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Environmental books suggest save-the-Earth climate may be entering a new phase

By Thomas Hayden
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; HE01

EAARTH

Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

By Bill McKibben

Times Books.

256 pp. $24

We have arrived at a strange moment in the history of the environmental movement, caught as we are between the political stagnation of Copenhagen in December and the celebration of Earth Day's 40th anniversary this week. It is a time, if three books now being published are any indication, for reassessment. But if the tenor is contemplative, it is anything but resigned. And if there's consensus, it seems to be that the era of easy fixes -- eat organic, drive a Prius, think about installing solar panels -- may be coming to a close. The idea isn't new, though the momentum gathering behind it may be: To save the planet, many now argue, it isn't enough simply to green the economy we have. Instead, we need to rethink the whole economic system from the bottom up.

Bill McKibben, whose 1989 "The End of Nature" was an early-warning cry about the dangers of climate change, helped to usher in the modern era of environmental awareness. But we've changed the planet so much now, he says, that it's no longer the place he was writing about 20 years ago. Thus the amended name: "Eaarth," with the supernumerary "a," is a planet so profoundly altered by human hands (and tailpipes) that it requires a new name to "remind us how profoundly we've altered the only place we've ever known."

Questionable title notwithstanding, the premise that our planet has already been irrevocably changed by human action is not terribly far off the mark. Serious scientists have proposed a new geological era, the anthropocene, to describe the severity and pervasiveness of human impacts from the ocean depths to the edge of space. Humans are not just changing the climate and the chemistry of seawater with CO2, after all. Humankind has become the single biggest cause of erosion, the major producer of biologically available nitrogen and the dominant force in the present and future evolution of life on Earth, to name just a few mind-bendingly massive impacts. It's a wonder anyone other than creationist, climate-change-denying members of the Flat Earth Society can sleep at night.

McKibben has written and worried about these changes for about as long as anyone, and with more intellectual and emotional depth than most. He catalogues them here well, but his purpose is significantly deeper. McKibben has gone in recent years from chronicling the changing Earth to leading crusades to slow the change down. With "Eaarth," he doesn't quite concede defeat. But he does seem weary as he argues, in essence, that we had better learn to lie in this strange and lumpy new bed we've made, because the old, comfortable one isn't coming back.

Rather than vainly trying to invest and invent our way out of trouble or embracing the gloom of inevitable collapse, McKibben writes, "we might choose instead to try to manage our descent." Think smaller farms with less chemical inputs; think distributed, diverse, renewable energy sources rather than mega-projects; think, as McKibben has it, "lightly, carefully, gracefully."

Late to the party

Careful and graceful are not, unfortunately, words that come to mind after reading Heather Rogers's disjointed and pessimistic "Green Gone Wrong." "Jejune" may be more like it, as she trips glibly through the complex interplay between ecology and economy, apparently reaching for but not quite grasping conclusions similar to McKibben's. She isn't so much wrong in her breathless "discovery" of perverse incentives, unintended consequences and corporate green-washing. She's just late to the party, and probably a few lifecycle analyses short of a cogent argument. Subsidizing biofuels can steer agriculture away from producing foods for human consumption? "Fair trade" products sometimes aren't?

Well, yes. But what "Green Gone Wrong" lacks, and Rogers's extensive international reporting for the book apparently didn't provide, is sense of perspective. Anyone with a laptop and a book advance can head to the tropics and find a carbon offset scheme gone wrong. But to do so without placing the disheartening anecdotes in their larger context is the moral equivalent of dropping out of statistics class because it's hard. Retooling the vastly imperfect global economic system to benefit both people and the planet is hard, and Rogers fails to make the case that the attempt has failed, let alone offer even a conceptual framework for the kind of change she might prefer to believe in.

Beyond the homilies

Perhaps it is not surprising that the most radical work comes not from the journalist-turned-activist or from the self-styled muckraker but from the Oxford economist. Paul Collier, a specialist in development policy and author of "The Bottom Billion," argues not that nature be preserved but that natural assets be used much more wisely to improve the lot of the poorest humans.

In "The Plundered Planet," Collier spends more time on corrupt officials, wasteful incentives and generally mixed-up priorities than he does on emptied seas and a carbon-choked atmosphere, but he does draw the connections between the two. Get the incentives right, he suggests, and we can have a more equitable world economy, get climate change under control, and maybe have a few fish to eat as well -- though he does warn against "ridiculously pious . . . homilies about our duty to sustain the natural world in the condition to which it has become accustomed."

To improve the lot of our most impoverished fellow human beings is the most worthy goal of all, and Collier is as obviously right about ending corruption as Rogers is about ending phony carbon offsets. But Collier appears to miss entirely the simple reality that many of the quite sensible prescriptions he recommends, such as dramatically intensifying commercial agriculture in the developing world, depend on robust and resilient natural ecosystems to work.

Bizarrely, none of these authors discusses population growth in any kind of depth, if at all.

Greed and overconsumption? Sure, that's a problem. Injustice, poverty and the plundering of natural assets? Yes, we should deal with that, too. Raising the living standards of all while decreasing carbon emissions and a dozen different classes of human impact? Not quite so straightforward -- and arguably impossible with a global population that has already doubled since the Johnson administration and is racing to triple by mid-century.

The good news is that helping people to have smaller families is a lot easier than retooling the global economic system: Very frequently, all it takes is providing the means for family planning to those who want it but don't have access. Condoms and birth control pills won't solve all our environmental and economic problems. But they can make almost every one we have substantially easier to deal with.

Economists and environmentalists are going to have to start talking about that part of the consumption equation, too. Because the authors are right about one thing: Humanity is on an unsustainable path, and a major reassessment of business as usual is in order.

Hayden teaches environmental writing and journalism at Stanford University.

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