Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—High Tide

 This post is on the second chapter called High Tide of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

 1. Cost of action vs. cost of inaction

This book was written in 2010, after the financial crisis of late 2008 and the ensuing recession from which we are still slowly recovering. He recognizes that the cost of taking action to control the emission of greenhouse gases is a formidable barrier. However this chapter shows that the cost of not taking action is even greater.

Here is a comparison of these two categories of cost when it comes to controlling the emission of greenhouse gases:



1. Reduction in growth rate of economy 1. Increased cost of infrastructure, insurance
2. Sunk costs in fossil fuel extraction 2. Increased incidence of dengue fever and malaria
3. Reduced profits to extractive industries 3. Increased geopolitical problems due to struggle over water/energy resources

Why was SOPA or the Stop Online Piracy Act stopped in Washington? Because it pitted two corporate sectors against each other, namely, the entertainment industry vs. the tech industry, with the entertainment industry being for it, and the tech industry (Google) against it. It transferred the liability from one industry to another, rather than onto the taxpayer directly, as corporations would normally prefer.

It is interesting to me that although the extractive industries are against greater regulation in the area of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, the insurance industries would be supportive of such regulation because they are the ones that are bearing the consequences of the increased risk caused by climate change. However, Bill McKibben mentioned one ally in the fight against climate change that surprised me, namely, the Pentagon. Their interest is particularly when it comes to the third category of costs mentioned above, namely, the increasing number of geopolitical problems that resource scarcity will most certainly lead to. In that case, they are the ones that will have to bear the consequences of increased risk.

In my opinion, rather than environmentalists railing against corporations and capitalism in general as the ultimate cost for our fetish for growth that fuels our need for increasing amounts of energy resources, it would behoove them to positively engage those corporations or government entities which have a vested interest in mitigating the effects of climate change.

2. Global politics

Bill McKibben said that the various international accords such as the Kyoto accord of 1997 have not been supported by the US Congress or by the Bush Administration.   The reason given was that the accord would force the US to make sacrifices when the powerhouses of the developing world, that is China and India, are not willing to make the same sacrifices. The echo on the other side of the argument from China and India is that the US has a vested interest in having the developing world sacrifice its economic development for the sake of the accord because this would then allow the US to continue its economic hegemony over the developing world.   It is cast as a zero-sum game: either the US wins, or the developing world wins, but both cannot win in the frame of the argument.

However, the underlying assumption of this argument is that the developing world SHOULD consume natural resources as the US. There simply aren’t enough resources in the world to allow the developing world to consume at the same rate as the US; therefore, a better plan would be for the US to share those resources with the developing world.

This would reduce the extraction of those resources from the Earth AND allow growth in the developing world: you would then have a non-zero-sum game where both sides can win. In reality, there are no “sides” to the debate: we are all on the same side when it comes to the real argument against the reality of physics and chemistry, and we are all currently losing that argument.

3. Limits to Growth

The Club of Rome got together and used computer models to simulate the level of global population given the various inputs and feedback loops that were known to exist at the time. The results were released in a book called The Limits to Growth that was published in 1972 and are summarized below.



1. Growth In the next 100 years, the limits to growth would be experienced in a collapse of global population.
2. Stability This collapse could be avoided and global equilibrium achieved by implementing measures that would promote global equality.
3. Mitigation The sooner such measures are implemented, the greater the chance of their avoiding such a global population collapse.

I think this explains some of the popularity of the movie Soylent Green that was released in 1973, because it was a timely topic, the Limits to Growth having been released the previous year. I remember reading this in high school and being very sobered by its conclusions. However, as Adam Curtis mentions in his 2011 documentary on the history of computers called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, there was one element missing in the computer model used by the Club of Rome, and that was the role of government and non-governmental organizations.

Bill McKibben argues that these institutions can allow us to make a choice. We are being offered a choice, not by the nanny state, as many conservatives would frame it, but by the even greater authority of the physics, chemistry, and biology of the planet itself. We cannot have unlimited growth because we don’t have unlimited resources. We cannot even sustain the growth we have in its current form based on the consumption of fossil fuels, because it will make our planet unlivable.

Therefore the only way to mitigate the risk of effects of climate change and bring us to a sustainable growth model using renewable energy sources to use the institutions we do have, either public institutions such as government or public-private partnerships such as non-governmental organizations.    This would allow us to achieve a managed transition rather than an uncontrolled collapse as envisioned by the Club of Rome.   This will be the topic of the next chapter.

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