Monday, October 21, 2013
The Theology of Global Warming
Last Saturday, October 19, was the date of the Second Annual Global Frackdown. In case you didn't hear, the Global Frackdown is an international day of activism on which people who believe that global warming is an oncoming train that's about to knock us silly, gather in groups and protest the oil industry's practice of fracking. Fracking is a technology that has produced renewed yields from old oil and gas fields and promises to make the United States largely energy-independent in a few years. But there is no question that fracking leads to the burning of more fossil fuel than otherwise, which is the reason for the Frackdown. According to the movement's website, there were Frackdown events scheduled even in Texas, where fracking is a native industry and practiced widely. Opponents of global warming seem to believe in their cause with an almost religious fervor, and for some it may be exactly that: a substitute religion, complete with a theology, an ethics, and an eschatology that foretells doom for the planet unless we get with the gospel of global warming.
The Frackdown is sponsored by an outfit called 350.org, whose guiding light is one Bill McKibben, a journalist and author of such books as Fight Global Warming Now, Enough, The End of Nature, and Eaarth. The last title requires a little explanation. McKibben's basic theme throughout is that humanity has transformed the globe into an artifact (thus The End of Nature). The rather unfortunate neologism "Eaarth" is McKibben's term for Earth.2, the new thing that isn't really a natural environment anymore, but isn't completely under our control either. Despite the world's new status as a manufactured product, the laws of physics have not been repealed, and McKibben claims there will be absolutely inevitable bad consequences that will follow if we keep acting as though we were just a slight perturbation in the thing we have historically called Nature. (Picture a 200-pound St. Bernard who still thinks he is a cute little cuddly puppy and tries to sit in your lap.) Chief among these perturbations is our burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, which began with the Industrial Revolution and continues to be the single most important energy source worldwide. McKibben appears to believe as earnestly in the pronouncements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as he believes in the Bible (he is a practicing Methodist). The focus of his most recent efforts has been to sponsor grass-roots movements to give the fossil-fuel industry a bad reputation by means of divestiture movements, Global Frackdowns, and other activist measures sponsored through 350.org. Why 350? That is the alleged tipping point of parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, beyond which innumerable disasters loom. The current number (as of May 2013) is around 400 ppm, by the way.
I picked up McKibben's Eaarth expecting a uniform challenge to my blood pressure, and for the first two chapters I found what I expected: a laundry list of terrible things that will happen, and are already happening, because of global warming, which is said to be largely if not exclusively due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the air. Storms, droughts, loss of seacoast regions, die-offs of all kinds, you name it. So far so bad.
But then I got to Chapter 3, "Backing Off" and I checked the cover to see if the book was really written by only one author. McKibben turns out to be what I would call a crypto-distributist. Distributism, as almost nobody knows, was a short-lived political movement popular in England in the 1930s, whose most well-known exponent was the writer G. K. Chesterton. Its slogan could have been "smaller, more local, more decentralized," and the old principles of distributism are in perfect harmony with McKibben's plans for us to survive the oncoming global-warming disaster. For example, here's a problem: climate change may cause entire monocultures of ag-industry genetically modified foods to disappear. Solution: have thousands of independent farmers supply hundreds of different varieties to farmers' markets in cities around the globe, and some of them at least will make it. Problem: giant fossil-fueled power grids with a few huge plants are wrecking the environment, and giant nuclear plants to replace them would cost too much. Solution: spread solar and other renewable energy sources everywhere so that people can be largely energy-independent down to the city block and house level.
The biggest change McKibben calls for is not technological but cultural. He thinks we will have to end our love affair with the super-independent lifestyle so encouraged by American culture and commerce, and live more like we used to, in interdependent communities where not only did you know your neighbors, you depended on them for essential things in your life such as services, goods, and jobs. Only in this way will we survive the bugbear of climate disasters that await us.
Eaarth is really two books: one written by a frenzied climate-change activist, and another written by a pleasant, earnest Methodist Sunday-school teacher who wants us all to get along together and be good little distributists, but without using that word. I see no indication that McKibben has even heard of distributism, but most of his solutions lie squarely in that tradition. And to the extent that they do, I by and large agree with them, although my pragmatic side doubts that McKibben and his fellow activists will be able to make much headway against the powerful entrenched political and economic interests who would like things to stay the way they are now.
To the extent that McKibben gets us to have more to do with our neighbors and less to do with huge multinational corporations, I hope he succeeds. But he seems to have reached the same desirable conclusions as the English distributists through what seems to me to be a long and unnecessary detour through the notion of global warming and its promised doomsdays, which has almost taken the place of a religion for many people. If you believe that buying an electric car will make environmental Armageddon 0.0001% less likely, then your faith has convenient ways for you to take actions that are unquestionably righteous, and to condemn those bad actors such as fossil-fuel companies that are unquestionably evil. But life is seldom that simple, and I hope McKibben writes another book that sets forth more substantial and eternal reasons for people to be more neighborly—and leaves out all that stuff about global warming.
Sources: Bill McKibben's Eaarth was published in 2010 by Henry Holt & Co. The website 350.org has links about the Global Frackdown and many other related activities. For more information on Distributism, see my blog of Sept. 22, 2008, "What Is Distributism, and Why Should Engineers Care?"