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Bill McKibben considers if we Falter (or should we rise)

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/14/19 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Climate

How significant is it that Falter is the title of Bill McKibben’s new book rather than an equally worthy—but perhaps anachronistic name—like Rise?

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Rise would be equal to the challenge that McKibben presents in this thesis that human capacity may be at a peak and downward is the only direction we can go, but we can also learn to glide at this altitude for awhile.

Rise would build a new world from what McKibben calls a 'remarkably hopeful' poem written by two Greenland women whose verse he recites: “We demand that the world see beyond / SUVs, ACs, their pre-packaged convenience / each and every one of us / Has to decide / If we / Will / Rise”

Greenland because the ice they’re standing on is literally melting into their homes. Like the hundred devastating examples of how climate change is wreaking havoc on planetary systems, McKibben spares no detail what it means to Falter. But, it is in the last third of the book where he reserves his most transcendent moments—why it is unacceptable to let it all go.

For those who know McKibben’s book The End of Nature—and his global climate movement 350.org which fought against the Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta tar sands through the Dakotas and into the world’s gas tanks because it will be “game over” for the environment— there’s a necessary deep breath as he delivers the news from 2019 that (mostly) America is faltering as the planet hangs by a thread.

He talks about rendering sacred texts like the Bible unreadable when the cedars of Lebanon disappear. Will the end of nature be the end of human history as we know it? McKibben thinks, because we are living on a planet where humans have altered the basic chemistry of the environment and, with the advent of artificial intelligence, to be is not to be.

Other thought provoking questions raised by McKibben include, can our grandchildren mourn the loss of 1 million species if they never knew a world that had them? How heartbreaking and astute. But McKibben is unwilling to let us off the hook so easily.

McKibben says he remains hopeful in the face of climate change, the existential crisis of our time, and the forces who oppose collective or democratic solutions. Take solar power. McKibben makes an argument that solar’s strength is also what makes it weak in the eyes of those who shun big, collective solutions.

“Solar power is an interesting advance in that it’s less powerful than the fuel it replaces, and in certain ways harder to use. Where coal and oil and gas can be gathered in a few places and shipped around the world, sun and wind must be collected from a million different locations and then shared across the grid; renewable energy is omnipresent but also diffuse.

“But these limitations also come with real and offsetting advantages,” he continues. “While some people will grow rich putting up windmills and solar panels, they won’t make money on an Exxon scale because you can’t charge for the sun. (That’s why Exxon hates solar: you put up a solar panel and the energy comes for free, which to the corporate mind is the stupidest business plan ever.) The cash you spend for energy stays close to home.”

The human game, as he calls it, is a team sport.

The transcendent moment of why McKibben and folks like Swedish teen Greta Thunberg are leading a global movement to protest inaction of politicians in dealing with the climate crisis can be summed up in the Epilogue of Falter. Here at the 50th anniversary of America’s lunar landing, McKibben’s take away is the same as the millions of folks who are old enough to have had their breath taken away by the first Earthrise images.

“We really do live on an unbearably beautiful planet,” McKibben says. “Everywhere there is life.

“We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.”

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