Friday, January 25, 2013


Bill McKibben's eaarth is two books in one. The first book, consisting of the first two chapters, presents a rigorous, evidence-based argument enlivened by well-chosen anecdotes, in favor of the thesis that we have already passed certain critical thresholds of atmospheric carbon, triggered certain feedback loops, that mean we have fundamentally transformed the earth's climate from that in which human civilization arose and came to thrive. (Note also that this was published in 2010.)

That book is an indispensable political document that should be read by all.

From a parochial perspective, this thesis also implies that the traditional boundary between realist fiction and science fiction is obsolete. That fiction is most realistic which takes place in worlds that are unrecognizably strange. (One could make an argument that this is what literary modernists were grasping for a century ago in response to the mass industrialization that got us to this point. With rare and brilliant exceptions, however, they failed.) To approximate this synthesis, realist fiction would need to become more realistic--more Bangladeshi teenage girls walking hours every day to find potable water, working-class people of color seeking to escape the waters of Katrina or Sandy, or even Maine lobstermen trying to find a bearable market price for a bumper-catch of shedders, many fewer middle-aged professors pondering mortality and lusting after their students. And science fiction must become more scientific. I should thank McKibben for prompting me to write the sentences that describe what I attempt in my fiction.

More significantly, however, he provides a prod to my political thoughts. And that is by way of the second book, comprising the last two chapters, in which he sets forth his preferred responses, which in no way follow logically from the situation he describes.

He describes a situation in which sea levels will rise, and hundreds of millions of people will be displaced, most of them from what are already some of the poorest places on earth. And he proposes a devolution of political and economic power to the smallest possible units, creating additional boundaries in addition to those that already kill. He describes a global natural system that has been perturbed by human action in a complex manner, such that most of the impact stems from a minority of the population and a minority of nations. In response, he prescribes smallness and simplicity, setting up the Prisoner's Dilemma to be enacted ten-thousandfold.

To illustrate my point, I will not even resort to the most dire situation--and one that McKibben himself cites several times in the first book, but not the second--that of Bangladesh, with 160 million of the world's poorest people in mortal danger. That would be too manipulative. Instead, let's go back to Greece. The summertime air pollution in Athens is notorious. Topography, climate, population density, overloaded infrastructure and a complete lack of political will to enforce even existing (inadequate) environmental regulations conspire to make the capital's atmosphere into an unbreathable aerosol of ozone and fine particulates. Now, in the midst of the economic crisis, the government following EU and IMF diktat has increased taxes on home heating oil and natural gas. How have everyday Greeks, at least 25% of whom are unemployed and, of those who are employed, likely have not received a paycheck in months, responded? Certainly not by tapping the country's immense geothermal resources, or tidal or wind or solar power, with all of which they could be blessed. That requires capital, a word that appears in McKibben's books only under such aliases as "sunk costs" or "business". Instead, people desperate for heat and unable to afford oil or gas have done what anyone in that situation would do: Break out their old, mothballed stoves and burn any piece of wood they can find--old furniture, the tree in the backyard, etc. Now the air in both Athens and Thessaloniki--Greece's second (and usually more livable) city--will choke you in winter as well.

That can't be good for the carbon footprint.

McKibben would no doubt say that part of his prescription involves the shrinking and de-urbanization of the cities, a return to rural life. And that is spontaneously underway in Greece, helped along by a strong, romantic attachment to the horio (village, country homeplace) in popular culture. But even assuming that a few million Athenians and Salonikans made their way back to the underpopulated horio, what would they do then? There's a comic novel to be written, by whoever the Greek version of T.C. Boyle might be, about the phenomenon.

What would 60,000 people stranded in Fort McMurray do to keep warm after the Great Devolution? Burn tar sands? That, more than the prospect of a few million Greeks chopping down fruit trees or bothering goats, should keep us all up at night.

Global problems require, at least as a first attempt, global solutions that transcend (i.e., abolish) the boundaries of nation-states. They require planning that takes into account multiple orders of effects within complex, non-linear, recursive systems, for several decades in advance. It requires decision-making processes based on the question "is this worth doing for the long-term preservation and improvement of human life?", not the question, "can a make a profit by going it?" There's a word for that: Communism.

McKibben dismisses Marx with a wave of the hand, but it's safe to bet that anyone who uses Khrushchev as an avatar of communism has never read volume III of Capital. And yes, I know that the ecological passages of that focus primarily on nitrogen fixing. But Marx died thirteen years before Svante Arrhenius formulated the greenhouse law, and Engels published Volume III two years before Arrhenius's work. Not to mention, nitrogen fixing is a significant concern of McKibben's as well, precisely because the use of industrial fertilizers is a significant source of atmospheric greenhouse gases. And "Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country" appears as early as the Communist Manifesto. Ecology is not incidental to Marx and Engels' conception of communism, but essential to it, precisely because, as good ex-Hegelians, they were accustomed to thinking rigorously about complex systems. McKibben throws up his hands about the very possibility of such thought, precisely because he remains within the narrow confines of a money economy that creates and reinforces, through the fetishization of human relationships, its impossibility.

Nonetheless, he is correct (up to a point) that existing ideologies need to shift in response to the new reality of "eaarth". To the extent that existing interpretations of Marxism do not base themselves upon rigorous scientific re-evaluation they have become ideologies.

One such ideology has been the ossification of Rosa Luxemburg's watchword and warning, "socialism or barbarism," into a description of two equidistant unimaginable futures. Even after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the far left grew complacent in capitalism's capacity to save itself from itself and pull back from its own worst excesses. Barbarism, in Luxemburg's sense, refers back again to the Manifesto, the "common ruin of the contending classes"--for Marx and Luxemburg both knew their Livy. That is, a situation where the capitalists, having been allowed to retain their power for too long due to the pusillanimity of the leaders of the proletariat, have destroyed the material conditions either for the continuance of their own system, or of anything better.

What the first part of eaarth shows us is that we are already well on our way to that state. Barbarism is no longer an abstract threat, but a state of affairs whose onset can be estimated, calculated, and placed within the projected lifetimes of most people now on the planet. And in the absence of organized and conscious revolutionary activity, we are much further from socialism than from barbarism. The response to that should not be despair, but urgency.

What is needed now is a politics of urgency. (Which brings me to the doorstep of the second part of my series on Leninism in the Age of Social Media, which I'll likely finish and post this weekend.)

Before I cross that threshold, though, one final word on McKibben. It is not entirely out of the question that his vision of the future could come to pass. Should we cross over into Luxemburg's barbarism, McKibben's of simple lives led in small communities bound by ties of mutual aid may well be the best-case scenario. But even with his somewhat grudging acknowledgment of certain dangers, it is far from as pleasant a prospect as he seems to think. Consider the state of Vermont, where McKibben lives and to which he justifiably makes many references--it's a lovely place. Maine, where I live, is nearly as good a place to go as Vermont to ride out the apocalypse, and there likely are few better places in the world for such a purpose than our states. Surely, though, he's familiar with the word "flatlander," just as I am with the phrase "from away." There's another word to bear in mind here, xenos, foreigner, or more literally, "person from away," from the people who gave us the word xenophobia--yes, I'm talking about Greeks again. And who, in Greece, is most aggressively practicing mutual aid? You guessed it--Golden Dawn, handing out packages of staple foods, but "for Greeks only".

In that world, one's well-being will be a function of how close to the equator you are, how close to the shore, how well you fit and are respected by those who are your neighbors now, or would fit in and be respected by those who would be your neighbors in the places you need to flee. It is a prospect not of ten thousand Vermonts, but of several billion varieties of hell.

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