Rereading Bill McKibben’s ‘Eaarth’ on a Long Flight Over It

Keith SewellEnvironment15 Comments

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.

15 Comments on “Rereading Bill McKibben’s ‘Eaarth’ on a Long Flight Over It”

  1. Bert Bigelow

    Too many people consuming too much and polluting too much.
    As long as the population continues to increase, we will continue to swim upstream…or climb an ever-steeper hill. The heart of the problem is population, but we have cultural and religious taboos that prevent us from tackling that problem with the rigor that is needed.
    If we solve that problem, the rest will be manageable.

  2. Keith Sewell


    Full agreement. But it’s not so much that we can’t tackle the problem with the needed rigor. It’s that we can’t even discuss it. Just about all of our really serious problems are now off limits, as talking about them would involve questioning some people’s emotionally grounded ‘truths’. In our caring sharing postmodern world that can never be acceptable.

    1. Bert Bigelow

      Yeah, that has to change. Christopher HItchens famously said that people deserve respect but their ideas do not. Tackling problems like population control (i.e. abortion, contraception) is a nonstarter, not only here in a country dominated by Christians, but in much of the Middle East dominated by Islam. Tackling climate change, pollution and depletion of nonrenewable resources, and their cause…consumption…is a nonstarter too…because of the “religion” of Capitalism.
      Organized religion and capitalism…the twin terrors that will destroy us…if we let them.
      Here’s a link to a two-part piece that I wrote on Capitalism several years ago.

  3. Keith Sewell


    I really enjoyed your article. And yes, I’d agree that Capitalism’s dominance is now – in our truth and postmodernism haunted world – being maintained from the same old-brain/limbic-system levels as that of our religions. I can’t see any real hope for our effective opposition to either except through our learning to think more coherently. And I think you already know what I consider to be our main impediment to that.

    1. Bert Bigelow

      Certainly, the “truth” of Capitalism and Religious beliefs both contribute to the looming problems that we will almost certainly face. They even have a name for it: Prosperity Gospel.
      Worse, yet they have “combined hands,” to confront those of who seek to limit the capitalist carnage. Christian Evangelicals are supporters of Trump by a huge margin…like 85%.
      Part of that was opposition to federal government’s efforts to continue the liberalization of same-sex marrige, etc. They are engaged in an all-out war to abolish abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and a lot more. The never give up because they are doing the work of the Almighty.

  4. Keith Sewell


    The common thread through all of it – and why the Evangelicals and Trump are ‘a marriage made in Heaven’ – is simple authoritarianism. And authoritarianism is finally nothing but the legitimization of ‘might is right’ by dressing it up in an emotionally seductive irrational belief system. The European Enlightenment, at its peak, took us close to being able to escape from this ancient nauseating swamp. But we’ve collapsed a long way back since then.

    1. Bert Bigelow

      The sad part is…it’s our fault…the liberal/progressive/secular side of the body politic. Say whatever you like about the fatuous fulminations of the self-righteous, but they do vote! Our side, not so much, particularly the young people who just can’t be bothered with politics.
      Jefferson warned us that our democratic republic would only survive if the people became and remained involved in their government. The young people who think our dire warnings of the slide from democracy to oligarchy to fascist dictatorship are overdone remind me of the missionaries who were being cooked in a pot by cannibals. One of them says, “Hey this warm water feels good!”

  5. Keith Sewell


    Full and sad agreement. We did bring it on ourselves. There were several deep errors, but I think that the worst was our side’s (science and reason’s) aquiessence to the takeover of American academe by postmodernism/poststructuralism starting from about the mid ’60s. Poison any society’s universities and, within a decade or two, it spreads to all other parts of the body politic. Like Brexit and Trump, our side just didn’t take postmodernism anything like seriously enough and soon enough. It all seemed like, basically, a joke. Something that we could safely leave our peers on the humanities side to get all a-twitter about, but in the confidence that they would soon notice its underlying silliness and move on. For a number of reasons, and which can now be seen pretty clearly in 20/20 hindsight*, that didn’t happen. We’re now in an effectively postmodern/post-truth/post-‘reality based’ world. All meaning is cultural and context dependent, so ‘alt facts’ are finally as good as ‘fact facts’. We’re all kinda sorta right, so no one can really be justified in saying anything that emotionally upsets anyone else. Try that now from any university podium anywhere in the US and you’ll be shouted down within your first few sentences.

