JUNE 9, 2019
BILL MCKIBBEN, and this is meant as a compliment, is the Don Quixote of the environmental movement, or perhaps its Vivaldi. For over 30 years, he has been tilting at the windmills of ignorance, indifference, and interests — and composed the same concerto a few hundred times. Since his groundbreaking The End of Nature in 1989, he has written 16 more books and countless articles on humanity’s predatory and self-destructive relationship with nature. All are readable, measured, sensible, informative, factual, and incisive, yet short on polemics, hyperbole, and dubious assertions.
Puzzled by the recklessness with which the planetary branch we are sitting on is being sawed off, McKibben in Falter once more explains nature’s workings, asks profound questions, and tells wonderful stories. Unable to do otherwise, McKibben goes after the same windmills yet again — and crafts another lyrical masterpiece.
Falter reads like a book-length article in The New Yorker, which is not surprising since McKibben began his professional life there as a staff writer in the 1980s. This book is the latest installment of a trilogy of environmental disaster chronicles published within the space of a few weeks in the spring of this year. First came David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, then Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth: A Recent History, and now Falter. Binge-readers and political activists will benefit from all three.
Falter, organized in four parts and an epilogue, is broadest in scope. It is a humane and wise book, even a beautiful one, if that’s not oxymoronic, given its subject. Amply sourced and referenced for deeper study or for skeptics, it tracks the state of the natural world in exhaustive detail, and identifies the forces imperiling it: the blistering heatwaves in North America and Europe; the droughts in Africa, Asia, and Australia; the typhoons in South-East Asia; the dying old-growth forests attacked by pests and diseases unleashed by climate change; the rising sea levels and unexpectedly speedy warming of the Earth’s oceans as well as their expectedly speedy acidification as well as their overfishing and choking with plastics, “the dead zones at the mouths of all major rivers where fertilizers pour into the sea”; the plummeting corn, rice, sorghum, and wheat crop yields resulting from higher temperatures as well as uncertain rainfall; the biological annihilation of species.
McKibben minces no words on the first page: “Put simply, between ecological destruction and technological hubris, the human experiment is now in question.” To avert catastrophe, no less is required than, in the clinical language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “systems transitions” that are technically possible, yet “unprecedented in terms of scale.” The implication is that we are in existential peril and nothing short of a World War II–like mobilization in terms of commitment, focus, resources, and global reach will do. Too much time has been lost in the past decades — squandered actually.
Those who think we have never had it so good, for instance the obnoxiously cheerful author Steven Pinker, are off base because the implied assumption that past performance is indicative of future results. Climate change is so vexing precisely because it is the flip side of the phenomenal accomplishments of the past century or so. Things went right for too long, especially since World War II. Life expectancy, health, calorie intake, disposable income, car ownership, air travel, living space, and other treats rose to historically unprecedented levels. The bill for all this good living is now coming due, quite like the heart attack that strikes down the middle-aged, obese, sedentary, hard-drinking, chain-smoking guy, shattering his self-image of invulnerability. Except that, in the case of global heating, the cost for this generation’s profligacy is passed on to the next, and all generations thereafter. The combination of abundant cheap energy — fossil fuels all, first coal, then oil, and now gas — and scientific as well as technological progress has resulted in historically unparalleled economic growth, wealth, and opportunities.
Humans, on account of numbers and consumption, have become a geological force. “[N]o Roman emperor could change the pH of the oceans, but we’ve managed that trick in short order.” Humans have changed the energy balance of the planet, and thus fundamentally the way the world operates. To wit, the hottest five years on record were the last five years, and 20 of the hottest years happened in the last 22 years.
McKibben has a knack for scare facts, all backed up by documentary evidence. Who knew that humanity’s energy and resource usage during the past 35 years was more than during all of previous history? Or that more than “half of all the greenhouse gases emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution have spewed from exhaust pipes and smokestacks since 1988”? Or that the carbon dioxide we’re emitting into the atmosphere is the equivalent of “400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day, or four each second”? Or that, “if the billions of years of life on Earth were scaled to a twenty-four-hour day, our settled civilization began about a fifth of a second ago”? Or that a barrel of oil, “currently about sixty dollars, provides energy equivalent to about twenty-three thousand hours of human labor”? It is the scale and speed of humanity’s impact that has nature reeling.
The science is clear, and has been for a long time — for two centuries actually. As any encyclopedia or biology, chemistry, or physics textbook will confirm, the greenhouse effect was mentioned as early as 1824 by the French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier. The argument and the evidence were further strengthened by another French scientist, Claude Pouillet, and the Irish physicist John Tyndall. In 1896, the Swedish physicist and eventual Nobel Prize winner (in chemistry) Svante Arrhenius more fully quantified the greenhouse effect. McKibben notes that in November 2017, 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a forthright “Warning to Humanity,” which, within months, became the sixth-most-discussed academic paper in history. It has now been signed by well over 20,000 scientists. A similar initiative, Scientists for Future (S4F) of German, Austrian, and Swiss scientists, collected nearly 27,000 signatures in March 2019. Scientific uncertainty is certainly not the issue.
