and generating more carbon (and thus C02) in the atmosphere. And there’s a catch here too, because the earth has only so much fossil fuel left for us to use. And we’ve built a society based on a need for petroleum products for virtually everything in our lives, from cars to home heating to manufacturing to logistics to plastics, yet we’ve passed “peak” oil, and production is now falling by about 7% a year. In 2009, Merrill Lynch estimated that we will need to find and exploit ten new Saudi Arabias by 2030. And think about this: “Six of the twelve largest companies in the world are fossil-fuel providers, four make cars and trucks, and one, General Electric, is, as its name implies, heavily involved in the energy industry. Just buying fossil fuel requires almost a tenth of the global GDP, and almost all the other 90% depends on burning the stuff.” (p. 30). And the price of oil affects the price of everything in our lives.

Is this scary stuff or what?

McKibben throws out a lot of big, international, economic pictures and numbers like these, but also ties back regularly to his home in quiet Vermont, in the US, where a recent severe storm caused flood damage, and he generates some numbers about the costs of “fixing” the damage even after a moderate disaster of this type that will become more frequent everywhere.  And it is useful, but no less frightening, to have examples like this that as individuals we can relate to. Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the potential impact of devastation of whole countries and whole economies, and the effect on millions or billions of people. It’s easier to imagine a more local scenario and impact, and imagine that disaster then multiplied out by others in one’s immediate home area.

The second part of the book is more upbeat and practical: how can we learn to adapt and live on this changing planet.  I might (or might not) blog another time on that theme.  I’ll leave this entry just to say that the book, while depressing, is really worthwhile reading for anyone interested in environmental sustainability.  Not everyone buys the “end of the earth is coming, and we caused it” scenario, but the evidence is mounting.

If you are familiar with novelist Barbara Kingsolver, you might appreciate her endorsement from the front of the book: “What I have to say about this book is very simple: Read it, please. Straight through to the end. Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” I am a fan of Kingsolver’s books, and believe she is an astute and thoughtful woman as well as a wonderful storyteller. McKibben’s book IS an important book, but not for the faint-hearted. You may read this book, and weep.

For more information and reviews of the book, see Amazon. Local readers can find the book in the Lower Hutt Library.

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