    *Shawn Otto lays it all out pretty well in his latest ‘The War on Science’.

    There is still one good trick left in our bag; one big ace that we could play. It is at . But I’m getting pretty depressed about our chances of playing it in time.

    1. Bert Bigelow

      Enjoyed your “hacking the root” essay. I too am hopeful, but not very optimistic. Mankind’s technological developments, not only in WMD’s, but also in enabling destructive consumption and pollution of the ecosphere are far outstripping our social development. A root cause is uncontrolled population growth. The elephants of tribalism and superstition are carrying us into the swamp full of alligators, despite our feeble attempts to turn them away from it.


  6. Keith Sewell


    You’re right to keep coming back to the population growth issue. It is the one big and simple problem that we could theoretically tackle and which would give us some breathing space in reference to all the others. But it can’t be tackled through our ‘elephants’. Their programming is, and evolutionarily has to be, just to want more elephants. I think that flipping our basic epistemic level switch, to explicitly increase the influence of our ‘riders’, is now our last best hope. But to the extent that I can even begin explaining that to other minds’ riders their elephants just panic and shut down the comprehension. I’m afraid that Catch-22 will be our species’ epitaph.


    1. Bert Bigelow

      I hate to use that overused word, but it is ironic that even if we use all of our sophisticated technology to address the environmental problems that we face, we are swimming upstream into a swift current of ever-increasing population that nullifies our efforts. We can probably convince people to consume less and industry to pollute less. That is already happening. But the elephants of cultural and religious “truth” are a formidable adversary. So our best efforts will only delay the trainwreck…unless, as you say, we can flip that switch.

  7. Keith Sewell

    Again, I can only agree with you. I’m pretty sure that at the end of all of our brilliant, inspiring and even magnificent fixes – to keep our merry-go-round of resource extraction, consumption, and ever more human beings constantly accelerating – old Malthus’ math will finally beat us. I’m even getting discouraged for our flipping the epistemic level switch to massively strengthen reason that I discuss in my essays, as we seem to be running out of time for that to have any real chance. It comes down to the old business about there being ‘no atheists in foxholes’. The changes that are already starting to impact us – as we transition from our relatively bountiful benign and stable Earth to McKibben’s depleted overheated and overcrowded Eaarth, will steadily make life for most of us harder and more dangerous. History’s lesson is that such times enormously favor our ‘elephants’ over our ‘riders’. The worse things become the more we turn to our emotionally appealing irrational systems for solace. It’s getting hard for me to find much in the way of a silver lining.

    1. Bert Bigelow

      I know how you feel and I agree. On the one hand, we are lucky to have been born when we were.
      Despite the wars and suffering, the hunger and oppression that we have witnessed, we have probably seen the best of times for the human race. On the other hand, I feel a responsibility for leaving such a mess for those who follow us.

  8. Keith Sewell

    Gary and I haven’t given up yet. The fight does look pretty hopeless, for all the reasons that we’ve been discussing in these posts. So, like you, I really don’t envy our children or grandchildren. But if we must go down then we’ll do it swinging.

    I’m thinking about a last big ad blitz. To run the following, in big bold type, in whatever print or ‘e’ venues look like they might provide our maximum bang for bucks:

    Trump and Kim Jong Un? Global Warming? Islamic Jihad? White Supremacy and Antifa? Machine guns for sale at Walmart?


    To start reversing the pendulum on this whole obscene mess:

    Any thoughts or advice?

    1. Bert Bigelow

      Well, I typed a reply and hit Submit, but it has not appeared. I will try again.

      I have a friend who has posted full-page ads in every issue of Free Inquiry magazine for several years. He has also put occasional ads in some newspapers. The ads attack Christian beliefs, especially the cruelty, contradictions, ignorance and absurdities in the Bible. Apparently he is pretty wealthy. Each of the ads cost him several thousand dollars. It is not possible to know, at least in the short term, if the ads are having any effect. He has gotten a few responses from readers, mostly supportive.

      I am not throwing cold water on your ad idea. Your target readers are probably somewhat more reachable than his faith-besotted ones. ..although as he says, his target is the “fence sitters,” not the devout evangelicals. If you would like to see his ads, look in any recent FI magazine for a full-paid ad posted by “fellowfeather.”

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