McKibben devotes a chapter to retracing how the fossil fuel companies — the main villains of the book — knew as early as 1959 about the warming effects of carbon dioxide. The initial concerns soon gave way to salivating at the prospect of a warming arctic and thus lower drilling costs there. Ignoring the findings of their in-house scientists, the marketing folks took over, emphasizing the — nonexistent — uncertainty in the scientific community about climate change. Before that happened, Walter Cronkite reported as fact the looming dangers of climate change on the evening news on Thursday, April 3, 1980. Nathaniel Rich reminds us that in 1988 32 climate bills were introduced in Congress, many enjoying not only Democratic but also Republican support. In 2007, the Republican Senator John McCain said:
The science tells us that urgent and significant action is needed. […] If the scientists are right and temperatures continue to rise, we could face environmental, economic, and national security consequences far beyond our ability to imagine. If they are wrong and the Earth finds a way to compensate for the unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, what will we have accomplished? Cleaner air, greater energy efficiency, a more diverse and secure energy mix, and U.S. leadership in the technologies of the future. There is no doubt; failure to act is the far greater risk.
What flipped the Republican Party? Was it better data, unforeseen facts, or new revelations? For politicians — given two-, four-, or six-year election cycles, immediate grievances are paramount, such as unemployment, depressed wages, rising inequality, immigration, and whatnot — it is a losing strategy to campaign on a platform of short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, regardless of the smallness of the former and the vastness of the latter. A majority of “voters must support the adoption of substantial restrictions on their excessively consumerist lifestyle, and there is no indication they would be willing to make such sacrifices,” McKibben quotes two analysts as declaring. There is indeed a co-dependency between businesses and consumers, quite like that between drug pushers and drug users. Addicts care only about the daily fix. They cannot envision obvious solutions, let alone adopt them, even if staying the course dooms all. But only tomorrow.
The Earth’s carrying capacity is a secondary concern, as are the costs of delayed mitigation measures. McKibben quotes environmental writer Alex Steffen, who coined the term predatory delay, “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” Those with no power today and having contributed nothing to global heating — future generations, the poor in the Global South, and other species — will inherit a scorched Earth and an economic calamity.
Meanwhile, there are those who deny the climate problem altogether, or those who find prohibitive the costs of decisive remedial action, or those who, like McKibben, hope that technological progress will obviate the need for a change in the Western lifestyle. I don’t believe that he actually believes this. But he thinks, correctly, that solar energy is the closest there is to a solution. Not only can it provide unlimited clean power, but it also would reduce the power of a nefarious fossil fuel industry, reduce pollution, and, as a “technology of repair, social as well as environmental,” enhances the autonomy and dignity of people everywhere. He cites studies “that every major nation on earth could be supplying 80 percent of its power from renewables by 2030, at prices far cheaper than paying the damage for climate change.” A just-published German-Finnish analysis claims that
[a] global transition to 100% renewable energy across all sectors — power, heat, transport and desalination before 2050 is feasible. Existing renewable energy potential and technologies, including storage, is capable of generating a secure energy supply at every hour throughout the year.
The problem, though, goes far beyond power generation and requires a radical restructuring of production, consumption, and mobility in Western countries. The imperative is to pull off, in the next few years, a mobilization on the scale of World War II. McKibben evokes how, “[a]fter the attack on Pearl Harbor, the world’s largest industrial plant under a single roof went up in six months, near Ypsilanti, Michigan; […] within months, it was churning out a B-24 liberator bomber every hour.”
Hope being more motivating than despair, the book is a call to arms: “Let’s be, for a while, true optimists, and operate on the assumption that human beings are not grossly defective. Let’s assume we’re capable of acting together to do remarkable things.” It is a lovely sentiment, but also a reminder that it is not only the climate change deniers who are anti-science. So, too, are the technology enthusiasts and renewable-energy optimists who entertain the fantasy that it will be possible for 10 billion people — 40 percent more than today by the end of the century — to live in the style of the American or European middle class.
Population growth is one of the blind spots in Falter; nuclear energy, carbon pricing, carbon capture, and sequestration are others. Sensing, perhaps, that the political traffic cannot bear much, the book’s US-centrism avoids another uncomfortable insight, namely that climate change is a global public policy problem that cannot be solved in one country only, but requires international cooperation, compromise, and cohesion. But these are not notions in sync with “America First.” Possible, too, that McKibben prefers not to complicate matters, get side-tracked, or cause paralyzing gloom, even though he acknowledges that a “writer doesn’t owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty.”
Nevertheless, Falter provides ample evidence that we are on the cusp of an avoidable disaster. Weighing future cataclysm against short-term comfort should be a no-brainer because, if the climate breaks down, all bets are off. Don Quixote’s exertions may turn out to be worthwhile after all.
Franz Baumann is a senior fellow and a member of the board of trustees at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin as well as a visiting professor at New York University. Prior to entering academia, he worked for the United Nations for over 30 years in many places and capacities. As an assistant secretary-general, his last assignment was special advisor on the Environment and Peace Operations.