McKibben’s Eaarth: New vision or neo-Malthusian attack on freedom?

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
272 pp. Times Books, 2010

Climate change is one of the direst crises ever to face humanity. In response there have arisen diverse movements, passions and ideas. The April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, showed the international breadth of the movements, gathering over 30,000 people from across the globe. Indigenous peoples, peasants, miners, people of color battling environmental racism, environmentalists, youth and women from all continents participated. The point is not only the declarations and organizations that have come to be but also what is stirring in passions and ideas that can develop far beyond not only the official accords and policies of the U.S., China, and other foot-draggers, but even the declarations issued from the alternative gatherings and the aims of states such as Bolivia and Venezuela.

At the same time, a host of books have appeared presenting plans of action and other prescriptions for addressing climate change. However, the movements and actions from below receive little recognition in these books. That both reflects and reinforces the fundamental disconnect between the authors’ plans and the human forces that are the only real basis for a social transformation thorough enough to derail what one of those authors, Bill McKibben, has called “our civilization’s basic momentum” (“Not So Fast,” July 23, 1995, New York Times Magazine). That basic momentum, which pours ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is driving civilization toward catastrophe.

To halt that destructive momentum, it is necessary to grasp its dual character. The ever greater accumulation of technological forces, of machinery, of energy consumption, of cars, computers and buildings, is only one pole of the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation elucidated by Karl Marx. That is the pole of capital accumulating. At the other pole is the accumulation of the “relative surplus population” or “army of the unemployed,” of misery, degradation–and revolt. It is from within this contradiction that human forces for the reconstruction of society arise. The antidote to global warming relies on self-emancipatory movements achieving what Marxist-Humanism calls revolution in permanence.

Marx’s theory of the relative surplus population tore apart capitalism’s ideology of overpopulation as a law of nature. Any class society produces an ideology justifying its workings as the best of all possible worlds, ordained by the very laws of nature and/or God. The ideology of overpopulation is forever associated with the name of Thomas Robert Malthus, an 18th and 19th century parson and political economist dear to many environmentalists and Greens. The crude form in which Malthus put forward this ideology was that, by the laws of nature, the growth of human population necessarily outstrips the growth of our food supply, and therefore poverty and starvation are inevitable. These laws were “ordained” by God “to urge man to further the gracious designs of Providence.”

Marx pointed out that these ideas were not new but that the name of Malthus became attached to them because he declaimed them with a pastor’s zeal at a moment when they were useful in attacking British sympathizers of the French Revolution who believed in “progressive human development.” Marx cut through the ideology of eternal laws, pointing out that laws of population are historical, and depend on a society’s prevailing mode of production. Capitalism’s law of motion, an increasing preponderance of dead labor (capital) over living labor, is precisely what makes a growing proportion of the population into a surplus, relative to the needs of capital for labor power to employ. In existing society it means many are forced to work to excess and many resources are devoted to destructive and wasteful artificial needs, while other people are deprived of the means to live adequately. At the same time, the material basis has been created for a totally different kind of wealth, characterized by free time, meaningful work, universal self-development, an end to the division between mental and manual labor, and an end to wasteful production and other economic activity not geared toward real human needs.

Today’s neo-Malthusians inform us that we must simplify and reduce consumption. In this vein, McKibben confesses in his latest book, Eaarth, that he’s actually very fond of liberation but we may not be able to afford it in this tougher world wrought by climate change. It suits him to believe that Marx’s vision is of “a material paradise” rather than human self-development; and because he cannot separate material abundance from capitalism’s production for production’s sake, he ties liberation to that same dynamic of endless destructive growth.

What McKibben says matters, both because of his books and other writings and because he is one of the main organizers of, which has initiated global events including what McKibben calls “the biggest day of climate action ever” on Oct. 10, 2010.

The title Eaarth is a conceit symbolizing that the planet is no longer the one where his Baby Boom generation was born. His point is that modern societies have unintentionally engineered the planet’s exit from a 10,000-year period marked by a relatively stable climate in which humanity had flourished. To survive, we will now have to adapt to the “tough new planet” of the subtitle.

