Book critics Dan Kois and Laura Miller write: “We are a culture intoxicated by apocalypse and ruin, forever telling one another stories about what we’d do to survive should civilization as we know it collapse. But what if humanity itself went poof and left behind the entire apparatus of our existence without a single soul remaining to start over? That is the irresistible premise of Weisman’s book, a thought experiment substantiated by deep research into what it takes to keep the built world functioning and what has happened in the few places (Chernobyl, the Korean Demilitarized Zone) where there has been no one around to prop it up.”
The experiment, they conclude, is “executed with a methodical bravado that’s breathtaking.”
Latino USA producer Antonia Cereijido received the first annual Cecilia Vaisman Award, named after the Homelands Productions co-founder who died in 2015.
Antonia was a student of Cecilia’s at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have a career because of her,” she said at the November 5 ceremony.
The award was created to celebrate audio and video journalists from the Latinx community and was conceived by students from Northwestern’s chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Cecilia’s husband, Gary Marx, was among the speakers at the event. Gary is an award-winning investigative journalist at the Chicago Tribune. Below is the text of his remarks.
I want to thank NAHJ and Medill for establishing this award in Cecilia’s honor. Cecilia’s life and career were dedicated to promoting diversity and nurturing the next generation of journalists. This award carries on her legacy in a very real way and I speak from the heart when I say that our two children – Ana and Andres – and our entire family are grateful.
I’d like to say a few words about Cecilia – or Ceci as I called her – for those of you who didn’t know her. She was born in Argentina and came as a baby to the States with her family. She grew up in New Jersey. Her mother Carmen loved opera, raised four kids and worked in factories before becoming a pattern maker. She made all of the family’s clothes by hand. Her father Adolfo loved Boca Juniors, and held various jobs including working as a furniture store salesman.
“She was thoughtful and deep and warm and generous and very beautiful – and exacting.”
Gary Marx, Cecilia’s husband
Ceci earned a scholarship to Barnard, joined the college radio station, and then NPR after graduation. Her dream was to do long-form audio documentaries in Latin America and that’s what she did when she helped found Homelands Productions.
Ceci was an artist, a musician, a great bass player, and sound was sacred to her – the human voice above all else. She was thoughtful and deep and warm and generous and very beautiful – and exacting. When she peered over her glasses at you, you knew she expected better.
Teaching came late to Ceci but she loved it. How much? Even in the last months of her life, she did not want to leave Medill. She did not want to leave her students.
I had to convince her that it was time.
Antonia, there was no student she loved more than you. Ceci spoke about you often – about your thoughtfulness, integrity and smarts – not to mention your shared Argentine background.
When I asked you last week to send me a few of your stories so I could catch up with your work, the response surprised me.
Yes, there was a piece about the plight of the Dream 9 activists – young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the US yet left and tried to reenter the country from Mexico to protest our unjust immigration policies. But there also was a story that tried to answer a ridiculously profound question: Do Latinos and Latinas cry more than the rest of us? And the third story you sent me was about Dora the Explorer, the animated Nickelodeon TV character.
I was intrigued. Then I listened. Each of the three pieces carried the hallmarks of great journalism – all the hallmarks of Ceci’s journalism. The piece on the young immigration activists could have been a simple, triumphant celebration of their efforts. It covered that – but the story also talked about the devastating infighting among immigration reformers, the personal sacrifice and cost of activism among the Dream 9, and most of all – it raised the question – without ever asking the listener directly – what are each of us doing in our own lives to bring more justice to this world.
The story had integrity, power and honesty, just like Ceci would have demanded.
The story about the frequency of Latinos crying made me laugh, until it didn’t. It was done tongue in cheek and it was fun to listen to – the Mexican actor you interviewed, the references to telenovelas, the mythology of tears in Latino culture, the high-pitched yet solemn ranchera music – and of course your own imprecise poll of people of diverse backgrounds and their habits regarding the shedding of tears.
