Saturday, March 20, 2010

12 x 12 > 350

You math majors out there can relax; the title reflects my preference between two forthcoming books: Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream by William Powers and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. The 350 figure comes from McKibben's book and refers to parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--350 being what's now considered the maximum safe level for life as we've known it. Historically, the average was 275; the current number is 390.

Although I’m in complete agreement with Bill McKibben that we are at the end of our old way of life and find the future he imagines in his new book appealing (a chosen and planned gradual change in our way of life to smaller, more local, more people working on farms, and he's keeping the internet in part because of the negative aspects of small town life), I believe that future is a fairy tale and that his book is of little value.

The first half of the book amounts to this percent, that fraction, some year, some place, another measurement of volume, height, area, money, population. Meant to incite to action, I found it tedious but then, I’ve never been interested in this kind of homocentric environmentalism. The self-centered world view it demonstrates is the exact cause of the problems it worries about. What interested me in this part of the book were the brief mentions of ecological changes occurring due to rising temperatures—trees dying because of insects surviving warmer winters, mosquitoes spreading dengue fever farther and more frequently as the incubation period of the virus decreases, etc.

Frankly, those of us who’ve benefited from industrialism deserve whatever fate befalls us. It’s a shame that we’re going to make the have-not humans of the world suffer even more, but their deprivation has always been a consequence of our greed and few of us have given up our toys or offered to change places with them for a few years in the name of fairness. The human populations of both the haves and the have-nots must decline; my sympathy lies with the non-humans we're driving to extinction.

McKibben’s analysis of the Carter--Reagan election and its effects is good but although he writes of Reagan’s optimism as being the problem, he commits the same error in this book. He writes off those predicting collapse, not because he thinks they’re wrong or because collapse is impossible (in fact he provides several reasons that it’s likely), but because he sees them as being unwilling to accept other possibilities. To me, the problem is just the opposite—folks like McKibben aren’t willing to face the facts.

History is filled with civilizations which disappeared but McKibben prefers to imagine that we will voluntarily choose to make a gradual change to a simpler way of life. Are there any examples of a civilization doing that in history? If there were, I'd think they'd be mentioned in this book. This is not to say that some of us aren’t already living a very different way of life or that the examples he gives aren’t admirable, but to imagine that U.S. society as a whole is going to turn smoothly and peacefully away from consumerism and economic growth and urban life is simply ludicrous.

Perhaps the author has spent so much time with people who share his concerns, he’s forgotten the half of the country who don’t believe climate change even exists, much less be willing to change their lives to limit it. In a Gallup poll this month, 50% believe that global warming is occurring and is due to human activity but 48% think its seriousness is exaggerated and 67% don’t think it will cause a serious threat to them or their way of life. When the results are compared to Gallup's previous polls, all percentages are trending away from a concern with the issue. Denial is much easier than change, or maybe they know something Nobel winner Steven Chu didn’t know when he suggested last year that the end of the Sierra snowpack could wipe out not only California agriculture but cities as well.

McKibben uses, as he has before, part of a frightening old quote from Obama’s chief economic advisor Larry Summers: “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” It seems to me there have been some staggering social costs to not recognizing limits, but I don’t think Summers needs to worry that those in power will ever advocate limiting “growth”. They will instead try (and in fact already are trying) to cling as long as possible to attempts to revive the old way of life, ignoring the social, financial, and ecological costs of their desperate attempts.

William Powers is a fan of Bill McKibben's books and his book is certainly in line with the future McKibben proposed--smaller, slower, local, etc. But Powers writes in a more personal, psychological, and philosophical style which made his ideas more interesting to me. The title and subtitle of his book might be considered misleading by some readers. Put the emphasis on the "Beyond the American Dream" phrase because the book is less about the specifics of the author's forty days in a small cabin than it is an examination of how one chooses to live.

The repeated question we're asked to consider is "What is the shape of the world?". Is it a flat uniform world of humans, money, and possessions, or a round world which includes a richer, varied life beyond and within us? Is it hard and rushed, or soft and idle? How does one want to live, and how does one do it within a culture which is the very antithesis of that way of life?

