How Big Should People Be?

Bill McKibben

How big should people be? For most of human history the answer was clear — people were going to be pretty small in the general scheme of things. That’s been the human posture through almost all of human experience. We were one small species among many, eking out our own way, our own survival on this planet — until very recently, I mean within the lifetimes of the people in this room, when our stature began to change in remarkable ways.

The first inkling we got was with the invention of nuclear weapons. What was it that Oppenheimer said watching the first bomb explode over the New Mexico desert? He quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture, and said, “We have become as Gods, destroyers of worlds.”

Well, that was a theoretical danger, the thought that we would wipe ourselves out with nuclear weapons. And so far, thanks be to God, we have avoided that. But in the past fifteen or twenty years we’ve come to understand that we’re now embarking on a course of destruction that is in no way theoretical. It’s happening every moment of every day. And it comes not from a few grand explosions of nuclear weapons but from a billion explosions every minute of pistons inside cylinders around the world spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

In 1989 when I wrote a book called The End of Nature, it was the first book about global warming for a general audience. And at the time we thought of this as a hypothesis. I thought it was a strong hypothesis — this idea that human beings were burn- ing enough coal, gas, and oil to put enough carbon into the atmosphere to materially alter the climate. But it was very much in the nature of a hypothesis. And it seemed emotionally counterintuitive: even if scientifically accurate, how could one species grow big enough to affect the vast play of climate? When you change the amount of the sun’s energy that’s trapped in this narrow envelope of atmosphere, you basically change everything that happens on the surface of the Earth. Except for tectonic and volcanic forces, everything else — precipitation, melt, freezing — runs off wind speed and solar energy.

From 1989 to approximately 1995, the world’s scientists, pouring more money and talent into this one problem than into any problem before or since — set to work with a vengeance. They sent up weather balloons and satellites, they cored ponds, they examined tree rings. They refined over and over again these very powerful computer models that allow us to understand what happens as we add more carbon to the atmosphere. And by about 1995 those scientists were willing to say — out loud and with a remarkable unanimity — that human beings were heating up the planet and it was going to be a serious problem. They were giving us a wake-up call, saying our species has grown incredibly big in a very short time. We’re now casting a shadow over the entire planet: every cubic foot of air on Earth holds the imprint of our habits and our economies and our conveniences.

Since 1995 it’s as if the planet itself had been conducting a rigorous peer review of this research to make sure it was correct. We’ve had nine of the ten warmest years on record. Having raised the temperature of the planet through our actions about one degree Fahrenheit, we’ve begun to understand just how finely balanced this system is. Twenty years ago we didn’t understand the system well enough to predict just how dramatic a change even of one degree would be, but it’s enormous. Everything frozen on the face of the Earth is now melting, and melting very, very rapidly. Pack ice didn’t fully reform in the Arctic ocean the past two winters in a row. We see the dramatic increase in intensity and frequency of severe storms.

A Short Soggy Winter

We can begin to sense some of these things very close to home. You all remember what last winter was like, it was like really no winter that Vermont had ever seen — short and soggy, more mud than snow. You all recall what this spring was like when it rained and rained and rained. It’s precisely the kind of thing we can expect more of because warm air holds more water vapor than cold air does. So you get more evaporation and more drought in dry areas and more precipitation, more deluge, in wet areas.

And it’s only just begun. The computer models make it very clear that unless we do very dramatic things in the very near future then the temperature will rise another five degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not the worst-case scenario; that’s the middle-case guess, in the lifetime of the youngest people in this room. That’ll make the world warmer than it’s been for hundreds of millions of years. It’ll result in what NASA climatologist James Hansen recently called a totally different planet. That’s the challenge we face.

And we need to face it if we care about creation, because everything around us is at risk. The best guesses are that the extinction consequences of that kind of temperature-warming would be at least as great as the last time a great asteroid hit the Earth, except this time the asteroid is us. Probably some of you have been off to the tropics and snorkeled around reefs and seen that incredible, fantastic pro- fusion of life — just the most enchanted corner of God’s brain. That ecosystem will be gone in fifty years around the world if we keep raising the temperature because the animal that builds those coral reefs can’t survive that kind of bleaching.

