Brave New Eaarth

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Written by:  Angela Harris

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

As the oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico reaches, reportedly, the size of Puerto Rico, and BP continues to attempt to take the responsibility but not the blame, we can recall Donald Rumsfeld’s words. Bill McKibben would like to add one important fact to our store of known knowns: The planet Earth we used to know is gone.

While BP tried to pass itself off as a good ecological citizen (check this logo. So clean!), people argued about whether global warming was actually happening or not, and venture capitalists anticipated exciting new markets based on the coming water wars, we quietly passed the moment when it was possible to avert catastropic climate change. The planet we live on is not your mother’s Mother Earth. We live on a much more violent planet, marked by “belching volcanoes and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.” McKibben calls it Eaarth. Get used to it, he says.

One of the things about life on Eaarth is that the percentage of unknown unknowns has suddenly gone way up. This poses a problem not only for scientific prediction, but the way we make policy. Human planning, as the behavioral economists tell us, is based on a number of systematically wrong assumptions. One of these is that the future will be pretty much like the past. (Real estate: Always a good investment!) Another is that Murphy’s Law is wrong. (Just ask BP. Why spend money researching how to clean up oil spills? Our preventive technology can’t possibly fail!) Thus, Earth-style politics assumes that capitalism as we know it can’t end and that it, not the natural limits of the planet, dictates what is possible, what is reasonable, and what is a good idea. Capitalism as we know it is dictating our responses to climate change: lots of cool new stuff we can make, buy, sell, and trade while saving the Earth.

But Earth is beyond saving. What will policy making look like on Eaarth? McKibben urges us to abandon our capitalism-fed addiction to bigness and think small, and he spends a good portion of the book giving examples. This has led people to describe his book as “empowering” and will, presumably, lead people to actually read it rather than avoid it as too much of a bummer. His approach, however, assumes that collective policymaking as we know it will eventually adapt to Eaarth conditions, allowing us to sensibly and rationally think small. Much more likely, I suspect, is a collapse of collective policymaking as we know it. Ad hoc “thinking small,” forced on communities by catastrophic local conditions (both natural and political), will likely be the way “we” finally do politics on Eaarth.

What will living on this brave new Eaarth be like? Maybe Detroit. Rebecca Solnit has this to say about the post-industrial city:

“The forces that produced Detroit — the combination of bitter racism and single-industry failure — are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces — San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan — but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced to become altogether something else.”

What it will be is one of the many unknown unknowns. Welcome to Eaarth.