eaarth by Bill McKibben is a home-run book which when read carefully is clearly a worthless pop-up fly. Instead of being out of the park winner it’s just a plain out of the game loser hit. The basic premise is that if everyone would live the simple life of double digging their garden and similar types of homespun things everyone would live happily ever after in a sustainable world. This book is basically A Thousand and One Nights
of fantasy of short well told stories with well defined borders but in the end it’s ridiculously optimistic and not like the conclusion of that old classic by Richard Burton which more realistically ends with the sands of time blowing over a desolation where the beautiful uplifting stories transpired.
eaarth gets many facts right about the current world situation, like acknowledging the population explosion and the finite quantity of Earth’s resources but then draws a ridiculously short sighted view that population growth is tapering off and alternate ways will be found for creating abundant energy. McKibben apparently believes that human beings are so smart that they will find technological fixes for everything, no matter what. However, when it comes to this obviously intelligent, well educated well connected man personally coming up with long term fixes he simply returns to Medieval techniques of living off the land in a sustainable way. For example, he recommends filling hand dug trenches with various good things which will make a garden grow better but mostly its manure. He claims things grown this way will taste better and people who double-dig their own fields by hand with shovels are happier. That would be wonderful but it’s pie in the sky which many of his followers are gobbling up when they buy into his Utopian world view.
A more realistic appraisal would be that the population of the Earth living with the Medieval technology he promotes so enthusiastically would have to have a population consistent with Medieval times. That population is more like a quarter of a billion people instead of the current seven billion. People living on McKibben’s eco-friendly eaarth would require six and three quarters billion of the presently living people to die. That comes to 27 out of 28 people would have to die in order for his beautiful world view to prevail. However, it would be much worse than that because much of the top soil which sustained the Medieval world population has been washed away into the sea. Without input of artificial fertilizers, which he deplores, our world population would soon crash.
Personally, I am of the opinion we are living at present in an Earthly paradise but that it will not last forever as McKibben projects. It will last for quite a while longer, in personal terms, much longer than you can hold your breath, but in terms of lifetimes of children now alive it will be all too short. A hundred years of present life style will find a way into a corner from which there is no escape except to shrink the whole structure. I don’t know what the tipping point will be and I don’t know when it will snap and I don’t know what the triggering events will be. I say that not because possible breaking points are invisible but because there are so many of them and it is impossible to know which one will break first. But once one of them does break the others will soon follow.
The book eaarth is right on target in the sense that we must find a way to achieve sustainability as opposed to the world view of frantic growth which we presently inhabit. In a thousand years I wouldn’t be surprised if most people were living much as he proposes. That is living both a very high tech internet style life style of virtual reality with an almost non-existent carbon footprint and almost zero energy input from outside power sources. At the same time expending quite a lot of human physical energy creating food and local products out of their own labor. But, that life style will be not so much a sought after ideal McKibbin proposes but a necessity forced upon those future people by necessity.
People’s access to the greater world would be even more electronic than it is today but they would spend zero time flying about the world in hydrocarbon powered airplanes and automobiles. I suspect world travel, to the extent it will be done, will be by electric trains across continents and across the oceans by high tech sailing ships perhaps with an electric assist. San Francisco to London might be two weeks in a cabin sleeper with a lounge instead of one longish day in airports and interminable sitting. But, the impact on the environment would me much less and people would be away from their farms only occasionally when they were lying fallow. People would spend more of their time closer to home and know their local people better. It might be rather pleasant. Physical work isn’t unpleasant once you get into the chores.
I think that rather than drop into a fantasy world which won’t work it would be more realistic to work towards a future world which will work. Instead of building a better hydrocarbon driven world, which must fail in the hundred year time frame, to build toward a new type of high tech world where transportation of information and material is made as sustainable and as cheap as it is possible to make them. And to achieve these goals with an absolute minimum consumption of of sustainable energy. Sustainable in this sense means derived directly from solar energy rather than fossil hydrocarbon stored solar energy.
Energy is the ultimate resource. So it becomes imperative to make homes, business and whole cities as near zero energy consumptive as possible. They should be so well insulated from the environment and themselves that they consume no energy to heat or cool or conduct their business.
eaarth as envisioned by McKibbon may be closer to what most people will be living like in a thousand years as far as how we create food or it may be absolutely wrong. However, one thing I think we both would agree upon is that the world of a thousand years from now won’t look much like today’s world.
McKibben almost totally avoids the subject of war especially a really serious atomic war but on page 85 he has an informative quote from David Stipp,Fortune, Jan 26,2004. “Wars over resources were the norm until about three centuries ago. When such conflicts broke out, 25% of a population’s adult males usually died. As abrupt climate change hits home, warfare may again come to define human life.” (But then with typical head in the sand thinking he says) – Well, that’s a tad grim. Not really the career I trained for, fighting other adult males over the fall harvest. And I don’t think we need to go there.
Why should you read a book by someone who admits to avoiding the facts.