Long Emergency on Planet Eaarth

2010•08•20 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

What did you read during your summer break?

I managed to track down a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. It was first published in 2005 and it has been on my “To read” list since I watched Kunstler in the End of Suburbia documentary and saw his TED talk.

Just along the shelf in the environmental section of the bookstore, the distinctive cover of Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth — Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, caught my eye. After a moment’s hesitation, wondering whether I could handle two books about living in an inhospitable world during one summer vacation, I scurried over to the cash register and bought them both (hang on, was that compulsive shopping?).

Eaarth[quote quote=”Our society, restless, mobile, wasteful, exciting, and on the brink — is the product of that dynamism. We can’t afford to indulge those impulses anymore, but it doesn’t mean we need to shut ourselves in.” author=”– Bill McKibben” type=”image” image=”2258″ ]

I am sure that you are thinking “What a glutton for punishment”. But to tell the truth, both books proved to be amazing reads and, believe it or not, amusing in places.

Kunstler and McKibben are talented writers. Kunstler has a journalistic background, is a former staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine, a novelist, and wrote his first non-fiction work, the Geography of Nowhere, back in 1994. Most recently, he has been writing novels that explore the themes of the Long Emergency (note to self: next summer read novels only), most recently The Witch of Hebron.

Bill McKibben describes himself as a writer, educator and environmentalist. He first came to fame internationally with his book The End of Nature back in 1989, wherein he argued that nature has changed from something independent to something directly affected by the actions of people. I read it back then, but I was not convinced. It struck me as a romantic and somewhat less convincing follow-up to the 1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Kunstler and McKibben are both Jeremiahs, whom many people are all too happy to dismiss as “kooks”. For those unfamiliar with the biblical epithet, Jeremiah was a prophet in the Old Testament who, on God’s behalf, warned of the impending invasion and enslavement facing Israel and Judah, only to be unheeded and attacked.

These two particular writers, however, have shifted from giving warnings to actually describing the crisis situation in which we find ourselves today. In the Long Emergency, Kunstler explains that the end of oil, the increasing severity of climate change and other converging catastrophes are the root cause of economic and political disorder on a scale that has never been seen before. His analysis focuses primarily on the United States.

It is, without doubt, a harsh view of the today’s reality and of the prospects for the decades ahead. It is a view that many would wish to ignore, which perhaps makes it all the more important. For if too few are willing to listen and learn from our current predicaments, the solutions will be too slow coming and a grim future awaits.

According to McKibben, it is already that late. He argues that we have waited too long to address global warming as well as other environmental concerns (including oil depletion) and that now we find ourselves on a new planet called Eaarth that is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding and burning in new ways.

Eaarth is McKibben’s best writing to date in terms of his analysis of what is going on with our planet right now and I was particularly convinced by his concern about the ‘grandchildren’ phenomenon. Put simply, while many people are awaking to the reality of climate change, they consider and continually refer to it as a problem facing our grandchildren. They have mixed up the timescale of the problem, because it is here and we have to deal with it now, according to McKibben.

Oh, come on and give me a break!

A completely natural reaction to these two books would be to say “I don’t believe either of them”, or, “You need to show me evidence that the changes you describe are outside the realms of normal”. Wise words indeed! Words that many of us will be repeating year on year from now on, as our understanding of what constitutes “normal” warps and snaps. A point made all too well in McKibben’s Eaarth.

While both books are filled with evidence of changes taking place, it is all too easy to dismiss, to present counter arguments and to simply ignore their central message — we face unprecedented challenges, of which climate change is simply one of many.

But most people may still choose to ignore this fact. Kunstler believes that it is just too difficult to focus our attention on these issues. He argues that we are sleepwalking into the future, too “lost in dark raptures of non-stop infotainment, recreational shopping, and compulsive motoring — to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in technological society”. I, like many of you, would accept this point by simply reflecting on how I live today.

McKibben spends the first part of his book introducing example after example of how he sees climate change impacting on societies and communities across the globe. But perhaps what is most disturbing is how the events this summer mirror so closely the assertions he makes about the world becoming tougher and tougher.

Everyone seems to be talking about the Russian wild fires and the floods in Pakistan. Do these events amount to convincing evidence of climate change? Unfortunately, it is going to take a while for the scientists to find an answer that question. As a recent article from the Economist points out, while both are the “sort of events that climate scientists predict more of in a warming world” we can’t yet conclude they are a result of climate change based on existing predictions. That is because climate models — “which look at the average behaviour of possible future weather, rather than trying to predict a specific course of events — find it hard to give definitive answers about whether such events can be expected to be on the increase, or decrease.”

