Bill McKibben lays out the array of challenges facing us as we struggle to ensure a human future, and two very different technologies at our disposal.
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben, Henry Holt and Co., 304 pages, Hardcover, April 2019, ISBN 9781250178268
There has been a chorus of voices lately raising our eyes above the daily onslaught of negativity the news cycle brings us, penning books that exalt just how far we’ve come as a civilization, and how much better off we are today than at any point in human history. Those books, like Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, or the Roslings’ Factfulness, point out that the average human is less likely to die of disease or war than at any time in our history, less likely to live in extreme poverty, more likely to be literate. But those measures only tell part of the story. Near the end of his new book, Falter, Bill McKibben suggests we “Imagine the last few hundred years of technological progress as a man spending an evening in a casino.” We’ve had a few big losses, but stayed in the game, and seem to be ahead. And yet, there are many warning we may be about to go bust:
In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark “warning to humanity.” … The worries have grown severe enough that a NASA-funded group recently created the Human and Nature DYnamics (HANDY) program to model the fall of Roman, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, and when they pushed the button, it spit out a disquieting forecast: “Global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”
The comedian Steven Wright, in his usual monotone, has often quipped, “I intend to live forever. So far, so good.” We all know how that’s going to end, of course. In the model built by NASA, McKibben warns, “one of the greatest dangers came from elites who argued against structural change on the ground that ‘so far’ things were working out.” So far, so good is a refrain that echoes those like Pinker and the Roslings who would have us focus on how far we’ve come rather than the dangerous territory into which we are now heading. It is the territory, in part, of Silicon Valley elites trying to “solve” death itself—people like the director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, his boss Sergei Brin, Venture Capitalists like Peter Thiel, and so many others who believe death is a problem to be solved. Their maxim is more akin to Groucho Marx’s, “I intend to live forever, or die trying.” But all of that comes later in the book.
To lessen the blow he’s about to deliver in Falter, Bill McKibben begins with “An Opening Note on Hope.” He warns that this new book is “in some ways bleaker” than the gloom and doom predictions of his 1989 book, The End of Nature—predictions that have largely been borne out. Alas, his opening note doesn’t offer much hope, insisting:
A writer doesn’t owe a reader hope—the only obligation is honesty—but I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered writing what follows.
What follows, first, is a brief exploration of the most mundane and taken-for-granted topics one can think of—the very roof over our heads—exploring in a page the roof’s evolution and how it mirrors our own, and the fascinating, complicated, interconnected series of events that go into the production and distribution of the asphalt shingles that sit atop most of our homes. It is a complexity and interconnectedness that is inherent in almost all we touch today:
[C]onsider what I’m going to have for dinner, or what you’re wearing on your back—everything comes with strings attached, and you can follow those strings into every corner of our past and present.
And follow those strings he does, with a clear understanding and explanation of the forces at play—primarily in the fossil fuel industry and its influence on our politics, on our past and present, on our very psychology and our influence on the planet's climate—permeating each page of the book, all exquisitely written. What it all shows is that:
What I’m calling the human game is unimaginably deep, complex, and beautiful. It is also endangered. Indeed, it is beginning to falter even now.
And it’s not just the human game. The life of our planet is in peril. Did you know that “if you weigh the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans account for 30 percent of their total mass, and our farm animals for another 67 percent, meaning wild animals … total just 3 percent.”
In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970, an awesome and mostly unnoticed silencing.
Not only that, “The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth, but it is roughly half as living as it was three years ago.”
The list of such severe environmental problems grows ever longer: dead zones in the oceans where fertilizer pours off farms along with irreplaceable topsoil; great gyres of plastic spinning in the seas; suburbs spilling across agricultural land, and agricultural land overrunning tropical forest; water tables quickly sinking as aquifers drain. These issues rightly demand, and even rightly monopolize, our attention because the threats they represent are so stark and so immediate. And yet, one imagines that we will survive them as a species, impoverished in many ways, but not threatened in our basic existence. People, and other creatures, will be robbed of dignity—they’re all signs of a game being badly played—but the game goes on.
It is, however, ending the game early for too many of us:
Around the world, pollution kills 9 million people a year, far more than AIDS, malaria, TB, and warfare combined. In the worst years, a third of deaths in China can be blamed on smog, and by 2030, it may claim 100 million victims worldwide.
Mortality rates have begun to rise even for middle-aged white Americans, a finding that so surprised researchers that they spent weeks rechecking their numbers before making them public.
