Bill McKibben, and his latest prognosis of ‘Eaarth’


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Bill McKibben came to the Festival of Books to talk about “Eaarth,” his new book about civilization’s need to learn to cope with a dire environmental reality, but the talk Sunday pivoted more on the crucial point of hope. As in, do we have any?


McKibben, whose journalism and books like “End of Nature” have helped propel awareness of global warming, argued that, regardless of political posturing, global warming is a matter of fact, not speculation, and that the world could well have already passed a crucial turning point. Island nations such as the Maldives likely will not survive even with great and fast strides in halting the escalation of the world’s temperature.

McKibben is a key player in the “350” movement, which is trying to build global pressure on the top industrialized nations to change polices and practices that pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He cited a NASA report from a few years ago that estimated 350 parts per million was the maximum level of carbon dioxide to continue to sustain ecosystems as we know them. “We’re already past it,” he old moderator and book critic Susan Salter Reynolds. “We’re at 390, and its going up 2 parts per million a year.”

Yet the United States, the largest economy in the world, has been unable to find the political will to effect necessary changes, McKibben told an enthusiastic audience. “Slow, deliberate democracy is one thing, but paralysis is another thing,” McKibben said. “In this country, it is very painful to watch, especially because in this case our paralysis is in an issue like that that completely infests the rest of the world. It’s almost impossible to corral global warming when the biggest economy in the world can’t make up it’s mind to go along.”

McKibben fears that the option left to civilization is to reverse the levels of carbon dioxide while trying to find ways to live in the ecosystem already undergoing alterations. “The only thing that stands a prayer of adding up in time is getting a price on carbon stiff enough that the economic level will transform the decisions people make every day,’ he said. A clear example of how that changes behavior, he said, was in the summer of 2008 when gas was above $4 a gallon. “People started saying, ‘You know, you’re right, I really don’t need a military vehicle to go to the grocery store,’ ” McKibben said.

Despite the dire condition of the environment, he said, he still believes the best approach is to work every day toward effecting change – an imperative he said helped transform him from a journalist into an activist.

Oh, and how do you pronounce “Eaarth?”

“Do your best Schwarzenegger impersonation,” McKibben said, “and see what it sounds like.”

Scott Martelle, author of ‘Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.’