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Shambhala Sun | September 2010
You'll find this review on page 75 of the magazine.

Attention Eaarthlings

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

By Bill McKibben

Times Books/Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2010. 253 pp. $24


Reviewed by Jill S. Schneiderman

From the get-go, Bill McKibben admits that the title of his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, with two a’s, is weird. Yet it concisely conveys McKibben’s meaning: that Eaarth is simultaneously familiar and completely new.

In McKibben’s view, humans have changed Earth so fundamentally that it’s no longer the planet on which civilization developed over the last ten thousand years. Hence the homophone: we live on “Eaarth,” not “Earth.” “Eaarth,” McKibben says, represents the “deepest of human failures,” but we’re going to have to learn to live on this “tough new planet.”

Bill McKibben is the author of numerous books, including The End of Nature (1989), the first book for laypeople about climate change. He is the founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated a widespread day of political action that included 1,500 Buddhist monks and nuns forming a human “350” against a Himalayan backdrop. He deserves our attention.

A well-built book, Eaarth is divided into four readable chapters. In the first two, McKibben details the present condition of “Eaarth” and describes how we created it. Seawater has become acidic as oceans absorb atmospheric carbon. The cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realm of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is currently doing so. Tropical regions have expanded two degrees north and south, changing rainfall patterns and causing droughts, fires, and floods. Furthermore, these geographically vast features are metamorphosing rapidly and we’re the cause. We humans have acted as geologic agents at nongeologic time scales.

McKibben’s central point is a corollary to this formulation: global change is no longer merely a threat; catalyzed by fast, insatiable growth, it’s our reality. He articulates what has so far not been proclaimed loudly, if at all. The time for warning about warming has passed; we already live on a drastically altered planet. In this way, McKibben’s book moves beyond another readable volume on the subject, Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 Field Notes From a Catastrophe. A staff writer for the New Yorker (as McKibben once was), Kolbert delves into the science more than he, and puts it poetically. In contrast, McKibben, provides the plain facts in deliberate fashion, motivated by his simple conviction that, “We need to see clearly. No illusions, no fantasies, no melodrama.”

McKibben devotes the book’s second half to tenets for durable existence on “Eaarth,” which he characterizes as living “lightly, carefully, gracefully.” His prescription for a livable future calls for “scaling back” and “hunkering down”—forming communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth. We need to mature, jettison complexity, and get small. With characteristic élan, McKibben states

In the new world we’ve created, the one with hotter temperatures and more drought and less oil, big is vulnerable. We are going to need to split up, at least a little, if we’re going to avoid being subdued by the forces we’ve unleashed. Scale matters, and at the moment ours is out of whack with our needs.

McKibben feels what geologists know—most of humankind is out of sync with its home. Thus, he advocates corner markets, provincial currencies, and neighborhood windmills. He prods us: food and energy must come from nearby sources. But he also asks, “If we’re staying home, tending the garden, working with our neighbors, won’t life be a tad…dull?” Therefore, he adds internet access to his formula for the future. McKibben admits that “renewing our link to nature” won’t completely satisfy people raised in the last half-century, whom he calls “novelty junkies.” So, he says:

If I had my finger on the switch, I’d keep juice flowing to the internet even if I had to turn off everything else. We need cultures that work for survival—which means we need once more to pay attention to elders, to think hard about limits to rein in our own excesses. But we also need cultures that work for everyone, so that women aren’t made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places. The net is the one solvent we can still afford; jet travel can’t be our salvation in an age of climate shock and dwindling oil, so the kind of trip you can take with the click of a mouse will have to substitute.

In short, McKibben declares that we can longer indulge our restlessness and impulse for excitement with profligate expenditures of fossil fuel. So, I’d like to suggest a fourth component for McKibben’s mix: contemplative practice.

In his 2008 book, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Thich Nhat Hanh stresses that Buddhism, as a robust type of humanism, helps people acquire the skills to live on our planet responsibly and with compassion and loving-kindness. Every practitioner, he says, should have the capacity to protect the environment and determine Earth’s destiny. Though I (and McKibben) would argue that we have passed the point of planetary protection, Thich Nhat Hanh contends that if we awaken to the environmental reality of our planetary circumstance, our collective consciousness will shift. He declares that Buddhists must help this to happen: “We have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.” In my opinion, that’s what McKibben strives to achieve with Eaarth.

