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If reality is too threatening, just put on a happy face
on March 18, 2010
Although I'm in complete agreement with Bill McKibben that we are at the end of our old way of life, and find the future he imagines appealing, I believe that future is a fairy tale and that this book is of little value.
The first half of the book amounts to this percent, that fraction, some year, some place, another measurement of volume, height, area, money, population. Meant to incite to action, I found it tedious but then, I've never been interested in this kind of homocentric environmentalism. The self-centered world view it demonstrates is the exact cause of the problems it worries about. What interested me in this part of the book were the brief mentions of ecological changes occurring---trees dying because of insects surviving warmer winters, mosquitoes spreading dengue fever farther and more rapidly, etc.
McKibben's analysis of the Carter--Reagan election and its effects is good but although he writes of Reagan's optimism as being the problem, he commits the same error in this book. He writes off those predicting collapse, not because he thinks collapse is impossible (in fact he provides several reasons that it's likely), but because he sees them as being unwilling to accept other possibilities. To me, the problem is just the opposite---folks like McKibben aren't willing to face the facts.
He prefers to imagine that we will voluntarily choose to make a gradual change to a different way of life. Not to say that some of us aren't already living a very different way of life or that the examples he gives aren't admirable, but to imagine that U.S. society as a whole is going to turn smoothly and peacefully away from consumerism and economic growth and urban life is simply ludicrous. Perhaps he's spent so much time with people who share his concerns, he's forgotten the half of the country who don't even believe in climate change, much less are willing to change their lives to limit it.
In a Gallup poll this month, 50% believe that global warming is occurring and is due to human activity but 48% think its seriousness is exaggerated and 67% don't think it will cause a serious threat to them or their way of life. All percentages are trending away from a concern with the issue. Denial is much easier than change, or maybe they know something Nobel winner Steven Chu didn't know when he suggested last year that the end of the Sierra snowpack could mean the end not only of California agriculture but of cities as well.
McKibben uses, as he has before, part of a frightening old quote from Obama's chief economic adviser Larry Summers: "The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs." It seems to me there have been some staggering social costs to not recognizing limits, but I don't think Summers needs to worry that those in power will ever advocate limiting "growth". They will instead try (and in fact already are trying) to cling as long as possible to attempts to revive the old way of life, ignoring the social, financial, and ecological costs of their desperate attempts. None of them, nor most of the country's population, is interested in the "graceful" change McKibben advocates. I do sincerely wish the graceful the best of luck in the midst of the chaos which is coming.