Thankfully, McKibben does not waste pages arguing with the well-paid professional cynics and the know-nothings who deny the reality and peril of human-caused global warming. He does, however, spend about half the book detailing ways in which this new planet already makes our lives more difficult and will increasingly do so. From storms to droughts to falling crop yields, these effects will be familiar to people who follow climate change news. The second half of the book lays out McKibben’s vision of how society must change to avert nightmare scenarios.

Far from a liberatory transformation, he proposes instead to “aim for a relatively graceful decline” (p. 99, his emphasis). He seems blissfully unaware of the extreme disproportion between his sketch of how vast a change is needed, and the narrow limits within which his vision of the future confines itself. Though McKibben refers to the need for “dramatic change” (p. 174), his vision revolves around exalting local small-scale production and distribution, in particular of organic food and renewable energy. It involves the “need to challenge the power of” the big corporations that dominate agribusiness (p. 176), but stops short of the need to challenge and actually overturn the underlying system that gives rise to that concentration of power.

This self-limiting vision grows out of the fundamentally middle-class attitude McKibben has expressed throughout his career. His thought takes the standpoint of the professional writer, the small farmer, the shopkeeper and other small proprietors as the very definition of the individual, never grasping that commodity production inherently drives toward monopoly and concentration of capital, dispossessing the mass of small producers. Antipathy to “growth” and “bigness” coexists in McKibben’s worldview with an unspoken assumption that capitalism is essential to human nature. Markets should be local and small-scale, but the thought that commodity production, private property and markets might not be an eternal institution never arises. Meanwhile, every sentence, every thought he has is trapped within the narrow confines of capitalist relations.

There is no alternative to this standpoint once you are not rooted in the lower and deeper masses of your country and the world who are struggling against globalized capitalism. Accordingly, he points out a “justice deficit” of the rich countries with respect to the world’s poor (p. 76), but never mentions the climate justice movement; he sees the suffering of climate change refugees, projected to reach 700 million by mid-century (p. 83), but does not see them as Subject, as potentially a human force for reconstruction of society on new beginnings.

The heart of McKibben’s uncomprehending critique of present-day society is his refusal even to think about capitalism, instead ascribing its ills to “growth” and “bigness.” Middle-class movements have always at best selected their prime targets from among big business, monopoly, corporations, and “big government”–when they do not focus on scapegoats like immigrants. In the last 20 years sections of the environmental movement have increasingly fixated on remedies like campaign finance reform and revoking corporate charters. This amounts to wishing to turn the clock back and hoping it won’t go forward again in the same way it did before. That is, it’s a tendency to idealize capitalism in an earlier stage, and attack the inevitable results of its evolution.

Eaarth‘s attack on growth includes statements such as: “The way our economy works at present, any cessation of growth equals misery” (p. 97). This is a true statement about capitalism. Yet in the absence of any investigation of why the economy “works” this way, the admonition that “we’d better change” leads down self-limiting avenues incapable of identifying, let alone bringing about, a deep enough change to alter the basic misery-producing reality. His two-step program is: “mature” (p. 99), meaning we have to accept decline instead of progress as our future; and “figure out what we must jettison,” including “[m]any habits” and “complexity” (p. 101). The superficiality of this analysis quickly makes itself clear:

“As we began to sense with the spike in oil prices and then the credit crunch in 2008, we’ve connected things so tightly to each other that small failures in one place vibrate through the entire system. If America’s dumb decision to use a fraction of its corn crop for ethanol can help set off food riots in thirty-seven countries, or if a series of shortsighted bets on Nevada mortgages can double unemployment in China, we’ve let our systems intertwine too much. If our driving habits can move the monsoon off the Asian subcontinent or melt the Arctic ice cap–well, you get it” (p. 101).

This exemplifies how McKibben frequently oversimplifies to push his argument–for example, leaving out long-term trends involved in the 2008 food crisis, as well as key factors such as speculation on commodities futures (see “World food crisis stirs revolt,” June-July 2008 News & Letters); or attributing the current economic crisis to Nevada mortgages, while ignoring capitalism’s inherent tendency to crisis; or making “our driving habits” the sole cause of global warming. In every case, his mental subservience to capitalism hides the fact that the disastrous consequences of social functioning are out of control due to capital’s autonomy acting in an inhuman direction, rather than to incomprehensible complexity.