The story was about emotion and cultural norms, but it was also about our shared humanity….and by the end I was thinking about my own relationship to sadness and tears…And how true your conclusion was – not that Latinos cry more, even though I’m positive they do – but that pain brings tears and tears help sooth us.
I know that firsthand, especially since Ceci’s passing. The story was so honest. So universal.
Then there is Dora The Explorer, who frankly I knew little about before listening to the piece. For those of you of my generation, Dora is a 7-year-old, bilingual, backpack-toting Latina who, with her sidekick Boots, goes on adventures solving riddles and overcoming obstacles with the help of her audience. She was the first animated TV character who looked and spoke like her.
The hook for the story was a new Dora movie that was coming out… but Antonia’s piece was really about the show’s significant contribution to helping make inclusivity and diversity one of the most important values in our society. Yet, as the piece ends, the audience is left with a disturbing contradiction: The globalist, open borders vision of the world that Dora represents stands under the greatest threat in a generation. Are people of color today – people like Dora – less safe in America than when she was ruling the Nickelodeon airwaves a decade ago?
The story leaves that question hanging with the listener like a tidal wave about to hit the shoreline.
Antonia… Cecilia would have been so proud of your work… and of you. So am I. Congratulations.
The scholarships provide free registration for the conference, which brings together more than 800 audio producers, journalists, artists, reporters, students, editors & sound designers each year.
The scholarships are not the only awards that honor Cecilia’s legacy. Last year, Medill and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) created the Cecilia Vaisman Award to recognize “Latinx and Hispanic audio and video journalists who work every day to bring to light the many issues that affect Latinx and Hispanic communities inside and outside the United States.”
For astronomers, building an enormous telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano could be a “Galileo moment” — a chance to “peer through space-time to the beginning of the universe.” For many Native Hawaiians, it would be a desecration of the sacred place where Sky Father and Earth Mother meet.
Homelands’ Sandy Tolan traveled to the mountain in July to speak with demonstrators who had blocked the road to the summit to protest the start of construction. He also interviewed astronomers and other supporters of the project, many of whom were upset by the arrest of some of the protesters.
The action, Sandy writes in the Los Angeles Times, was “part of a larger struggle over indigenous rights and the legacy of colonialism.” It is a topic he knows well after reporting a series of articles and radio stories on the opposition to oil and gas pipeline projects around the country. While the status of the telescope has not been resolved, the state has issued a two-year extension of its deadline for the start of construction.
“Over just the past two years, I’ve watched America — which welcomed me almost three decades ago — methodically close its doors to people from other cultures while dangerously scapegoating both new and longtime immigrants,” she writes.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Tim Duggan, 310 pp., $27.00
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben. Henry Holt, 291 pp., $28.00
worst-case scenarios back in 2007, the first year the Northwest Passage became
navigable without an icebreaker (today, you can book a cruise through it), have
all been overtaken by the unforeseen acceleration of events. No one imagined
that twelve years later the United Nations would report that we have just
twelve years left to avert global catastrophe, which would involve cutting fossil-fuel
use nearly by half. Since 2007, the UN now says, we’ve done everything wrong.
New coal plants built since the 2015 Paris climate agreement have already
doubled the equivalent coal-energy output of Russia and Japan, and 260 more are
today have a twofold problem. First, how to overcome readers’ resistance to
ever-worsening truths, especially when climate-change denial has turned into a
political credo and a highly profitable industry with its own television network
(in this country, at least; state controlled networks in autocracies elsewhere,
such as Cuba, Singapore, Iran, or Russia, amount to the same thing). Second, in
view of the breathless pace of new discoveries, publishing can barely keep up.
Refined models continually revise earlier predictions of how quickly ice will
melt, how fast and high CO2 levels and seas will rise, how much
methane will be belched from thawing permafrost, how fiercely storms will blow
and fires will burn, how long imperiled species can hang on, and how soon fresh
water will run out (even as they try to forecast flooding from excessive
rainfall). There’s a real chance that an environmental book will be obsolete by
its publication date.
