The fossil fuel age changed every detail of western human life – where we lived, how we travelled (and how much), what we ate, how our economies worked.
But there were two changes in particular that it wrought – huge changes. Changes so huge they redefine the meaning of huge. One is physical – the sudden onset of a rapid warming that will change the very geography of the planet in almost unbelievable fashion over the next century. We live on a different earth already, and it is going to get worse fast. Way worse. The other is psychological – cheap fossil fuel tipped the balance in the modern mind between self as individual and self as member of community. It made us different people. Worse people. And so here’s the good news – fighting either problem means fighting them both. We’ve been backed into a corner, and the only way out is the right way... By Bill McKibben
Let’s look at the physical problem first. In the last three years or so, the environmental movement has been busy morphing into the global warming movement. And with good reason. For a long time, environmentalists have been declaring that unless we change our course, Something Bad will happen. Now we know what. The earth is warming – indeed, it’s warming more rapidly, and with far more devastating effect, than we would have guessed just a few years ago.
I wrote the first book for a general audience about climate change back in 1989; at the time, we thought the phenomenon would be epochal (I called my account The End of Nature), but we also thought it would be relatively linear, a gradually heating planet with gradually rising seas. Most scientists guessed that both negative and positive feedback effects would appear – for instance, we’d see more clouds, which would help cool the earth and keep the temperature rise at least a little under control. But those ameliorating effects haven’t shown up; instead, we’ve seen – as documented in each issue of Nature – yet more evidence of just how badly we’ve unhinged the basic physical systems of our home planet. To wit:
- Soils, as they’ve warmed, have become more microbially active, leading to higher rates of decay, and hence giving off more carbon dioxide. The classic study was done in the UK, and it showed that the flux out of the soils is roughly equal to everything Britain has done since 1990 to reduce carbon emissions.
- Everything frozen on earth is now melting, and melting very quickly. Arctic sea ice has failed to fully re-freeze for the past two winters – the first time anything like that has been observed. If you look at the earth from a satellite, it looks remarkably different than it did a decade or two ago – those Apollo shots of our lonely blue/white orb in the darkness of space are now more blue and less white.
- Hot ocean water is leading – much faster than anyone would have predicted a decade ago – to more massive storms. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma set the Atlantic record for the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the hemisphere.
All of which leads scientists to a new kind of despair. In the winter of 2006, James Lovelock famously announced that we had already passed the point of no return – billions would perish, while a remnant of civilisation might survive if wise leaders led them north towards the pole. Less feverishly, but at least as ominously, the planet’s foremost climate scientist, America’s James Hansen, defied a White House gag order in the winter of 2005 to declare that unless we started putting less carbon into the atmosphere in the next ten years, we’d soon inhabit a ‘totally different planet’. He seemed most spooked by new data from Greenland showing ice sheets breaking up at a faster-than-expected rate, and thus threatening to raise sea levels by many metres. Ten years. And that was a year ago.
So the Something Bad is here. And it’s big – as big or bigger than the effects of a thermonuclear exchange. What we need to note is where it came from.
Environmentalists have spent most of their time working on the periphery of our economic life: we stuck filters on smokestacks and filters on effluent pipes and filters on car exhausts. The theory was that our basic scheme of life – getting more money then buying more stuff – worked pretty well, it just needed some filtering.
It turns out that idea was wrong. The basic scheme of things was the problem. There’s no filter you can stick on a car that will keep it from emitting carbon dioxide. What you need is, for instance, a train. Or a bicycle. Which is to say, a different basic scheme. We can change all our light bulbs for low-energy light bulbs (and we should), but if we don’t change the set of attitudes that produces tomatoes in January, or a Ryanair flight across the globe whenever we’re chilly, and two people to a house – well, that nifty light bulb will be shining on a ‘totally different planet’. The best guess? Stabilising climate at current levels of disruption would require an immediate, worldwide, 70 per cent reduction in carbon emissions. That’s a lot of light bulbs.
There’s a reason, of course, why environmentalists have concentrated on light bulbs and filters. It’s easy, at least relatively. It doesn’t require engaging in discussion about the bigger questions about how we live, and we haven’t wanted to engage with those because we assumed we’d lose any argument. Assumed that people liked the way they lived so much they couldn’t imagine changing it. Indeed, that’s been the biggest operating assumption of our time, the thought that underlay the career of Tony Blair or Bill (‘It’s the economy, stupid’) Clinton. All change needed to come around the edges – we were so deeply enmeshed in the rhythms of consumer culture that challenging it in any real way seemed anathema. You could really see this attitude at work in the negotiations around the World Trade Organization. Relentless expansion of the international economy was the central business at hand – labour and environmental concerns could be discussed, but as ‘side agreements’. We were, literally, in the margins; the economic worldview loomed so large that all else was in its shadow.
