As We Face Environmental Trauma and Do-Nothing Politicians, Our Last Hope Is Fighting Back
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Below is Bill McKibben's afterword to " Eaarth," where he shares his reflections of the ongoing environmental events since the publication of his book. Recently, McKibben has been a key leader in the protests in front of the White House against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
The months after the initial publication of Eaarth saw some of the most intense environmental trauma the planet has ever witnessed, events that exemplified the forces I have described in the book.
For Americans, the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began on April 20, 2010, may have provided the most powerful images—there was, after all, an underwater camera showing the leak up close. (Leak? This was not a leak—it was a stab wound that BP inflicted on the ocean floor, a literal hole in the bottom of the sea. If you ever had any doubts about peak oil, all it took was one view of the extreme places and pressures the oil companies now had to endure to find even marginal amounts of crude. The well that BP was drilling would have supplied only about four days’ worth of America’s oil consumption.) The pictures reminded us of the thing we’ve been trying to forget since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly fifty years before: “Progress” and “growth” come with a dark side, in this case an easy-to-see dark black side. Just a couple of weeks before the spill, President Barack Obama had reopened much of the coastline to oil drilling, arguing, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” By midsummer, a chagrined president was reduced to telling the nation that he’d only lifted the moratorium “under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe.”
But that’s the point - there’s nothing absolutely safe anymore, not when we’re pushing past every limit. There’s not even anything relatively safe; we’re overloading every system around us. If it’s not too big to fail, it’s too deep to fail, or too complicated to fail. And it’s failing.
As it turns out, however, the BP spill was not the most dangerous thing that happened in the months after this book was first published. In fact, in the spring and summer of 2010, the list of startling events in the natural world included:
- Nineteen nations setting new all-time high temperature records, which in itself is a record. Some of those records were for entire regions—Burma set the new mark for Southeast Asia at 118 degrees, and Pakistan the new zenith for all of Asia at 129 degrees.
- Scientists reported that the earth had just come through the warmest six months, the warmest year, and the warmest decade for which we have records; it appears 2010 will be the warmest calender year on record.
- The most protracted and extreme heatwave in a thousand years of Russian history (it had never before topped 100 degrees in Moscow) led to a siege of peat fires that shrouded the capital in ghostly, deadly smoke. The same heat also cut Russia’s grain harvest so sharply that the Kremlin ordered an end to all grain exports to the rest of the world, which in turn drove up world grain prices sharply.
- Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air (as explained in chapter 1), scientists were not surprised to see steady increases in flooding. Still, the spring and summer of 2010 were off the charts. We saw “thousand-year storms” across the globe, including in American locales like Nashville, the mountains of Arkansas, and Oklahoma City, all with deadly results. But this was nothing compared with Pakistan, where a flooded Indus River put 13 million people on the move, and destroyed huge swaths of the country’s infrastructure.
- Meanwhile, in the far north, the Petermann Glacier on Greenland calved an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan.
- And the most ominous news of all might have come from the pages of the eminent scientific journal Nature, which published an enormous study of the productivity of the earth’s seas. Warming waters had put a kind of cap on the ocean, reducing the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water from below. As a result, the study found, the volume of phytoplankton had fallen by half over the last sixty years. Since phytoplankton is the world’s largest source of organic matter, this was unwelcome news.
Indeed, all of these observations were unwelcome, if at some level expected. They were further, deeper signs of earth transforming itself into Eaarth. And they had reached the level where few who lived through the events wanted to deny their meaning. Here was the president of Russia, Dimitri Medvedev, after watching the fires that shut down Moscow for weeks: “Everyone is talking about climate change now. Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” (This from the president of a country whose economy totally depends on the endless production of oil and gas.)