On Being a 21st Century Peasant

Environmentalist Bill McKibben's new book on the coming global collapse.


"Here's all I'm trying to say: The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists," asserts environmentalist Bill McKibben in his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. "The earth that we knew'"the only earth we ever knew'"is gone." According to McKibben, we are about to find ourselves living on a much less friendly planet he calls "Eaarth." Why? Because the climate is about to get really freaky due to man-made global warming and we're also about to run out of oil'"the apocalypse, courtesy of Peak Temperature and Peak Oil combined. McKibben is no stranger to environmentalist jeremiads, having declared The End of Nature back in 1989 due to global warming and the rise of biotechnology. Twenty years later he's declaring the end of civilization, at least, as we know it.

Eaarth follows the time-honored structure of environmentalist tracts, opening with a quick rehearsal of the science that allegedly seals our terrible fate, followed by a much longer disquisition outlining the author's elaborate plan for salvation. But to give McKibben some credit; unlike many prior doomsters, such as Paul Ehrlich or climatologist Stephen Schneider, McKibben doesn't argue for top-down centralized salvation. Instead he thinks that the situation is so dire that centralized solutions will fail and that we'll have to return to living in villages and farms'"to become 21st century peasants.

Melting arctic ice, expanding tropics, melting mountain glaciers, acidifying oceans, worse hurricanes, and rising seas are all cited as evidence of impending doom by McKibben. All of these things, with the exception of worse hurricanes, are happening. For example, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, for instance, the arctic ice cap has been melting away at a rate of about 3 percent per decade since 1978. New research does suggest that a lot of this melting can be attributed to wind shifts rather than directly to global warming. Interestingly, Arctic sea ice recovered this March to almost normal levels. But McKibben is right that global temperatures have been increasing. One set of satellite data shows that global average temperatures have been increasing at a rate of 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade since 1979. Overall, surface records suggest that average temperature has increased by about 0.7 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.

So he's not wrong about everything. But so eager is he to make his case for doom, McKibben can't resist pushing data farther than it should go. To see how McKibben uses and abuses available data to construct a tale of climate doom, let's examine his treatment of hurricane data. McKibben asserts that "One hundred eleven hurricanes formed in the tropical Atlantic between 1995 and 2008, a rise of 75 percent over the previous thirteen years." Fair enough. But what if one parses the data the way respected hurricane researchers at Florida State University do? Those researchers find globally that the number of major tropical cyclones during the 1980s was 149, in 1990s was 179, and in 2000s was 165. The overall trend is not significant during the past 30 years. The overall numbers for tropical storms: 1980s: 324, 1990s: 367, 2000s: 317. In addition, the actual total energy of tropical cyclones has been declining for the past 30 years. On the other hand, new research by climate modelers suggests that global warming will result in fewer but stronger hurricanes.

To prove that things are getting worse, McKibben cites a 2008 New York Times op-ed which claims that the last 30 years have yielded as many weather-related disasters as the first three quarters of the 20th century combined. The op-ed notes that the U.S. has suffered the most. Sounds bad, right? Sure, but a closer look reveals that annual global mortality from weather disasters has declined from nearly 500,000 per year in the 1920s to 22,000 annually in the early 21st century. The annual mortality rate has dropped from 242 per million in the 1920s to 3 per million. In the U.S., the amount of property damaged by weather events is indeed up, but almost entirely because there is more property to damage and because more people live in coastal areas subject to hurricanes.

With regard to rising seas, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment report estimated that overall rise would likely be between 7 and 23 inches by 2100. In general, sea level has been rising at about 8 inches per century. As to how humanity might cope with rising seas, consider the case of Boston. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that sea level has been rising at Boston at a rate of 10 inches per century. Yet, the city has not been inundated. In fact, as the accompanying map shows, since 1775 the city has dramatically expanded into areas that were once covered by the sea. In other words, people don't just stand there and drown as the rising waves break over their heads. They adapt and thrive.

Apparently concerned that apocalyptic claims about climate change weren't enough, McKibben dives into resource depletion as well. McKibben nostalgically looks back to The Limits to Growth, a 1972 report from the Club of Rome that describes just what the name suggests. As examples of reaching the predicted limits to growth McKibben cites declining fish catches since the 1990s and peaking per capita grain production in the 1980s. Looking behind these claims, one finds that wild-caught fish production has been falling, but aquaculture has been boosting overall supplies. The latest report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization finds in 1970 that per capita fish consumption was around 11 kilograms per person; in 2006, it had risen to around 17 kilograms per person, almost entirely due to aquaculture. And McKibben misses the point entirely that wild-caught fisheries are declining not because their limits were reached but because they have been plundered as open access commons.

With regard to global grain supplies, McKibben is right that per capita supplies peaked in the 1980s, but he fails to mention that overall global grain production has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. After reaching 376 kilograms of grain per person in 1986, even the alarmists at the Worldwatch Institute observed, "In recent decades, as growth in grain production has matched population growth, per capita production has hovered around 350 kilograms per person." Just a note: About a third of all grain is fed to animals to produce meat.

So what to do in the face of all this doom and gloom? "We'll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we've climbed," asserts McKibben. Why? Because climate change will make it more difficult to raise food using modern agriculture and, even more importantly, because we're about to run out of oil to drive our tractors and supply our fertilizers. Thus McKibben concludes that we will have to retreat to small towns and begin to raise food using more labor. He envisions the future on Eaarth as a kind of communitarian back-to-the-land agrarian utopia.

For the sake of argument, let's assume he's right about peak oil; does that mean the era of expansive global civilization and economic growth is over? Not necessarily. Surely one can imagine that transportation might become increasingly electrified, perhaps using new-fangled traveling wave nuclear reactors. This would reduce the demand for oil keeping its price relatively lower for farming uses. In addition, biotechnologists have developed crop varieties that use two-thirds less nitrogen fertilizer than conventional varieties do which would also reduce the demand for oil in farming. In other words, civilization could well save itself by means of technological fixes and economic growth.

McKibben cites a quotation from economist Larry Summers who is now President Barack Obama's chief economics adviser. "There are no … limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn't a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else," said Summers in 1999. "The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error." Summers is expressing confidence in human creativity to innovate and to solve problems. In Eaarth, McKibben sees retreat from modernity as our only option because he believes that humanity has reached the limits of our creativity.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.