It’s also changing the composition of the food staples we rely on longer term. McKibben shares how the work of researchers growing grain in conditions that mimic higher carbon dioxide levels, which speeds plant growth, has found that the plants take up less nutrients, and are therefore less nutritious to eat—lowering essential minerals like calcium, zinc, and iron, and even lowering protein by about 8 percent. This affects wild plants, as well. Studying samples of goldenrod, for example, has shown that the protein level of the pollen bees rely on (bees that pollinate the crops we eat) has dropped by a third since the industrial revolution began and carbon dioxide levels began to rise. Conversely, the pests that spoil our crops, those we fight off with ever more chemicals, thrive in those warmer temperatures, rendering chemical control of pests a Sisyphean task at best, and one that speeds the problem at its worst.
But all of these are problems that can, and have at times and in places, been solved. McKibben names three threats of a different magnitude: large-scale nuclear war, the erosion of the ozone layer, and climate change. There is a fourth, the rise of AI and genetic alteration of human beings, which he devotes a good portion of the book to exploring the implications of. The first two threats have so far been contained, the fourth is on the horizon. Climate change is not only not contained, it is upon us now, and it is accelerating. “It may not be quite game-ending,” McKibben writes, “but it seems set, at the very least, to utterly change the board on which the game is played, and in more profound ways than almost anyone now imagines.” If you need the economic case, “Climate change is currently costing the U.S. economy about $240 billion a year, and the world, $1.2 trillion annually.” If you need a visceral case, visit—as McKibben has—the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, or the smog-choked cities of Delhi and Lahore. Warming the earth’s temperature by two degrees Celcius is the world’s goal, and that alone is catastrophic in many ways. In other words, “It will get worse, but it’s already very, very bad.” It is not only likely to create climate refugees that make the current refugee crises like those coming out of Syria and Central America, both crises linked to climate change themselves, worse, it has already reverberated in ways that have toppled governments:
In 2010 a severe heat wave hit Russia, and it wrecked the grain harvest, which led the Kremlin to ban exports. The global price of wheat spiked, and that helped trigger the Arab Spring—Egypt at the time was the largest wheat importer on the planet.
In this way, McKibben explains not only how human activity is linked to climate change, documenting the record storms and droughts and degrees of heat that have already gone literally “off the charts” meant to measure them, he also explores how climate change links back to worsening the political climate humans live in, and how massive inequality has left those mired in poverty the first to feel the effects of climate change.
That’s why, at 350.org, we talk a great deal about “climate justice,” convinced that it’s both right and smart to work most closely with communities on the front lines of environmental damage. It’s why we’re excited by efforts such as the Poor People’s Campaign, or the Leap Manifesto that Naomi Klein produced with an assortment of labor unions and indigenous people. It’s all the same struggle.
So how did we end up in this predicament? McKibben documents how fossil fuel corporations began to understand carbon dioxide’s heat trapping properties as far back as 1959, thirty years before the first public testimony from a NASA scientist James Hansen woke the rest of us up to the problem in his now famous Senate testimony. By 1977, Exxon scientists agreed there was “general scientific agreement” that burning fossil fuels was changing the climate of our entire planet. The fact that our already dire estimates are probably not dire enough is something Exxon knew as early as 1982, when “the company’s scientists concluded that heading off global warming would ‘require major reductions in fossil fuel consumption.’” And yet, in every year since 1988, McKibben notes, we have burned more fossil fuels than we did the year before—barring 2009, at the height of the worldwide economic recession. And it has all been predicated on the lie, pushed and funded by the fossil fuel industry, that the science pioneered by their own scientists remained unsettled:
I always knew that the climate fight would be hard, harder than human beings had ever done before. In The End of Nature, I said I doubted we’d make progress fast enough to hold off the wholesale transformation of our planet. But I was twenty-eight then, and unable to conceive that even as I was writing the book, a few of the most powerful people on Earth were sitting down to hatch a lie that would make the task infinitely harder. I’ve lived the last thirty years inside that lie, engaged in an endless debate over whether global warming was “real”—a debate in which both sides knew the answer from the beginning.
It was not only greed that propelled them, but a Libertarian ideology spread by “CEOs gleefully handing one another copies of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and the billionaires who had grown up in the fever swamps of the antigovernment movement”—people like the Koch brothers, whose father was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. As McKibben sees it:
The antigovernment forces had, at some level, no choice but to deny global warming, because tackling it would have required governments to take strong action—at the very least, to set a price on carbon so that markets could then work their putative magic. They believed more strongly in their particular economic fantasia than they did in physics or chemistry, and so they churned out an endless series of lies.
Rand has had an equally outsized influence in Silicon Valley, where developments in AI and genetic modification tools like CRISPR have the potential to change the human game in different, yet equally dramatic ways. Putting this technology into a world that has already maximized inequality, McKibben warns, will likely lock in that inequality, leading to two fundamentally different classes of human beings, one a genetically enhanced upper class able to afford modification of themselves and their offspring, and a natural, poorer one—an already decimated middle class that would become but a servant class of the elites.