While in some places McKibben seems to recognize that endless growth does not just come out of our heads, that is only to note that fossil fuels made it possible, and now we are hitting limits. Which limit is not exactly clear. At times the limit seems to be peak oil, and at others to be the consequences of climate change. He wants to couple the two as “very much intertwined” (p. 28) so as to prove that we have hit the limits and it’s time to accept our decline, but in fact they’re not so intertwined, except insofar as peak oil could worsen greenhouse gas emissions by making unconventional fossil fuels like bitumen from tar sands and liquid fuel made from coal affordable relative to the rising price of oil (a possibility he does not mention).

But in the main McKibben sees limitless growth as an “idea,” as he put it in his 2007 book Deep Economy. In Eaarth it’s “our most ingrained economic and political habit” (p. 47). The root of the problem, he thinks, is an idea, an attitude, habits. Therefore, “the transition will need to be mostly mental: we need to get past our current ideological rigidity and think more broadly” (p. 146).

Instead of a serious analysis of the real social roots of the catastrophe he wants to avert, he wallows in his own ideological rigidity, focusing on the problem of “bigness” vs. “smallness,” so that even climate change is described as one of “the side effects of that size” (p. 124), while somehow the hunger problem results from a food supply that’s “too big to fail” (p. 159; this trendy phrase gets worn out in the book, which declares on p. 183, “fossil fuels define ‘too big to fail.'”). When big dinosaurs and big government join the list with big banks and big power plants, it becomes clear that this abstraction has been ripped away from history. On p. 109 we learn that the American Revolution was about “the defense of the small against the big,” while the next page instructs us: “America’s history has, from the beginning, been shaped by the debate between bigness and smallness.” So that, really, the Civil War wasn’t just about slavery (p. 117), and states’ rights is an inevitable part of our future as well as defining our past (pp. 115, 128).

In this way, McKibben unwittingly joins a long line of ideologues like Malthus who counterpose natural limits to liberation. It is starkly expressed in his ambivalent attitude toward rigidly hierarchical feudal society. “You knew your place” (p. 142, his emphasis), he writes, not entirely disapprovingly, before acknowledging: “The old medieval world made sense, but it was often an oppressive sense–hence the five-hundred-year project to liberate ourselves in every possible way.” Technology and urbanization spell “modernity, the liberation from family, from community, and, at base, from the soil” (p. 164). The book’s conclusion returns to this ambivalence on pp. 204-05:

“My point throughout this book has been that we’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created. We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed.

“The saddest part of that notion, for me, is the chance that we’d need to leave behind not just the bad stuff but the good….[O]ur national and global project has been about more than accumulation and expansion, more than cars and factories. It’s also been about liberation–the slow but reasonable steady process of valuing more and more people….

“It’s easy to see how in a contracting world, that process could stall or even reverse–how aiming for a local economy and community solid enough to survive on this new planet might edge us back toward societies ‘traditional’ in ways we don’t want.”

The appeal of these ideas to broad sections of environmentalists speaks volumes about their disconnection from what Marx called the “quest for universality” on the part of the working masses. McKibben and other neo-Malthusians such as James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory, are advocating decline, retreat, austerity at the very time that capitalist ruling classes are striving to force austerity on workers in whole industries and nations. In a longer view, as seen in Cochabamba, the climate justice movement has been debating the question of what development is, and seeking alternative paths of development, as opposed to controlled decline–a very fundamental question raised by the African and other Third World revolutions and what happened to those countries once they were sucked into the orbit of world capitalism instead of being able to chart new non-capitalist paths of development. What illuminates the way ahead, new beginnings as against climate catastrophe, is the Humanist concept of development Marx characterized as “the development of human power, which is its own end,” with the kind of wealth he defined as “the absolute movement of becoming.”

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4 Responses to McKibben’s Eaarth: New vision or neo-Malthusian attack on freedom?

  1. Thad Eckard says:

    Very much to the same point I often try to put into words myself, but I still have criticisms with the data proving that humans are creating global warming.

  2. Pingback: McKibben’s “The End of Nature” | Work of the Negative: A Marxist-Humanist blog

  3. Pingback: Global warming, concepts of development, and capital’s momentum | Work of the Negative: A Marxist-Humanist blog

  4. See a shorter review of this book, published in News & Letters:

    (Added later) Also see for various articles on climate change.

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