On Being a 21st-Century Peasant

An environmentalist warns: We're getting a whole new planet.


Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben, Times Books, 272 pages, $24

"Here's all I'm trying to say: The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists," Bill McKibben declares in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. "The earth that we knew—the only earth we ever knew—is gone." The climate is about to get really freaky due to man-made global warming, and we're also about to run out of oil: peak temperature and peak oil combined. The result, McKibben says, is that we're about to find ourselves living on a much less friendly planet he calls "Eaarth."

McKibben is no stranger to environmentalist jeremiads, having declared The End of Nature due to global warming and the rise of biotechnology back in 1989. Twenty years later he's declaring the end of civilization 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. Give McKibben some credit: Unlike many prior doomsters, such as Paul Ehrlich and Stephen Schneider, he doesn't argue for a top-down solution. He sees a situation so dire that centralized strategies will fail and we'll have to return to living in villages and farms, becoming 21st-century peasants.

McKibben's evidence of the impending apocalypse includes melting Arctic ice, melting mountain glaciers, expanding tropics, acidifying oceans, worsening hurricanes, and rising seas. All these things except the hurricanes are happening. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, for example, the Arctic ice cap has been shrinking at a rate of about 3 percent a decade since 1978. New research suggests a lot of this melting can be attributed to wind shifts rather than directly to global warming, and the Arctic sea ice recovered last March to almost normal levels. But McKibben is right that global temperatures have been rising. One set of satellite data shows global average temperatures increasing at a rate of 0.13 degree Celsius per decade since 1979. Overall, surface records suggest that average temperature has increased by about 0.7 degree Celsius during the last 100 years.

McKibben is so eager to make his case for doom, though, that he can't resist pushing the data farther than they go. Consider his comments about hurricanes. 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 according to hurricane researchers at Florida State University, the global number of major tropical cyclones was 149 in the 1980s, 179 in the 1990s, and 165 in the 2000s. The overall trend is not significant during the last 30 years. The overall numbers for tropical storms are 324 in the 1980s, 367 in the 1990s, and 317 in the 2000s. Moreover, the total energy of tropical cyclones has been declining for the last 30 years. In McKibben's favor, new research by climate modelers suggests 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 that claims the last 30 years have yielded as many weather-related disasters as the first three-quarters of the 20th century. The article also notes that the U.S. has suffered the most. Sounds bad, 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 today. In the U.S., the amount of property damaged by weather events is indeed up, but that's almost entirely because there is more property to damage and because more people live in coastal areas subject to hurricanes.

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that sea levels will rise between seven and 23 inches by 2100. In general, the sea level has been rising by about eight inches per century. How might humanity cope with that? Well, consider the case of Boston. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sea has been rising at Boston at a rate of about 10 inches per century. Yet the city has not been inundated. In fact, since 1775 the city has dramatically expanded into areas that were once covered by the ocean. In other words, people don't just stand there and drown as the rising waves break over their heads. They adapt and thrive.

McKibben dives into resource depletion as well, looking back nostalgically at The Limits to Growth, a 1972 report from the Club of Rome that describes just what the name suggests. To show the limits we've reached, McKibben cites declining fish catches since the 1990s and peaking per capita grain production in the 1980s.

McKibben is right that per capita grain supplies peaked in the 1980s, but he neglects to mention that overall global grain production has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. Consequently, per capita production has been steady. Even, as even the alarmists at the Worldwatch Institute acknowledge: "In recent decades, as growth in grain production has matched population growth, per capita production has hovered around 350 kilograms per person." And while wild-caught fish production has been falling, aquaculture has been boosting overall supplies. According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, per capita fish consumption, about 11 kilograms per person in 1970, had risen to about 17 kilograms per person by 2006, almost entirely due to aquaculture. The more important point to be made here is one that McKibben misses: Wild-caught fisheries are declining not because their limits were reached but because they have been plundered as open-access commons.

So what should we 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," McKibben writes. Why? Because climate change will make it more difficult to raise food using modern agriculture and, more important, 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 McKibben is right about peak oil. Does that mean the era of expansive global civilization and economic growth is over? Not necessarily. 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 also would reduce the demand for oil in farming. Civilization could well save itself by means of technological fixes and economic growth.

McKibben sees a retreat from modernity as our only option because he believes humans have reached the limits of our creativity. But there's every sign that our capacity to innovate around problems remains limitless. 

Ronald Bailey (rbailey@reason.com) is reason's science correspondent.