The journey – from LA to Mumbai, via Newark – was supposed to take 21 hours. But, in spite of heroic flight time reductions by both pilots, it ended up taking over 24. We had an hour’s delay on departure, and then a further hour circling over Newark’s sodden runways due to the backup from Hurricane Jose. Then another 90 minutes departure delay, and then almost 2 hours waiting to land on Mumbai’s one functional runway; the other having been damaged due to a crash caused by flooding. Luckily, our main route took us over the North Atlantic and the tip of Greenland, well above the other two hurricanes which were then trashing the Caribbean and Florida.
For some reason, perhaps due to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I’d decided on the trip to reread Bill McKibben’s ‘Eaarth’. He wrote this in 2010; before Superstorm Sandy, Trump, our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, Harvey’s flooding of South East Texas and Maria’s destruction of Puerto Rico. The reread proved to be a surreal experience; like reading Hunter S. Thompsons ‘Fear and Loathing….’ while traveling towards Las Vegas. McKibben’s predictions have stood up pretty well to the past seven years; erring, if at all, on the side of poignant optimism. Like ‘The Spanish Inquisition’, no sane person could have ever expected Trump.
The prediction that seemed most prescient was of how life on Eaarth will steadily and inexorably keep get harder. McKibben’s images were of trying to run up an ever steepening hill, or into an ever increasing headwind. Our departure and landing delays, caused by computer glitches and traffic jams. The pilots having to push their throttles full forward to try to make up time; and burning, of course, more fuel in the process. The missed plane connections and required rescheduling of other travel arrangements and meetings for many passengers. In fact; all of the worsening domino effects from living on a hotter, more resource depleted and more crowded planet, and from trying to mitigate these problems through efficiency increase based on more technology, more specialization and more interdependence. Yes, and of course, these old tricks are still allowing us to keep goosing our systems up to ever higher levels of performance, but at the cost of their becoming more fragile; more vulnerable to widespread failure from even very small local failures.
We can still keep running for now. We can print more money and burn more oil to mitigate the immediate humanitarian toll from this recent wave of hurricanes. But our seas will keep warming, rising, and acidifying. Our storms will keep getting more powerful, and more frequent. Our underground aquafers and glacial meltwater irrigation – which now enable most of our agriculture – will continue to fall and deplete. So again we will spend more money and burn more oil to build the vast dykes, levies and seawalls to protect our coastal cities, and to desalinate for fresh drinking and irrigation water. But if we do not also, and just as urgently, begin to implement the tough pragmatic and non-sexy solutions that McKibben discusses in the second half of his book then all of our short-term mitigations will be in vein. Our hill will finally become too steep, our headwind too strong; and with our population at 11 or 12 billion rather than our current 7.5 billion. Our systemic collapse will make all previous tragedies experienced by our species seem minor.
If, as seems to be the case, my own book and essays have too little emotional appeal to be broadly understandable, then I would urge re-reading at least the second half of ‘Eaarth’ as a friendlier substitute.