I’m not the only
writer to wonder whether books are still an appropriate medium to convey the
frightening speed of environmental upheaval. But the environment is infinitely
intricate, and mere articles—much less daily newsfeeds or Twitter—can barely
scratch the surface of environmental issues, let alone explore the extent of
their consequences. Ecology, after all, is about how everything connects to
everything else. Something so complex and crucial still requires books to attempt
to explain it.
David Wallace-Wells’s The
Uninhabitable Earth expands on his 2017 article of the same name in New
York, where he’s deputy editor. It quickly became that magazine’s most
viewed article ever. Some accused Wallace-Wells of sensationalism for focusing
on the most extreme possibilities of what may come if we keep spewing carbon
compounds skyward (as suggested by his title and his ominous opening line, the
answer “is, I promise, worse than you think”). Whatever the article’s lurid
appeal, I felt at the time of its publication that its detractors were mainly
evading the message by maligning the messenger.
Two years later,
those critics have largely been subdued by infernos that have laid waste to
huge swaths of California; successive, monstrous hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and
Maria— that devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico in 2017; serial cyclone
bombs exploding in America’s heartland; so-called thousand-year floods that
recur every two years; polar ice shelves fracturing; and refugees pouring from
desiccated East and North Africa and the Middle East, where temperatures have
approached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and from Central America, where alternating
periods of drought and floods have now largely replaced normal rainfall.
which has become a best seller, taps into the underlying emotion of the day:
fear. This book is meant to scare the hell out of us, because the alarm sounded
by NASA’s Jim Hansen in his
electrifying 1988 congressional testimony on how we’ve trashed the atmosphere
still hasn’t sufficiently registered. “More than half of the carbon exhaled
into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the
past three decades,” writes Wallace-Wells, “since Al Gore published his first
book on climate.”
Wallace-Wells protests that he’s not an environmentalist, or even drawn to
nature (“I’ve never gone camping, not willingly anyway”), the environment
definitely has his attention now. With mournful hindsight, he explains how we
were convinced that we could survive with a 2 degrees Celsius increase in
average global temperatures over preindustrial levels, a figure first
introduced in 1975 by William Nordhaus, a Nobel prize–winning economist at
Yale, as a safe upper limit. As 2 degrees was a conveniently easy number to
grasp, it became repeated so often that policy negotiators affirmed it as a
target at the UN’s 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. We now know that 2 degrees
would be calamitous: “Major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will
become unlivable.” In the Paris Agreement of 2015, 1.5 degrees was deemed a
safer limit. At 2 degrees of warming, one study estimates, 150 million more
people would die from air pollution alone than they would after 1.5 degrees.
(If we include other climate-driven causes, according to the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, that extra half-degree would lead to hundreds of
millions more deaths.) But after watching Houston drown, California burn, and
chunks of Antarctica and Louisiana dissolve, it appears that “safe” is a
relative statement—currently we are only at 1 degree above preindustrial
level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million. We are now at
410 ppm. The last time that was the case, three million years ago, seas were
about 80 feet higher. A rise of 2 degrees Celsius would be around 450 ppm, but,
says Wallace-Wells, we’re currently headed beyond 500 ppm. The last time that
happened on Earth, seas were 130 feet higher, he writes, envisioning an
eastern seaboard moved miles inland, to Interstate 95. Forget Long Island, New
York City, and nearly half of New Jersey. It’s unclear how long it takes for
oceans to rise in accordance with CO2 concentrations,
but you wouldn’t want to find out the hard way.
set to sail through 1.5 and 2 degree increases in the next few decades and keep
going. We’re presently on course for a rise of somewhere between 3 and 4
degrees Celsius, possibly more—our current trajectory, the UN warns, could even
reach an 8 degree increase by this century’s end. At that level, anyone still
in the tropics “would not be able to move around outside without dying,”
be best taken a chapter at a time; it’s almost too painful to absorb otherwise.
