Photo provided by Henry Holt & Co.
After decades of efforts to protect Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and attacks on it thwarted, the pendulum, with the last election, swung back again. Oil reserves suspected under the caribous’ calving grounds have been fast-tracked for drilling. Federal environmental regulations and agencies are being watered down or dismantled. Science has taken a back seat to short-term profits. Meanwhile, in that far north where haywire thermoregulation manifests urgently, visibly, and pervasively, homes topple from eroding ocean bluffs, skeletons emerge from thawing soil, polar bears starve, snowmachine riders drown in thinning sea-ice, shore-bound walruses trample each other to death, and permafrost melts, spewing methane into an already hothouse atmosphere.
The specter is nothing new. The activist and environmental studies scholar Bill McKibben was the first to raise broader public awareness of a climate crisis with his 1989 classic The End of Nature. Despite mounting, incontrovertible evidence in the past 30 years, the problem has worsened, that book’s gloom, sadly, has been vindicated. “The human experiment is now in question,” McKibben warns in Falter, a sequel of sorts. He’s the founder of 350.org, the first global citizens movement to fight anthropogenic climate change—the organization’s name refers to its goal of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, the upper limit of what is considered safe to avoid tipping-point chain reactions. Favoring localized economies and alternative energy forms, McKibben, no Luddite, advocates for social and environmental justice. The primal threat, he insists, are entrenched elites averse to structural change, because “so far, things have been working out”—famous last words from a skydiver with a faulty parachute.
Somewhat jarringly jetting to global hotspots, McKibben reports scenes from the frontlines: dead coral fields resembling “an empty parking garage,” flights into Delhi canceled when smog makes the runway invisible, or cannon fire in the “war zone” of vast, hellish Alberta tar sands operations, meant to scare off birds for their own good. He allows that Falter’s bleakness “cuts against the current literary grain” of upbeat TED talks and current-affairs books that chart recent improvements in living standards. Many of those come at a high price, with costs to the environment. “Because of the way power and wealth are currently distributed on our planet,” McKibben writes, “we’re uniquely ill-prepared to cope with the emerging challenges.” Yet, “Resistance to these dangers is at least possible.” One may object to or tire of his metaphor of the human enterprise as a game. But we’d still better listen to him.
Falter’s pages brim with “sentences uttered with your back to the wall,” in Thoreau’s phrasing. For relief, McKibben injects humor, summarizing cryogenics as collecting heads in a giant thermos, or describing a Silicon Valley mogul whose self-centeredness “makes Ayn Rand look like Mother Theresa.”
Our backs always have been against the wall in the grand quest for survival. The ability to cooperate in nomadic bands and pass on lessons learned, resulting from our sophisticated brain, led to our species’ ascendancy. It’s also what might enable us to resolve this current mess. Unfortunately, the technology that serves to establish global action networks keeps us enslaved. “A man with a phone more or less permanently affixed to his palm is partway a robot already,” McKibben writes. Virtual worlds can be isolating, alienating, trapping us inside make-believe realities or social-media echo chambers, while the foundation of all known life crumbles around us.
The fallacy that some fix, some invention sprung from ape minds can save our civilization and the planet is easily uncovered. It’s what got us in trouble in the first place. Take the Global Seed Vault dug into an Arctic mountain on Svalbard. Climate-controlled, using coal mined nearby for refrigeration, it stores samples of crucial food crops and is intended to last for ages. Heavy rains already once flooded its entrance tunnel and then froze. Forests denuded? Dig up coal or drill for oil. Feed exponentially growing populations? Industrial agriculture. Oceans overfished? Design more efficient sounders and sonars for trawlers, farm seafood, or switch to lab-grown protein substitutes. Species extinction? Transplant wildlife or dabble in resurrection biology. Congested cities? Air taxis and Amazon drones . . . The next, large-scale step in our can-do frenzy, geo-engineering, holds its own set of unforeseen or ignored consequences. Ultimately, these are not technological or even political but moral dilemmas.
The refusal to act in the face of crisis or acting half-heartedly, sluggishly, is a choice. This, too, is part of our mental makeup. We evolved facing dire wolves in plain sight, not creeping automation or the latter-day, nebulous foe that will uproot our descendants and extinguish our other-than-human kin. A writer doesn’t owe readers hope, only honesty, McKibben states, offering “engagement not despair.” Do not expect solutions from Falter, but trends smartly examined, which may yet ring in a sustainable future.