The levels of inequality that already exist are, in McKibben’s words, “almost beyond belief, deadly serious but also cartoonishly comical.”
The world’s eight richest men possess more wealth than the bottom half of all humanity. … Jeff Bezos, the richest human, would have to spend $28 million every day just to keep his wealth from growing—which is funny in a sick way, given that his average employee makes $28,000 in a year.
He cites a 2017 special rapporteur studying extreme poverty and human rights in America who concluded: “for one of the world’s wealthiest countries to have forty million people living in poverty, and over five million living in ‘Third World’ conditions is cruel and inhuman.” Even worse,
Within days of the UN special rapporteur’s report on extreme American poverty, the U.S. Congress responded by passing a massive tax cut that virtually every economist predicted would make the inequality much worse. As the UN expert noted in his official report to the world body, “The strategy seems to be tailor-made to maximize inequality … It seems driven by contempt, and sometimes even hatred, for the poor, along with a ‘winner-take-all’ mentality.”
This all as politicians supporting such tax cuts make arguments about "makers and takers" in our society, and suggest we need to cut the social safety net, as if it's the poor that are hoarding all the wealth. And, of course, the tax avoidance so common among wealthy individuals and corporations also means that public coffers that could be used to invest in tackling some of our society’s largest problems—like income inequality and climate change—aren't at the levels they properly should be.
So, what do we do now? McKibben quotes Martin Luther King, Jr’s words that “A man who does not have something for which he is willing to die is not fit to live.” I am willing to die for my children, as are most parents, and for their children’s children. And I would be so willing even if I didn’t have children of my own—in the same way all of our ancestors up until this point lived and died so that we could all live. “Those who exalt humans too highly,” suggest McKibben“devalue humanity.” “Death is a feature,” quipped Lewis Black, “not a bug.” Of course, accepting my own immortality isn't all that brave. After reading Falter, I have a few more ideas. And let's be clear: transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels will not hinder economic growth, except for a select group of already well heeled elites. For most others, it would create new opportunity, new jobs, and a sustainable source of energy they could potentially own themselves. However inevitable its death of our planet may be in the larger scheme of things as the sun burns out billions of years from now, it does not need to be expedited, and the majority of us would be better off if it isn't. Most of us are more concerned with our children's future than in pursuing immortality. We don't have much time to secure it, but we can all engage in that work. On that front, McKibben states:
I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just realistic—enough to know that engagement is our only chance.
So we must engage with those around us. He quotes Johann Hari, who when invited to speak at a conference organized by Peter Thiel on how to cure depression, anxiety, and addiction, “was amazed to find most of the participants were convinced that such problems were caused by ‘malformations of the brain.’”
When it was his turn to speak, Hari said, “As your society becomes more unequal, you are more likely to become depressed.” Humans, he continued, “crave connection—to other people, to meaning, to the natural world. So we have begun to live in ways that don’t work for us, and it is causing us deep pain.”
If you're looking for evidence on that point, pick up a copy of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-Being. Beyond that, McKibben speaks of how, a generation ago, we built the suburbs with their windy streets and houses placed further apart, disconnecting us from our neighbors, and how this generation has replaced the connection to those within our homes with the screens and software of our smartphone, designed to be addictive. “If we wanted to somehow engineer better humans,” McKibben insists, “we’d start by engineering their neighborhoods and schools, not their genes.” I'd only add, "or more addictive devices."
In the end, he points to two technologies that can can give us an outside chance at stemming the literal tide, the solar panel and the nonviolent movement. Describing how we retooled our entire economy toward defeating the Axis powers in World War II, McKibben writes: “If we did something like that again, in the name of stopping climate change instead of fascism, we wouldn’t have to kill a soul.” We would, in fact be saving lives today, and perhaps humanity itself. Solar panels and nonviolence may be “less immediately” powerful than fossil fuels and violence, but they have two great advantages: resilience and sustainability. McKibben calls for embracing technological maturity, economic balance, and a return to a more human, local scale, rather than pursuing growth in each at all costs—to our future to our humanity. “The human game,” he insists, “is a team sport.”
I said before that the human game we’ve been playing has no rules and no end, but it does come with two logical imperatives. The first is to keep it going, and the second is to keep it human.
And to be human is to eventually pass away, to make way for another cycle, because we mimic the earth that birthed us in cycles of life and death. Of the three comedians I've cited, I think Lewis Black has it right, "Death is a feature, not a bug." But we should aspire to leave the planet better than we found it, in whatever individual and collective ways we can, not in terms of bigger profits or bigger homes, but of a larger understanding and connection to the world and to the humanity around us. To do that, we must both progress and preserve—together. The game hasn't been played out quite yet.