But pain is Wallace-Wells’s strategy, as is his agonizing repetition of how
unprecedented these changes are, and how deadly. “The facts are hysterical,” he
says, as he piles on more examples.
Just before the 2016
elections, a respected biologist at an environmental NGO told me she actually
considered voting for Trump. “The way I see it,” she said, “it’s either four
more years on life support with Hillary, or letting this maniac tear the house
down. Maybe then we can pick up the pieces and finally start rebuilding.” Like
many other scientists Wallace-Wells cites, she has known for decades how bad
things are, and seen how little the ClintonGore and Obama-Biden administrations
did about it—even in consultation with Obama’s prescient science adviser,
physicist John Holdren, who first wrote about rising atmospheric CO2 in 1969. For the politicians, it was
always, foremost, about the economy.
The entire history of
swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the eighteenth century,
is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of free trade, but
simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power.
This is our daily
denial, which now flies in our faces on hurricane winds, or drops as hot ashes
from our immolated forests and homes: growth is how we measure economic health,
and growth must be literally fueled. Other than nuclear energy, which has its
own problems, no form of energy is so concentrated, and none so cheap or
portable, as carbon. By exhuming hundreds of millions of years’ worth of buried
organic matter and burning it in a couple of centuries, we built our dazzling
modern civilization, not noticing that its wastes were amassing overhead. Now
we’re finally paying attention, because hell is starting to rain down.
I encourage people to
read this book. Wallace-Wells has maniacally absorbed masses of detail and
scoured all the articles most readers couldn’t finish or tried to forget, or
skipped because they just couldn’t take yet another bummer. Wallace-Wells has
been faulted for not offering solutions—but really, what could he say? We now
burn 80 percent more coal than we did in 2000, even though solar energy costs
have fallen 80 percent in that period. His dismaying conclusion is that “solar
isn’t eating away at fossil fuel use . . . it’s just buttressing it. To the
market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is almost suicide.”
He allows that
through carbon capture or geoengineering “or other now-unfathomable
innovations, we may conjure new solutions,” but at best, he says, these will
“bring the planet closer to a state we would today regard as merely grim, rather
than apocalyptic.” Having read for years about geoengineering plans to reflect
sunlight back into space by sending up planes to seed the stratosphere with
sulfates, and to enhance the reflectivity of clouds by spraying salt to
brighten them, and about machines that can suck carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere, I know of some who might challenge that—but so far, none of these
ideas has reached even a pilot level, let alone commercialization scale.
carbon-capture prototypes filter CO2 from
a polluter’s exhaust so that it can be converted back into more carbon-based
fuel. But this would require building enough machines to cleanse the entire
atmosphere of emissions from every company and cookfire, and then burying all
that captured CO2 so it can never escape—a huge and
dubious undertaking. Likewise, a program to deflect solar radiation by spraying
particles—as Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption did in 1991, slightly cooling the climate
for two years before its dust settled back to Earth—would have to continue in
perpetuity to work. Such a program would alter planetary rainfall patterns in
unpredictable ways and do nothing to curb ocean acidification. Imagine getting
all the world’s nations to agree to tinker with the atmosphere if it meant some
of them might end up even drier than before. Several major environmental
organizations that once opposed such schemes are now willing to discuss them
(the goals of the Paris Agreement depend on yet-uninvented mass-scale
technologies to remove atmospheric carbon), underscoring Wallace-Wells’s
argument that the situation is dire indeed.
