McKibben publishes powerful analysis of today's world


Bill McKibben, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and a leading activist in addressing the global warming crisis, has written an impassioned, powerful, and dire analysis of today's world. "Falter" (Henry Holt & Co., 2019) is the 15th book that McKibben has written over the last 30 years, beginning with one of the earliest warnings about global warming and consistently placing him at the forefront of addressing this critical issue.

Realizing that the best way to reach Americans is via a competitive sports metaphor, McKibben characterizes human existence as a "game," albeit one that is "unimaginably deep, complex, and beautiful. It is also endangered. It is beginning to falter, even now."

McKibben argues that after centuries of progress that has resulted in better lives and longer life spans for billions of Earth's citizens, the tide has turned, and we are placing ourselves at risk for the fate of the dinosaurs, i.e. extinction.

So what has moved this conversation that initially focused on a gradual rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to a concern about the actual end of the human endeavor on earth after a 200,000 year run?

McKibben identifies four threats that acting together jeopardize the future of mankind. First, climate change has accelerated far more rapidly than even the most concerned scientists had predicted. This has resulted in critical and perhaps irreversible levels of atmospheric and ocean temperatures and rises in sea levels decades earlier than had been anticipated. The unequal impact of the consequences of these climate changes promises to worsen global inequality which in turn increases the threat to social stability. The immigration crisis in Europe is due at least in part to the devastating agricultural impact of record droughts and floods.

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Second, rapid advances in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have begun to result in widespread unemployment and further social instability. Even without the science fiction plot of robots attacking their human creators, there is a growing risk that the traditional model of engagement and satisfaction with work may be disappearing for millions. The consequences of massive unemployment would be a unique chapter in human evolution and are not just unknown but are unknowable.

Third, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a recent technology that enables scientists to alter our DNA, the genetic code that determines or influences every human characteristic. It holds enormous promise for the genetic engineering of somatic cells to treat or cure diseases such as cystic fibrosis and thalassemia. It also, however, if applied to germ cells (i.e. ova and spermatozoa), can affect not just one individual but also his/her descendants. Thus CRISPR has the potential for giving parents the ability to 'design' their children, not just determining gender but also influencing intelligence, strength, and other characteristics.

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At this time, the application of CRISPR to germ cells remains a theoretical issue as the scientific and political worlds struggle to develop ethical and regulatory guidelines. But McKibben vividly sketches a future world in which inequality becomes even more extreme and where the rich can design 'better babies' while the poor are left behind.

Fourth, in perhaps his most novel and insightful observation, McKibben delves into the roots of our current hyper-individualistic world in which corporations are deemed to be people and political contributions are deemed to be free speech. Placing Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" and her philosophy of extreme individualism at the center of this movement, McKibben connects the dots of corporate greed and deception, the Tea Party, the Koch brothers' support for the fossil fuel industries, and America's remarkable shift to the right. He then connects those phenomena to Silicon Valley where the pursuit of monetary gain is combined with a search for the holy grail of immortality. This combination of corporate greed, influential money, and the exponential growth of technological power has weakened the social contract which resulted in Social Security, Medicare, and investment in our communities and has led to historic levels of inequality.

By the book's final section, I was becoming seriously depressed by the notion of "designer babies" and robots ruling a world that was increasingly unlivable due to rising sea levels, violent weather, and intolerable heat. But then, McKibben offered me "An Outside Chance" in his final chapter where he makes a hopeful case for the self-corrective properties that have characterized the history of the American experiment. McKibben urges us to make a societal choice to take the "mature and scalable" path of consolidating our gains rather than pushing for ever more extreme "progress." He bases this hope on the synergy between the very same technology that threatens the planet combined with old fashioned political action. With the widespread use of solar panels, we could move over time to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and stop worsening or even reverse global warming.

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In addition, a widespread social and political movement of non-violence could reverse the impact of greed, power, and the hyper-individualist philosophy of the few. His hopefulness in the face of climate change deniers, the power of money to influence our elections and democratic systems, and the inequality that threatens the very stability of our democracy is courageous. I'm not sure, however, that it is reality-based.

On the other hand, as Lincoln said in his first debate with Stephen Douglas, "public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed." Perhaps the increasingly violent weather, the deadly heat waves each summer, and the displacement of coastal communities will be enough to convince a majority of Americans that climate change is a real threat to our lives and society. Only then are we likely to stop "alternative facts" and address this existential threat.

This is a book well worth reading. Unfortunately, it's likely to be read primarily by those already convinced of the wisdom of McKibben's words, while those who disagree will continue to read "Atlas Shrugged," or nothing at all.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville. He can be contacted through his web site, where you can find more than 1000 ideas for what to read next.


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