McKibben’s Eaarth: ‘decline,’ not liberation

March 13, 2011

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben (Times Books, 2010).

Bill McKibben made up the word Eaarth to relabel a planet that is no longer the one where his Baby Boom generation was born. Modern societies have unintentionally engineered the planet’s exit from a 10,000-year period marked by a relatively stable climate in which humanity had flourished. To survive, we will now have to adapt to the “tough new planet” of the subtitle.

The book’s first half details ways in which climate change already makes our lives more difficult and will increasingly do so, from storms to droughts to falling crop yields. The second half lays out McKibben’s vision of how society must change to avert nightmare scenarios.

Far from a liberatory transformation, he proposes instead to “aim for a relatively graceful decline” (p. 99, his emphasis). He seems blissfully unaware of the extreme disproportion between his sketch of how vast a change is needed, and the narrow limits within which his vision of the future confines itself. Though McKibben refers to the need for “dramatic change” (p. 174), his vision revolves around exalting local small-scale production and distribution, in particular of organic food and renewable energy. It involves the “need to challenge the power of ” the big corporations that dominate agribusiness (p. 176), but stops short of the need to challenge and actually overturn the underlying system that gives rise to that concentration of power.

This self-limiting vision grows out of the fundamentally middle-class attitude McKibben has expressed throughout his career. His thought takes the standpoint of the professional writer, the small farmer, the shopkeeper and other small proprietors as the very definition of the individual, never grasping that commodity production inherently drives toward monopoly and concentration of capital, dispossessing the mass of small producers.

Identifying “growth” and “bigness” as the root cause of our ills, McKibben implicitly assumes that capitalism is essential to human nature. Markets should be local and small-scale, but the thought that commodity production, private property and markets might not be an eternal institution never arises. This amounts to wishing to turn the clock back and hoping it won’t go forward again in the same way it did before. It’s a tendency to idealize capitalism in an earlier stage, and attack the inevitable results of its evolution.

There is no alternative to this standpoint once you are not rooted in the lower and deeper masses of your country and the world who are struggling against globalized capitalism. He points out a “justice deficit” of the rich countries with respect to the world’s poor (p. 76), but never mentions the climate justice movement; he sees the suffering of climate change refugees, projected to reach 700 million by mid-century (p. 83), but does not see them as Subject, as potentially a human force for reconstruction of society on new beginnings.

Eaarth‘s attack on growth includes statements such as: “The way our economy works at present, any cessation of growth equals misery” (p. 97). This is a true statement about capitalism. Yet in the absence of any investigation of why the economy “works” this way, the admonition that “we’d better change” leads down self-limiting avenues incapable of identifying, let alone bringing about, a deep enough change to alter the basic misery-producing reality. His two-step program is: “mature” (p. 99), meaning we have to accept decline instead of progress as our future; and “figure out what we must jettison,” including “[m]any habits” and “complexity” (p. 101).

The root of the problem, he thinks, is an idea, an attitude, habits. Therefore, “the transition will need to be mostly mental…” (p. 146).

Joining a long line of ideologues who counterpose natural limits to liberation does not make McKibben happy:

“[O]ur national and global project has been about more than accumulation and expansion, more than cars and factories. It’s also been about liberation–the slow but reasonable steady process of valuing more and more people….

“It’s easy to see how in a contracting world, that process could stall or even reverse–how aiming for a local economy and community solid enough to survive on this new planet might edge us back toward societies ‘traditional’ in ways we don’t want.”

The appeal of these ideas to broad sections of environmentalists reflects the movement’s disconnection from what Marx called the “quest for universality” on the part of the working masses. McKibben and others are advocating decline, retreat, austerity at the very time that capitalist ruling classes are striving to force austerity on workers in whole industries and nations. In a longer view, the Zapatistas, climate justice and other movements have been debating what development is, and seeking alternative paths of development, as opposed to controlled decline. What illuminates the way ahead, new beginnings as against climate catastrophe, is the Humanist concept of development Marx characterized as “the development of human power, which is its own end,” with the kind of wealth he defined as “the absolute movement of becoming.”

–Franklin Dmitryev

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