More anecdotal than linear, the book includes stories from the lives of many people who live near the cabin (I wished there had been more about the woman who actually lived there and was allowing the author to stay there while she was away), as well as stories from other times and places in the author's life. The appendix includes some suggestions for further exploration; most interesting to me were websites providing opportunities for couch-surfing or to work on organic farms.

There were times when I completely loved this book, sharing the author's alienation from mainstream U.S. life; at other times, I felt annoyed by his choices including an inconsistent attitude toward animals, and a New Agish spirituality which at one point he acknowledges is difficult to explain. Most annoying is that we never learn what results from the appearance of a bulldozer late in the book.

Given that names of people and places have been changed, and that some supposed events seem more-than-a-little too pat metaphors (watch for cocoons, for example), I admit to wondering if all this actually happened or if it's fiction. Hey, Carlos Castaneda even gets mentioned. Regardless of that and my occasional irritation, my copy is heavily marked and I believe I'll reread it, because I found it much more thought-provoking than most books.

Reading these books in succession, a couple things stood out to me. Both of these advocates for small and local write about their experiences around the world. Powers at least refers to it as a catch-22; McKibben doesn't address the dichotomy between his theory and practice.

And both make passing reference to vegetarianism: McKibben--"It takes eleven times as much fossil fuel to raise a pound of animal protein as a pound of plant protein, which means we'd be wise either to turn vegetarian or to take a Chinese cooking lesson." No sign of compassion there, but at least he's an environmentalist who doesn't hide the fact. Powers--"And if I couldn't kill a chicken, perhaps the only honest response was to become a vegetarian." There's the acknowledgment of the morality involved, but unfortunately he doesn't become honest.

But later, there's this from Powers, and how can I resist? "My time in the 12 x 12 was like an internship with Thoreau. . . . I Felt the presence of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, John James Audubon, Loren Eiseley, and Ed Abbey, all earth mentors. Imagining those mentors by our side improves the quality of our connection with nature."

So to sum up, if you're looking for a recap of currently occurring changes and a feel-good vision of the future, Eaarth might be for you; if you want to be provoked into thinking about your own life, step into the Twelve by Twelve. There's nothing gross about it.


Allan Stellar said...

I'm jealous that you got to read Mckibben's book. I looked for it in the bookstore yesterday, and it isn't even listed on Amazon yet.

I had a friendly e-mail exchange with Mckibben once--until I acted like a troll and was ornery with him. I liked Deep Economy, but felt the second half of the book was weak. Mckibben can be mambipambiish---and he is so scared of looking like a radical. Those East Coast establishment types just want to fit in where-ever they go.

As for the second book---only forty days in the cabin? Hell, I can do anything for forty days. We've lived in our little cabin (350 square feet) with two adults, two kids, an 80 pound dog and cat for nigh on two years now. Without running hot water.

But I think I will read both of these books. Thanks for the excellent review...


Terry said...

One of my favorite books is "Always Coming Home", by Ursula Le Guin. It's about a low impact society living in a post-enviro-apocolypse world in California. For me the book's flaw, and I think it's a big one, is the "City of the Mind", a kind of autonomous self-maintaining benign internet which stores and shares all information about everything. This deus ex machina eliminates the problem of maintaining scientific understanding of things like germs and inbreeding, and the replacement of that understanding with things like pointless prohibitions and caste systems. So, I agree that "keeping the internet" might be a long shot. I'd still recommend the book though.

Northland said...

Excellent reviews! Glad that you must have a lap top now, so you don't have to hassle with doing entries on library and public computers. computers.

greentangle said...

Neither book is out yet, but both are on Amazon. Eaarth (that's not a typo) is due April 13, and 12 x 12 is scheduled for May 1.

I met McKibben once when he signed one of his early books for me. I was wearing an EF! shirt and we talked about that. He struck me as having more radical thoughts than he publicly spoke, at least at the time.

Terry, I've never really been able to get into LeGuin much; not sure what it is. But I know you enjoy her work a lot so maybe I'll try again someday.

Yes, it's fun to have a laptop--I'm in a Panera's at the moment and internet is due to arrive Tuesday where I'm staying. Then I'll be spending more time hiking and less at the library. I have a few hikes and hopefully a whale watch in mind before leaving here, and once memory cards and batteries arrive for the camera, I have an idea for a photo post about Nature in Megalopolis.

Thanks for the comments.