People who maintain a contemplative practice know that it helps alleviate suffering by lessening desire, restlessness, and anxiety. I say, to ease our way forward on “Eaarth,” let’s draw from the tree of contemplative practices with its branches of stillness and movement, among others. To help rally others toward these intentions, I’ll add some Buddhist geoscience to McKibben’s instructions.

The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, and Thich Nhat Hanh recalls in The World We Have that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that because a river changes constantly, we never step into the same river twice. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have the insight of impermanence, we suffer less and we create more happiness.” In his view, people resist two types of impermanence: instantaneous and cyclic. Using the analogy of water set to boil, he teaches that its temperature increase from moment to moment manifests instantaneous impermanence. However, when it boils and turns to steam, we witness cyclic impermanence—the cycle of arising, duration, and cessation. Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that we must look deeply at cyclic change to accept it as integral to life, so that we do not suffer so greatly when we endure shifts in circumstances.

Pondering cyclic change—for example, the transformation of rocks to soil and back again—is what we geoscientists do. We study impermanence and know that without it, life would not be possible.

Gone is the geological moment when we could have avoided the mutation from Earth to “Eaarth,” McKibben avers. Though he doesn’t name it as such, we have moved from the Holocene epoch—the most recent twelve thousand years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into what Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, called the Anthropocene epoch. This is a new geological epoch denoted by novel, human-induced biotic, geochemical, and sedimentary effects of global proportion.

To explain why this formulation of our current global predicament is so important, I must recount some monumental concepts in Earth history, namely evolution, punctuated equilibrium, and extinction.

Evolution—commonly misrepresented as improvement or progress—is, quite simply, change. As we all know, species evolve. They do so by punctuated equilibrium, a fancy phrase which means that organisms mostly stay the same, but when they do change, it happens quickly and in bursts of geological time. Or they die. Which brings us to extinction events. The geological record includes many extinction events, with intensities ranging from small and local to massive and global ones that shattered Earth’s biological order, such as the episode sixty-five million years ago that famously eliminated dinosaurs and numerous other species in all sampled Mesozoic habitats. Seventeen percent of families (the taxonomic unit above genus and species, consisting of a few to thousands of species) were lost in that extinction event. The greatest mass extinction yet—two hundred and forty-five million years ago—marked the end of the Paleozoic era: goodbye to 54 percent of all living families. So long trilobites, you early marine invertebrates with segmented body and exoskeleton that belonged to the same phylum (Arthropoda) as modern-day crabs, insects, and spiders.

These and other mass extinction events happened concurrently with vast climatic and physical disturbances that were outside the norm of what species and ecosystems ordinarily survived. The extinctions were undoubtedly related to these extreme physical changes. Lest I embark on a far-reaching lesson in Earth history, I’ll make the point simply: over geological time, life forms on the planet and Earth itself have continually morphed from one form to another. Our seas were acidic in the Archean and our atmosphere was oxygen-poor in the early Proterozoic.

This is how I see our situation now: all beings now live on “Eaarth” during the Anthropocene epoch. Like other organisms before us, we are challenged by dramatically changed environmental circumstances and must adjust.

When I read Earth history I see it fitting with the concept of cyclic impermanence. How will the species Homo sapiens fare as we move across the epochs from Holocene to Anthropocene? Will humans and other great apes be counted among the taxonomic families that succumb in this latest great extinction? Will the record of our one-time presence on the planet comprise only an early Anthropocene stratum of bones, tools, and garbage? McKibben and Thich Nhat Hanh offer hope that, if we wake up in the Anthropocene on “Eaarth,” human beings may persist as one of the long-lived multicellular species on the planet (think horseshoe crab).

By looking back in Earth history, I’d like to support with geological evidence McKibben’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s sound approach to surviving on “Eaarth.” The planet’s most successful and abundant life forms are prokaryotes, organisms that lack a cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles. Their fossils occur in Earth’s oldest rocks; they live today in nearly all environments where liquid water exists. Some thrive in harsh regions like the snow surface of Antarctica, while others survive at hydrothermal vents and hot springs. Some use photosynthesis and organic compounds for energy, while others metabolize inorganic compounds (hydrogen sulfide).

Prokaryotes keep things simple and manage with what’s around locally. Bunches living together have survived numerous extinction events. Their collective simplicity reveals a path for awakened Eaarthlings, one that’s light, careful, graceful, and contemplative.



Jill S. Schneiderman is a professor of earth science at Vassar College and a 2009 recipient of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is editor of For the Rock Record (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us (Westview Press, 2003). 



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