NB: published in slightly altered form on Climate & Capitalism
According to North-American environmental activist Bill McKibben, planet Earth has died. That which has come to replace does not, constitute dialectical progress toward a higher or better state; the new-born planet, named Eaarth by McKibben in his book of the same name (New York: Times Books, 2010), follows instead from the brutality and thoughtlessness engaged in by much of humanity since its historical emergence. In McKibben’s estimation, the Holocene geological epoch—one that, characterized by a narrow range of fluctuation in average global temperatures, has allowed for humanity’s rise and development on Earth over the past 12,000 years—can no longer be said to exist, due to anthropogenic interference with planetary climate systems as well as human-induced environmental destruction writ large; Eaarth, referred to elsewhere as the Anthropocene, jeopardizes the survival of much of humanity and the continuation of a great deal of life itself. Such-world historical regression is “pretty outrageous,” as a climatologist McKibben quotes in the work has it; for McKibben, indeed, it represents “the deepest of human failures.” In light of such negations, though, McKibben suggests that “we must keep fighting, in the hope that we can limit [the] damage” visited by constituted power on humanity and the planet; like Noam Chomsky, he sees no legitimate alternative to present struggle.
As an academic concerned with environmental studies, McKibben is cognizant of the dire nature of the present state of affairs. On the new Eaarth, he mentions that billion-people famines could be regular events by the middle of the present century, that the flow of the Euphrates and Nile rivers could well decline significantly in the near future, and that glacier retreat in the Himalayas and Andes could cause the water supplies of billions to dwindle within decades. In light of the various horrors climate catastrophe could visit upon history, McKibben suggests that humanity recognize limits to what Max Horkheimer terms its seemingly “boundless imperialism”1—as Meadows et al. have emphasized since the publication of their Limits to Growth in 1972—and jettison “the consumer lifestyle” altogether, instead adopting a “Plan B” characterized by the sharing of resources between Northern and Southern societies within the context of a joint effort to thoroughly re-arrange global society on rational-ecological grounds. McKibben here re-affirms the goal of attaining an atmospheric carbon-concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm), noting that carbon-concentrations higher than 350 ppm jeopardize the capabilities of human society to function. Toward this end he endorses what he calls a “clean-tech Apollo mission” and an “ecological New Deal,” arguing that such thoroughgoing changes be accompanied by a return to small-scale organic agriculture on the part of humanity generally conceived. This final recommendation, it should be said, is not terribly different from those made by Via Campesina.
Despite the critical and important perspectives advanced in the contributions made by McKibben in Eaarth as summarized above, it must be said that much of the rest of the book is little more than mystificatory platitudes that serve present power-arrangements. For one, McKibben places responsibility for the regression to Eaarth and the various possible future negations that could be introduced by climate catastrophe at the feet of “modernity,” which he defines as “the sudden availability” of “cheap fossil fuel” in the eighteenth century CE. There is no recognition here, or at any point in the work, of the processes which resulted in the onset of the capitalist mode of production during this period of human history; similarly, there is no explicit critique of the highly destructive nature of capitalism in general. It should not be surprising, then, that his present recommendations do not include a call for the abolition of capitalist social relations. Furthermore, he rather bizarrely seems to hold the current U.S. president as some sort of messianic figure worthy of devotion, claiming Obama to be “a president using centralized power to good ends” who is working “aggressively” toward the creation of a global climate-change accord—against all evidence. Such highly irrational views, of course, are typical of liberal environmentalists: in presenting the accession of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1981 as the onset of a markedly irresponsible socio-environmental regime—one he would have us believe as being dramatically different from that overseen by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter—McKibben once again betrays his ties to hegemonic politics. Unsurprisingly, he also endorses the imperial scheme presently being considered to erect vast solar plants in North Africa for use among European consumers and seems to support the maintenance of existing dams and the building of new ones for the development of “clean” hydropower.
McKibben presents these reactionary perspectives while engaging in a maddening tendency to attribute responsibility for the current socio-environmental predicament to an amorphous ‘we’—as though the impoverished, the young, and other excluded groups have had any sort of choice on climate policy, let alone the course of history. This obfuscatory tendency contrasts significantly with views advanced by Chomsky, who in June 2009 suggested a thought-experiment by which North-Americans 50 years ago were to have been given the choice of directing resources either toward the development of “iPods and the internet” or instead the creation of “a livable and sustainable socioeconomic order”—a false choice, as Chomsky points out, for no such offer has ever been made.2 Indeed, McKibben’s attribution of a vague sense of collective responsibility reflects comments made in March 2010 by world-renown Earth scientist James Lovelock, who then alarmingly claimed humanity not yet to have “evolved” to the point at which it is “clever enough” to deal with climate change.3 That McKibben claims at one point in Eaarth that “[w]e don’t pay much attention to poor people” should need little comment.
Given his recognition of the dire state of the present, it is perhaps strange that he does not come to conclusions more substantive than his call for a return to small-scale agriculture coupled with a “green Manhattan project” (!). Eaarth, for example, includes little reflection on the terrifyingly repressive actions that capitalists and their defenders may well take to attempt to maintain their privileges within the context of a climate-destabilized world, as examined briefly in Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars (2008), as elsewhere. Remarkably, indeed, McKibben fails to systematically examine the alarming possible impacts climate change could have on future agricultural production—considerations that may well prove important for the viability of his ‘back to the land’ project!
In sum, then, Bill McKibben is surely not Walter Benjamin, the revolutionary German historian who died fleeing the Nazis 70 years ago. Hope for the present predicament may lie in the possibility, though, that parts of McKibben’s Eaarth can help move humanity toward adopting Benjamin’s concept of revolution—the “attempt by the passengers” on a metaphorical train “to activate the emergency brake” before being barrelled on into the abyss.4
1The End of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 108
3Javier Sethness, “Is Humanity Too Stupid to Deal with Climate Change?” MRZine, 7 April 2010
4Selected Writings. Volume 4: 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 402