His book gives other
examples of why technology probably can’t get us out of the mess that
technology caused in the first place. That includes one of the biggest
innovations of the twentieth century: the Green Revolution, which more than
doubled grain harvests in the 1960s by selective crossbreeding of wheat, corn,
and rice to get extra kernels per stalk. Wallace-Wells notes that Norman
Borlaug, the agronomist behind these advances, is credited with saving a
billion lives by staving off the famines that eighteenth-century demographic
economist Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb,
had both predicted would inevitably result from population growth. But Borlaug
never claimed to have eliminated the possibility of more famine. Upon accepting
his Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he warned that without population controls,
enhanced food production would paradoxically lead to even more hunger, because
people spared by famine would give birth to more people who would continually
need more food.
For the rest of his
life Borlaug campaigned, in vain, for universal family planning. His efforts
were especially undermined when in 1984, at the International Conference on
Population in Mexico City, Ronald Reagan instituted the “Global Gag Rule,”
prohibiting US funding assistance for any aid program, American or foreign,
that mentioned abortion as a family planning option—a rule that every Republican
president since has supported. As Borlaug feared, his high-yield cereals, along
with the invention of artificial nitrogen fertilizer a few decades earlier,
combined to quadruple the global population during the twentieth century—a
growth unprecedented in biological history for any large species. As a result,
nearly half the unfrozen Earth is now devoted to growing or grazing food for
humans, while other species dwindle or just disappear. Food production, reports
Wallace-Wells, is also responsible for at least one third of all greenhouse gas
emissions (some estimates are as high as one half when all aspects of food
consumption—including shipping, refrigeration, and agrochemical costs—are
“One hopes these
population booms,” writes Wallace-Wells, referring to Africa, where numbers are
expected to quadruple in this century, “will bring their own Borlaugs, ideally
many of them.” By suggesting that overpopulation might statistically enhance
the chances of producing a savior to cure us of the woes that overpopulation
causes, I assume that Wallace-Wells is either being wry or simply despairing
over another enormous blow that humanity is about to deliver to the planet.
only scant reference to the holocaust that climate change is wreaking on
biodiversity. (One million species are now at risk of extinction, the Intergovernmental
Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported
recently.) But WallaceWells’s impulse to focus on our own selfish stake in
unfolding events probably makes sense—this future is real, and it’s ours. As
desperate as we are to know what to do next, enlightening us about that isn’t
his objective: getting our attention is.
If his book doesn’t
offer a solution, Wallace-Wells does give a reason to try to find one. While he
was writing the book, he and his wife had a baby daughter. The question of
whether to have children in this overheating world has been tormenting many couples
lately—until, on learning they’re expecting, they know the answer. A baby is
not just their adored offspring: it embodies hope for the future, and parents
will do anything to ensure their child has one.
So how do we go on?
That has been Bill McKibben’s abiding concern ever since the publication in
1989 of The End of Nature, a book so well known that people who’ve never
read it regularly refer to it. Its premise is that since humans altered the
entire atmosphere, which touches everything on Earth, there is no truly
pristine nature left. His latest book, Falter—much like his 2010 book, Eaarth,
but nearly a decade deeper into the maw—begins with a clear-eyed, detailed
assessment of what we’re now up against. McKibben describes just how much
trouble we’re in, yet his voice is so calm, his examples so fresh and
unexpected (the book begins with a meditation on roofing, of all things), that
you easily glide into his lucid, engaging contemplation of the potential end of
human civilization. Later in Falter, when he describes just as equably
what we must do to prevent it, you believe it’s still worth trying.
I’d long admired the
clarity of McKibben’s journalism. At some point, however, he apparently
concluded that when a global existential crisis is bearing down, journalism can
only go so far, and he became an activist. With his students at Middlebury, he
cofounded 350.org, a grassroots advocacy group that has become a worldwide movement
and whose name derives from the safe concentration of atmospheric CO2 in parts per million. We last saw 350
ppm thirty years ago, when The End of Nature was published. In Falter,
he admits frankly to fearing that our “game, in fact, may be starting to play
itself out.” Until he got too busy traveling for 350.org, McKibben, a lifelong
Christian, taught Sunday school. Given all he knows, his faith surely helps
keep him going. Occasionally, it appears in his writing, such as The
Comforting Whirlwind, his 2005 reflection on the Book of Job’s enduring
relevance. Believer and activist though he may be, McKibben doesn’t preach, and
still uses the tools of journalism to investigate, illustrate, and verify.