If you care about social justice, and the injunctions that Jesus over and over again tells us to love our neighbor, then this is the issue that matters most of all because we’ve never managed to impoverish and wreck the lives of marginal people around the world more effectively than to destroy the basic physical stability on which those lives depend.

Most of all, the reason we should care is this complete overturning of this sense of who we are in the scheme of things. Because all of a sudden, we don’t need to sit down and shut up like Job did. We can taunt God right back, we can spit in God’s face.

God set the boundaries of the ocean? Not really, we’re starting to get in that game too. Simply by raising the temperature of the water, there’s a thermal expansion coefficient — warm water takes up more space than cold. So even before we melt anything we’ll raise the levels of the seas two and three feet. God told Job, “Do you know where I store the rain and the wind?” But now that’s kind of our thing too — severe storms that drop more than two inches of rain in a 24-hour period have increased about 20 percent at this latitude in the past twenty years.

We saw what happened last year across the Gulf coast. You can’t call Hurricane Katrina anymore an “act of God,” as an insurance policy would put it. That’s in large measure now an act of people and more so with each passing year and with each new part per million of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere.

We’re at the moment when the imperative to figure out how to get smaller is suddenly the dominant issue — how to make ourselves fit in again on this planet. How do we do it?

Reducing Emissions, ASAP

Some of the answer is technological, and we’ve got technologies that are coming that will help us. Wind power and solar power, people driving hybrid cars. These things  will help,  but by themselves  they are not going to turn the tide. The climatologists estimate we need an immediate, worldwide 70 percent reduction in the use of fossil fuels just to stabilize climate at its current levels of upheaval. And it’s extremely difficult to imagine that happening because poor people around the world, most particularly in China and India, are finally starting to burn small amounts of fossil fuel to make their lives a little more sustainable. They consume nothing compared to us — the average Chinese burns about one-ninth as much energy in the course of the year as any of us do, but still that increase makes it all the harder to get that reduction.

So technology won’t do the whole trick. Politics will help; we must hold accountable all federal candidates of every party, and get them to pledge support for climate legistation and reintegrate us into the world community and change the mix of subsidies and tax policies that underwrite our overuse of fossil fuels and make progress more difficult.

But what will really help, in the end? What will help is the technology we’ve lost track of most — the technology of community. The ability to work together in profound ways.

What do I mean? Well, take this statistic. Most of you have been to Western Europe at one time or another. You’ve been to France or Germany or Italy or someplace.

You know that people there live lives just as dignified as ours. Yet the average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American.

Half as much. Why? Largely because they situate themselves a little differently on the spectrum between individual and community. They’ve been willing to pay the freight to make really good cities that attract people in instead of spinning them out into suburbs. They’re willing not only to subsidize mass-transit trains and buses with their tax money. They’re willing to get on and ride them. They accept there are moments when you don’t always go exactly where you want to go at exactly the moment you want to go there — that you can rearrange your life by ten minutes here and there to be part of something larger.

One of our problems in our society and our economy is that we can’t imagine anything other than “more” anymore. Communities of faith — churches, synagogues,  mosques — are the last institutions in our society that posit some reason other than accumulation for existence. And that gives them potentially enormous power to do the work of the church, which is to be subversive, countercultural, contrary to the dominant currents of the world. And that’s beginning to happen. You can sense its power. The deepest power that we can summon to deal with this crisis is precisely the kind of power that comes from the solidarity in this room.

The greatest problem of the fossil fuel era on this planet is not that it’s destroying everything around us. The greatest problem is that cheap coal and gas and oil have allowed us to live in such independence of each other that we’ve largely forgotten what community means, what neighbor means. We don’t depend on each other for anything real anymore. And that’s why it’s so spectacular to see the return of such things like local food, relationships with farmers, and so on. The erosion of that community is a tragedy because community is what we were called to by God. That is the hallmark of our species from the start, this need to be with each other. It’s the greatest gift that we’ve been given and the one we’ve spurned in our culture most completely. We were built to cling to each other, and remembering that is our salvation in every way.