But you can take a look at the State of the Climate Report 2009 from NOAA if you wish to get the most up to date insights on climate events from around the world, in an accurate historical perspective.

What about the solutions?

While I find the analysis from both Kunstler and McKibben insightful, I have trouble accommodating the solutions they propose. But that is pretty normal. Many of the hot debates around climate change at present focus on the solutions under consideration — emission reductions by nations, individual carbon rations, cap and trade, tax and dividend, investment in clean energy research and development, taxes on oil, innovations through the market and many more you’ve probably heard many times.

In the case of these two books, Kunstler doesn’t really try to present solutions but rather reflects upon what we might be able to salvage from today’s industrial civilization. He argues in the Long Emergency that “the focus of society will have to return to the town or the small city and its supporting agricultural hinterland”. He describes many small towns in upstate New York, for instance, that were once vibrant manufacturing centres, but that are now “gutted, half-vacant, idle, hopeless”. Paradoxically, he continues, “they may become the kinds of places that have the strongest chance of surviving the challenge of the Long Emergency.”

Kunstler does not place much hope in our suburban lifestyle surviving for very long once oil prices begin their inevitable climb. He also believes that mega-cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles will lose population rapidly and become “dangerously unsanitary and unsafe.” Well yes, this could be the case for some cities, but others may find another way forward and that is why it is interesting to see some large cities including San Francisco in the US already putting in place plans to help them deal with the effects of peak oil.

With respect to commerce, he suspects that the end of cheap oil will put the large retail chains out of business and the idea of the consumer culture will “die with the national chain stores.” He suggests that we are going to have to re-build from the bottom-up the “complex webs of local economic interdependence.” He may be right, or perhaps we could see a realignment of existing capital along local lines, same owners but now more local (e.g., just look at how small organic and health food companies get quickly bought out by big commercial interests).

Overall I find Kunstler’s in-your-face, irreverent views refreshing but I appreciate that they might not be for everyone.

While McKibben appears to share many of Kunstler’s views on how the future may pan out, his solutions are less bleak and appear to reflect his personal preferences (or perhaps the predominant environmental viewpoint) about what a future world may look like (i.e., local, friendly, community based, etc.). He implies that somehow we will find a way forward that does not involve the near collapse of industrial society, but rather involves a series of changes which, while dramatic, will result in the emergence of more local, self-reliant communities, that power and feed themselves. But in this transition we are going to have to say goodbye to many things that we take for granted and even cherish today.

He describes a future where we stay at home, tend the garden, work with our neighbours and then asks, “Won’t life be a tad…dull?” That is without climbing the career ladder, jetting around, holidays in the sun, buying what you want when you want, always getting what is new…? The list is endless.

But don’t worry… and this part made me laugh… we will still have the Internet.

“The Net is 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. It will need to be the window left ajar in our communities so new ideas can blow in and old prejudices blow out. Before you had to choose between staying home in the place you were born, with all its sensible strictures and “going out in the world” to “make something of yourself”.

“Our society” he continues, “— restless, mobile, wasteful, exciting, and on the brink — is the product of that dynamism. We can’t afford to indulge those impulses anymore, but it doesn’t mean we need to shut ourselves in.”

Actually, he may have a point about the Internet. I certainly don’t watch television much anymore, rather spending more and more time online. But the last part came across to me as a bit of a sermon and we are constantly reminded that it does not work to preach the green message. But to be honest  I don’t mind being preached at now and again. It is not like Bill and others are the loudest voices out there, drowning out all the other preachers who exhort us to consume, own a big home, get a new car, buy your child a new toy (i.e., be a good parent) and so on. If anything, environmental preachers are a tiny pinprick on our collective conscience.

McKibben and Kunstler are controversial but, having read both books, I would strongly recommend that we listen to what these Jeremiahs have to say. They may be describing the worst-case scenarios, but it is important to include such scenarios in our plans for the future. I certainly hope that these scenarios are being discussed in the political chambers, board rooms and, most importantly, at the dinner tables of our world.

So for those of you yet to take your summer break, be sure to turn off the TV and pick up one of these books.

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Long emergency on Planet Eaarth by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.