In a chapter that
begins “Oh, it could get very bad,” he discusses a study in the Bulletin
of Mathematical Biology concluding that by 2100 the oceans may be too hot
for phytoplankton to photosynthesize. (Another study I’ve seen, in Nature,
suggests that since 1950 phytoplankton populations worldwide may have decreased
by up to 40 percent, correlating to rising sea-surface temperatures.) Just as
we fail to realize how much extra CO2 is
in the air because it’s invisible, it’s hard to grasp how immense—and immensely
bad— this news is. Tiny phytoplankton float in the ocean practically unnoticed,
yet they constitute half the organic matter on Earth and provide, as McKibben
notes, “two-thirds of the earth’s oxygen.” Their loss, he quotes the study’s
author, “would likely result in the mass mortality of animals and humans.”
And that’s just the
effects from heat. Absorption of CO2 has
already made the ocean 30 percent more acidic, with pH expected to decline
“well beyond what fish and other marine organisms can tolerate” by the end of
this century, he writes, citing another paper. According to the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, current acidification rates of seas
and lakes already may be the highest in 300 million years.
McKibben shares some
other harrowing examples of threatened fauna, from insects to lions, but
although it’s been understood since Noah’s time that we need other species,
readers best relate to our own, so like Wallace-Wells McKibben soon circles
back to humans. Major cities like Cape Town and São Paulo (and several in
India and China) have come within mere days of running out of water; it’s just
a matter of time until one does. Outdoor work and maintenance will be halted
more frequently as urban thermometers exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Grain
harvests will drop as temperatures rise. Insurance companies will go bankrupt
after successive biblical storms destroy trillions of dollars of property. Refugees
running everywhere. This won’t stop.
Even McKibben struggles
for an adequate vocabulary to describe the duplicity of oil companies: “There
should be a word for when you commit treason against an entire planet.” As
early as 1977, one of Exxon’s own scientists explained to the company’s executives
that their products were causing a greenhouse effect, and that there would be
only “five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in
energy strategies might become critical.” By 1982, McKibben writes, “the
company’s scientists concluded that heading off global warming would ‘require
major reductions in fossil fuel combustion’” or risk “potentially catastrophic
events.” Exxon used predictions of ice retreat to lengthen their drilling
season in the Arctic, and raised drilling platforms to accommodate sea-level
rise. He recounts the de- liberate strategy of oil executives and their pet
politicians to, as one Exxon official put it, “emphasize the uncertainty” of
climate science. “I’ve lived the last thirty years inside that lie,” McKibben
realizes, “engaged in an endless debate over whether global warming was ‘real’—a
debate in which both sides knew the answer from the beginning.”
He gives the most
succinct explanation I’ve ever read of how the Koch brothers and their ilk
triumphed. Another character who emerges in this section, and haunts the rest
of the book, is Ayn Rand. McKibben’s description of her backstory and the
outsized scope of her influence on so many of today’s politicians will shock
some readers into taking their tattered copies of The Fountainhead to
the nearest hazardous waste disposal.
