Turning Point: Bill McKibben on Coming World Changes
By EV World
Bill McKibben is tall, slim, almost gaunt. He's also one of the first authors to warn of global warming back in 1989 in The End of Nature. Formerly a staff writer for The New Yorker he is now at work on yet another environmentalist tome entitled, What Comes Next. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.
In this half-hour address to the Sustainable Energy Forum's Peak Oil and the Environment conference, he suggests that Western society, in particular, is going to have to revise its vision of progress and definition of happiness.
He begins this way, "I want to make you think slightly larger, more conceptual terms. And the way to say it is this, the availability cheap energy for the last couple of centuries has formed pretty much every aspect of our modern lives. It's who we are. In many ways, viewed dispassionately, we've become devices for the consumption of fossil fuels. So, its end, the end of the availability... the usefulness of cheap fossil fuels should, I think, begin to reshape us, our actions and our societies in profound ways."
For McKibben, this offers mankind the opportunity to re-examine the direct mankind has been headed and adjust our goals and values.
"Peak oil and climate change are two aspects of the same question, two sides of the same coin," he continues. "Is it possible to keep on keeping on?" When thought of in the larger context of oil dependency and energy competition, McKibben sees the makings of the "Perfect Storm".
Following on the heels or Dr. Roger Bezdek's presentation on peak oil "wedges" -- the various energy options open to society to blunt the eventual decline in oil and gas production -- McKibben reminded an audience of a couple hundred people the first night of the conference about the interwoven nature of mankind's burning of fossil fuels and the warming of the planet. He contended that the most significant discovery of the last decade was understanding who fragile climate is to even a one degree warming, as demonstrated by the rapid retreat of glaciers around the world.
[During my recent trip to Iceland, it was noted that their climate is warming and that less snow is forming on their glaciers, which are vital sources for the water that drives their geothermal wells.]
"The final thing to say (about climate change) is that it is no longer a hypothetical problem and not only is it not a kind of future problem, it's already happening now. It's also no longer in any sense a contained problem with any appreciable upper boundary within easy sight."
Unchecked, global warming could accelerate with a 4 degree rise in average planetary temperature being the "middle road" projection, he said. That translates into a radically different planet than the one we live on now; it's a planet that hasn't existed since long before the evolution of primates.
"It's worth understanding that this problem is, in a certain sense, deeper even than peak oil. It doesn't reshape just a few decades of human habitation on this planet or sort of shift this species on a new trajectory, but puts the planet itself in a completely different and by every measure... grimmer path than its on at the moment."
Sobering words, but not without solace because mankind is an adaptable species, but just applying technological fixes that perpetuate the current system, aren't enough. He noted that in order to keep global warming at its present level, with Greenland's glaciers melting twice as fast as originally thought, would require an immediate 60% reduction in the amount of CO2 we release into the atmosphere.
"The chances of achieving anything like that, or indeed anything like the numbers we need to deal with peak oil through technological change alone, strikes me as vanishingly small."
McKibben continues his PowerPoint-less, "virtual" presentation by analyzing other options beyond just technology, including a re-appraisal of the "hyper-individuality" cheap energy has fostered, exemplified by the rise of the America suburb and exurb.
"Europeans use fifty percent of the energy of Americans," he pointed out. "Fifty percent is a big number... and its not because of some magical technology they have and they're not doing it because they live in caves or suffer from some impoverished way of life. In fact when we want to see the elegant ‘good life', do we get on a plane and fly to Tucson or do we... fly to Paris? The answer to that question is an important clue to the possibilities."
To explore more those "possibilities" be sure to listen to Bill McKibben's entire talk, Use the MP3 players displayed on this page or download the 7.4 MB file to your computer hard drive for playback on your favorite MP3 device.
EV World thanks the organizers and sponsors of the Sustainable Energy Forum for granting us permission to record this historic event.