But that’s begun to change – or soon will. Or could, anyway, if environmentalism begins to transform itself from a fixation on filters and light bulbs to a new fixation – on human satisfaction. For a very long time, ‘happiness’ has been considered a soft topic, something that hippies and sandal-wearers bothered themselves with and the actual world ignored as it went about the important business of More. In the past decade, however, economists, aided by psychologists and sociologists, have begun to question some of their assumptions. In the old view, you measured happiness by what people bought – under the principle of utility maximisation, your credit card statement held the answer to what satisfied you. Ipso facto.
But some academics began wondering: why not ask people if they were happy? The first problem was, would their answers be meaningful? An immense amount of research went into trying to answer this question – people undergoing colonoscopies were prodded about the precise level of pain they were feeling, researchers looked at ‘biases in recall of menstrual symptoms’ or ‘fearlessness and courage in novice paratroopers undergoing training’. Some of the early papers had a distinctly academic ring: ‘The importance of Taking Part in Daily Life’, for instance. (Or the discovery by another analyst that ‘there is no context in which cutting oneself shaving will be a pleasant experience’.)
Eventually, however, the various researchers (led in some ways by Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics – despite not being an economist – for his work on this and other problems) converged on the idea that people really could decide whether they were happy or not. British economist Richard Layard, who has written a great deal about this work, says: ‘We now know that what people say about how they feel corresponds closely to the actual levels of activity in different parts of the brain, which can be measured in standard scientific ways.’ People who call themselves happy also seem happier to their friends, live healthier lives, and so forth.
Which allows you to start doing something interesting. It allows you to start reversing two centuries of reductionism. Instead of asking: ‘What did you buy?’, you can ask someone: ‘Is your life good?’ And once you’ve asked that, you’re in position to ask the most subversive question there could be: ‘Is “more” better?’
Because if more really is better, then environmentalism is a lost cause. There aren’t enough Powerpoint slides of calving icebergs to turn things around.
But if more isn’t necessarily better, then there are possibilities.
And so here’s the bottom line. We’ve become significantly richer, but not significantly happier. In a sense, you could say that the years since the Second World War have been a loosely controlled experiment designed to answer this precise question.
The environmentalist Alan Durning found that compared to 1950, the average American family now owns twice as many cars, uses 21 times as much plastic, and travels 25 times farther by air. Gross domestic product per capita has tripled since 1950 in the US. We obviously eat more calories. And yet – the satisfaction meter seems not to have budged. More Americans say their marriages are unhappy, their jobs are hideous, and that they don’t like the place where they live. The number who, all things considered, say they are ‘very happy’ with their lives has slid steadily over that period. During the rapid economic boom of the Clinton years, the decline in satisfaction seemed, if anything, to accelerate – for instance, a report from the National Opinion Research Center showed increasing numbers of relationships breaking up. As one journalist summarised the findings, ‘there’s more misery in people’s lives today’.
As always, the United States leads the way, but the rest of the world doesn’t trail terribly far behind. In the United Kingdom, per capita gross domestic product grew 66 per cent between 1973 and 2001 and yet people’s satisfaction with their lives changed not a whit. Nor did it budge in Japan, despite a fivefold increase in income in the postwar years.
Depression has risen steadily across the advanced world. As the British researcher Richard Douthwaite noted, the doubling of UK income corresponded with rises in everything from crime to divorce. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that getting richer caused these problems, but it surely didn’t alleviate them. Taken as a whole, we got both more stuff and less happiness.
Why did this happen? Though the study of satisfaction is in fact an infant science, the data suggests powerfully that what modern westerners lack is community— we’ve lost the connections to other people that as evolved primates we need in order to thrive. In the US, for instance, studies show that if you find one of the tens of millions of Americans who doesn’t belong to anything and convince them to join a church choir or a baseball fan club or any other league of fellow humans, their mortality risk – the chance that they will die in the next year – drops by half. That’s not a very subtle effect. People have many fewer friends on average than they did a generation ago, and they visit with those friends – and with family and neighbours— considerably less often. We have, in effect, privatised our lives; an emergent species, the hyper-individual, is on the ascendant.
And here’s what’s interesting. It’s fossil fuel that let that happen, just as surely as it’s fossil fuel that’s melting the ice caps. In America, for instance, cheap gas meant building suburbs – in 1920, Americans lived, on average, about ten persons to an acre. By the year 2000, new subdivisions averaged two people per acre. And once you’ve moved out to the edge, cheap electricity and heating oil lead people to build with ever-greater grandiosity. The average new home in America has doubled in size since 1970 – there are entire suburbs that look like they were built for entry-level monarchs, every home with turrets.