Equally cogent, and
creepy, is his survey of the race for technological mastery over our natural
limitations (including death) by engineering human babies using the
gene-editing technology CRISPR, melding our minds
with artificial intelligence and with hardware more resilient than our
shambling bodies, or simply letting robots handle the hard stuff. Every day
some trending new gizmo or beguiling advance distracts us from the climate
disaster by promising to make our lives easier, even as our future grows
The last part of
McKibben’s book is titled “An Outside Chance.” He admits that he’s not sure we
have one. He argues that neither artificial intelligence nor genetic
engineering will improve our odds for survival, and then he gets to Falter’s
final, main point: “Let’s assume we’re capable of acting together to do
This is where
McKibben’s spirituality infuses his clear intellect to show how we can, and why
we must. Despite his detailed and documented outrage over the wreckage caused
by an “unbelievably small percentage of people at the top of the energy heap,”
he—along with most humans, he maintains—still believes in humanity. He then
describes two “technologies” that could be deployed to begin to reverse the
The first is the
simple photovoltaic solar panel. Wallace-Wells contends that, while hanging
solar panels on our homes might make us feel better, we’re kidding ourselves
that it makes any meaningful dent in the continued growth of the fossil fuel
industry. But McKibben argues that solar energy is already undermining that
industry’s expansion plans in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
Coal and natural gas plants require complex, costly grids to deliver their
energy, and customers who can afford to pay for them. McKibben visits colorful,
unlikely places from rural Ghana to Ivory Coast where people with inexpensive solar
cells are lighting villages, running hospitals, starting businesses, and marketing
and manufacturing products—all without drilling or building networks involving
power poles and miles of copper wiring. Likewise, the ubiquity of cell phones
has eliminated the need to string expensive telephone lines. The next time you
step outside, McKibben is urging, look at all the wires tethering us to an
energy sector that’s killing us. If Africa can dispense with them, why can’t
we? By 2050, according to data he cites, solar alone could provide two-thirds
of the US’s energy—with the rest coming from wind turbines and hydroelectric
dams— and create thirty-six million jobs.
technology is what he calls “one of the signal inventions of our time”: nonviolent
protest and resistance. He tells how, on its very first try, 350.org’s utterly
quixotic strategy to “organize the world” ignited rallies in 181 countries in
2009. Inspired by Gandhi—McKibben is a Gandhi Peace Award laureate—and the Sermon
on the Mount, he makes a surprisingly persuasive case for why the movement to
stop using carbon-based fuels will ultimately win.
But whether it wins
in time, he acknowledges, is another matter. As America’s ongoing racial strife
shows, a half-century after Martin Luther King Jr., nonviolence doesn’t bring
change overnight. Could anything reverse civilization’s suicidal course faster?
Once, a well-known journalist whom I won’t name remarked, as we commiserated
over the infuriating, deteriorating state of affairs we were covering, “You
know that someday we’ll ditch this journalism crap and become terrorists.” I
knew the feeling, but given the choice, I’ll opt for McKibben’s nonviolent
It’s not only our
planet that’s strained and needs saving, he concludes, but ourselves. From our
plateauing height and lifespans to athletic records that haven’t been broken
for years, human capacity may have finally peaked, and actually be declining.
Recent data he cites show that IQs,
after rising for more than a century, are now dropping. “Our task now,” as
McKibben paraphrases the authors of that study, “should be to somehow maintain
the gains of the past.”
In our lives and in
our world, says McKibben, “There’s a time and a place for growth, and a time
and a place for maturity, for balance, for scale. And the risks we’re currently
running… suggest that that time is now…. Our goals need to fundamentally
shift: toward repair, toward security, toward protection.” The overarching
goal, he adds, is to ensure the survival of our species. “Perhaps our job, at
this particular point in time, is to slow things down, just as basketball teams
do when they’re ahead. If we don’t screw up the game of being human, it could
last for a very long time; compared to other species, we’re still early in our
Put that way, it
would be a damn shame if we went extinct prematurely. With Falter, he’s
offering us a game plan.
Ruxandra Guidi left Venezuela for the U.S. in 1990, when she was just 14. Over time she and her father drifted apart; he was an ardent believer in the revolution, she was disillusioned by the fate of the nation she once called home. Separated by ideology, they carried on with their lives in starkly different places, each sticking to the truth they’d chosen to hear. Now, with the situation in Venezuelan as bad as it’s been, Ruxandra is reminded why she can’t give up on her father.