Bill McKibben has been writing about our planet and the environment for 30 years. He founded 350.org, an activist organization devoted to reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. In Falter, McKibben takes a hard look at where we are now in regard to climate change and how we got here. He examines the role of the Koch brothers, big oil, and Trump’s Republican Party. He talks about how technology, AI, and bioengineering are leading to the end of what he calls the human game.
In a sense, humans, as a species, have been too successful, partly due to what is referred to as the “green revolution.” Norman Borlaug, in the 1940s, developed high-yield disease-resistant wheat that is credited with saving a billion lives by providing enough food to feed the growing population of our planet. However, this led to the world-wide population growing from 2.5 billion in 1950, to 7.7 billion today.
McKibben points out, “By most accounts, we’ve used more energy and resources during the last thirty-five years than in all of human history.” As a result, we’ve changed the climate of the planet. “In the last thirty years…we’ve seen all twenty of the hottest years ever recorded.”
Now we’re witnessing droughts and runaway wildfires and record rainfalls. We’ve had flooding from hurricanes in New Orleans, Miami, New Jersey, New York, and Boston. According to McKibben, “climate change is currently costing the U.S. economy about $240 billion a year.” In one of a number of depressing examples, McKibben talks about the death of the Great Barrier Reef coral of Australia (once home to the best snorkeling in the world) due to ocean warming.
Nathaniel Rich, in an article in The New York Times Magazine, placed the blame for where we are on all of us, but “Just 100 companies are responsible for 70%” of global emissions, according to the Carbon Majors Report. McKibben blames Exxon because it had an in-house study by its own scientists back in the 1970s reporting that burning fossil fuels was causing climate change. Instead of sharing their findings with the public, the company engaged in a successful disinformation campaign to sow doubt in the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans.
Why are people like the Koch brothers, who sponsor many key members of the Republican Party, climate-deniers? McKibben ties their attitude into a philosophy of libertarianism. They would like to take us back to the early 1900s when we had no welfare state, no social security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no Obamacare, no food stamps. The good old days when the rich were in power and the poor had nothing to say about it.
McKibben claims the Republicans are big fans of Ayn Rand. Trump calls The Fountainhead his favorite book. As her character Roark in The Fountainhead puts it: “The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature.” So, Trump and Charles Koch and allies believe that is our role to conquer nature and to reshape it for profit, not to live in harmony with it.
McKibben goes from there to taking on high tech and bioengineering. His point of view is that the group that includes people like Peter Thiel (PayPal) and Ray Kurzweil (Google) is on a quest for eternal life. They want to replace humans with machines. McKibben believes that anything that makes us less human is to be avoided. In addition, he (like presidential candidate Andrew Yang) is convinced that we are heading for the wholesale elimination of jobs. At risk: truck drivers, delivery drivers, taxi drivers, waiters and waitresses, accountants, bank clerks, fast food workers, teachers, etc.
Meanwhile, bioengineering promises healthier, smarter, better-looking children. McKibben thinks of this as a kind of cheating, making us less human. He compares it to Lance Armstrong and other pro-athletes taking supplements and illegal drugs. To McKibben this all leads to the end of what he calls “the human game.”
The last section of Falter gives us a glimmer of hope when McKibben focuses on Africa where villagers are using solar panels to give them electricity. Then there are activists like Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise Movement, (who are backing the Green New Deal of AOC), the Extinction Rebellion, and McKibben’s own 350.org, all of whom are working hard to get the message out that we have to act now if we want to preserve our planet for the future of humanity.
FALTER: HAS THE HUMAN GAME BEGUN TO PLAY ITSELF OUT? BY BILL MCKIBBEN. HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY, 2019. 291 PAGES. $28.
This article is part of the Special Climate Crisis Issue of DigBoston (9/19/2019, Vol. 21, Iss. 38) produced in cooperation with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative organized by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.