But it’s not just big cars and big houses. As Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blythman have shown in their reporting on the transformation of European agriculture, it’s also our most basic habits. Forget about relying on your neighbours – the farmer, the butcher, the baker – for your food. Why not, since it’s always summer somewhere, simply order takeout from across the globe every single night? Supermarkets, says Blythman, peddle the dream that it is ‘feasible, and indeed reasonable, for the UK shopper to expect virtually every horticultural product on the planet every day.’ But you can only get Californian lettuce to London if you’re willing to spend 100 calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food. And, so far, we are willing – refrigerated air transport is the fastest growing sector of the food economy.
Think I’m overstating the case? Consider the greatest television phenomenon of our time, the show Survivor, which touched off the wave of ‘reality’ television. It operates from the premise that, even in an emergency, the obvious goal is to end up alone on the island, to manipulate and scheme until everyone else disappears and leaves you by yourself with your money. The Soviets and the Chinese failed in their 20th-century efforts to build the New Man. But we’ve evolved one in the West, a hardy hyper-individualist. Margaret Thatcher at the zenith of her power once said, ‘there is no such thing as “society”. There are individual men and women and there are families’. The only problem is, the individuals aren’t all that happy and they’re starting to get kind of hot.
In a new world like this, we need a new environmentalism. It begins with, say, a carrot. Slightly gnarled, perhaps – not a ‘baby carrot’ lathed to millimetric precision and entombed in a plastic sack, but a real one. Or a potato. Or even a parsnip. The winter before last, I decided on an experiment. Could I make it through the winter in our northern valley eating only the food that came from the fields around me? I wasn’t sure – winter’s long here (though not as long as it once was, sigh) and an awful lot of our agricultural infrastructure has disappeared. (America now has more prisoners than farmers.) But it turned out that in fact there were enough old farmers hanging on, and enough new ones starting up, to make it a delicious eight months. Root vegetables, but also every kind of cheese and yogurt. Apples from the county’s lovely orchards, stored properly for the winter and pressed weekly for cider (even though, in the local supermarket, all the apples were arriving from China and South Africa). Even good beer from our local brewery, made with wheat from a neighbour’s field.
And it wasn’t just the food that was so satisfying. It was the network of new friends – the orchardist, the guy who grew 40 kinds of potatoes on three acres, the fellow raising fallow deer on an old cow pasture. Yes, all this took more time – but the time was the benefit. I felt more connected instead of less.
It turns out that I’m not alone. A pair of sociologists recently followed shoppers as they made their rounds, first at the supermarket and then at the local farmers’ market. Everyone knows the supermarket experience – light trance, quick tour of the same stations of the culinary cross, back out to the parking lot. At the farmers’ market, people had 10 times as many conversations as they had at the supermarket – an order of magnitude more community. Something like an order of magnitude less energy used, too. That’s an environmentalism that might start adding up to the scale of change that the planet requires, and that we require. And you don’t need to stop with food – you can do the same analysis with energy, with wood, even with entertainment. Why does music, like milk, need to be downloaded from some distant location? Why can’t your neighbours make it with you? That’s why it’s good news when British officials report a resurgence of live music in pubs and clubs, and touring jam bands – descendants of the wandering bards – are making more money in America than the MTV stars.
In a weird way, the marketers had figured out all of this years ago, long before the academics and the politicians. Hence advertisements gradually went from being straightforward (this car has more cylinders) to being straightforwardly devious (buy this car and have sex with this girl) to being incredibly bent: buy this car or beer or cosmetic and you will have the community that you crave. If only it were true – if only buying a Heineken could make you part of a world that worked for you – then we’d be fine. But since it’s not true, then it’s up to the rest of us to make good on the promise.
Environmentalists, in other words, need to build a world where that kind of satisfaction really is possible. A world where we rely on each other for something real again. The kind of world, not incidentally, that needs less coal and gas and oil to make it run.
In autumn 2005, the New Economics Foundation released a truly mind-blowing study, which attempted to rank the nations of the world by how much human satisfaction they’d achieved, with how little environmental devastation. Most of the headlines about the study focused on the abysmal rankings of the richest nations (the US was 150th and 178th). But just as interesting was the group that did best: regardless of income, the citizens of island nations were counted as both happier and less spendthrift. Which makes sense. No man is an island, and on an island he’s more likely to figure that out. It’s a finding every bit as important as the news about Greenland’s melting glaciers.
We know, after the long experience of the 20th century, all the things that don’t work for human satisfaction (centrally planned economies, endlessly repeated ideologies, ever more accumulation). We know, from what the scientists now tell us weekly, what doesn’t work for the planet (burning hydrocarbons). Environmentalism is now the art of putting those two sets of facts together.
Nothing more, but nothing less.
Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and Enough: Genetic Engineering and the End of Human Nature. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and lives with his family in the Adirondack Mountains.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007