Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

Doom, gloom and make-believe – book reivew


I’ve read or perused quite a few “doom and gloom” books over the last couple of years.  Almost all of them follow the same outline; first the doom, then the gloom and then everlasting hope – how our world will not end tomorrow if we take small steps today.

It might be called “doom porn’ because it titillates us with a blood-chilling assessment of the state of the world, presents several doomsday scenarios until we’re thoroughly entertained and then, just before we might actually take the author seriously and realise that modernity – OUR way of life – is doomed, the author presents his or her prescriptions of variants of recycling, community and organic gardening that will keep the world more or less as we enjoy it now.  Doom-gloom-make believe.

Please don’t get me wrong. Hope is good. Hope is nice. But what’s remarkable about the “hope” presented in the doom and gloom literature is how, almost without exception, reality is replaced with make-believe. Journalistic rigour about the appalling state of the world is replaced by rose-tinted optimism.  Every flicker of hope is exalted.  Inconvenient truths – vested interest, political toadyism, economic impotence, physical limitations, the experience of history – are excised from the mind in single paragraphs.

I don’t know if the authors are afraid to tell their readers straight, or if they actually believe it will all be all right in the end, or whether publishers insist every book must end with a message of hope.

Bill McKibben’s book “Eaarth, making a life on a tough new planet” is fairly typical of the doom-gloom-make believe genre.

First the gloom:  The book was published in 2010 so some of his data maybe fairly new to most readers:  The ocean is already 30% more acid than would have been because of our emissions. The ocean is more acid now than at any time in last 800,000 years and by 2050 will be more corrosive than at any time in last 20 million years.

By standard meteorological definition, the tropics have expanded more than 2 degrees of latitude north and south since 1980.

Coral reefs will cease to exist by 2100, perhaps 2050.

Only 25 of the 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park in the US that existed in 1850 still exist today.

And on the failed Copenhagen conference – where hope met realpolitik – “if you took every government pledge made during the conference and added it all together, the world in 2100 would have more than 725 parts per million carbon dioxide, or slightly double what scientists now believe is the maximum safe level of 350.”

McKibben’s doom is no longer shocking, as it should be, only because we’ve already grown accustomed.

Likewise, his gloom fails to hit home, fails to terrify as it should.

He quotes the chief scientist at US State Department foreseeing “famines severe enough to affect a billion people at a time in the next few decades”. I read the forecast and moved on to the next titbit of gloom. Famines affecting 20% of the human population? Yet my belly is so full, my mind glosses over and my heart is not stirred to anger, upset or fear.

McKibben’s prose moves on.

One barrel oil yields as much energy as 25,000 hours of human manual labour  – more than one decade of labour per barrel.  The average American uses 25 barrels/year, equal to 300 years of free labour annually + coal and natural gas, McKibben reports.

Yet little is being done to find new resources or replacements.  According to the International Energy Agency, we need to invest $350 billion every year until 2030 in exploration and development in order to discover or replace the equalivalent of four Saudi Arabias pumping conventional crude oil.

We invested a total of just $390 billion in all the years 2000-07.

According to McKibben, the same day Obama announced raised fuel efficiency standards for cars, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new study showing that changes in sea surface temperature, rainfall and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped.

McKibben quotes a report from the US Pentagon in 2004 that, “Wars over resources were the norm until about three centuries ago.  When such conflicts broke out, 25% of a population’s adult males usually died, as abrupt climate change hits home, warfare may again come to define human life.”

You get the picture.  Lots of doom and gloom.  McKibben’s central point is that the planet we knew and grew up on has already gone. Forget worrying only for the grandchildren. We’re already living in a different world.  “We’re not going back to the planet we used to have, the one on which civilization developed. We’re like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack.  Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on the treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue. “

Next comes the obligatory dollop of hope. McKibben explains, “how we might keep the lights on, the larder full, and spirits reasonably high. These are all difficult tasks; the transition from a system that demands growth to one that can live without it will be wrenching. but the most wrenching part will be the simple idea of decline.”

Really?  With 1000 million human beings at a time facing starvation? With the US government as the dominant aggressor in wars for resources? The most wrenching part will be “the simple idea of decline”?

Part of the answer is to build resilience, McKibben argues. Not bigger banks but smaller; eating food that comes from close to home, and energy from the roof of your house.  Decentralised. Smaller scale.  Spread the risk.

“We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale. We’re so used to growth that we can’t imagine alternatives; at best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim that we can keep on as before. So here are my candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future – Durable, Sturdy, Stable, Hardy, Robust.”

Does this reknowned author really believe these stalwart words can save us. Or is he just throwing out hope to the masses?  He champions “resilience” – an admiral quality – it’s how most people in the world have always lived and continue to live today.

We need to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed, McKibben argues. To do this, political power will shift back from Washington to the states in America, he believes. Yet, he admits that small town communities “generally demand conformity and punish intrusive eccentricity”. They might be stifling given that we are novelty junkies. The answer, he says, is the Internet.

McKibben’s book ends with that yet another global action day (October 2009) – a demonstration!

“No-one needed to leave his or her city or town; no one needed to march on Washington or Paris or Cairo. People simply showed their heart and soul and creativity where they were and then used this new tool, the Internet, to become larger than the sum of the parts.”

Wonderful, but what exactly changed? If our appetites for consumer goods and the vested interests which supply them are not affected by a demonstration nothing at all has changed. Millions of people demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq but that didn’t stop the military intervention to secure crude oil supplies.  The disconnect between the easy emotionalism of the make-believe and the hard headed, factual reports of how we are degrading all life systems on the planet makes a mockery of Mckibben’s message in Eaarth.

Just before the end of the book, he reassures us that all will be well:

“So there will be dinner, if we’re resourceful and clever, and if more of us are willing to do the work of farming, and if we build the kind of community institutions that make us more resilient, less vulnerable. it won’t be easy; as flood, drought, and pests spread, we’ll be pressed to keep up.”

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2011 by in Book Reviews, Current Affairs and tagged , , .
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