Striking a Balance Between Fear and Hope on Climate Change

Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
By Bill McKibben

“Falter,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben’s latest book about threats to the planet, combines fear of bad outcomes with hope for good outcomes. His opening pages set the stage. “This volume is bleak,” he writes, elaborating a few paragraphs later: “I think we’re uniquely ill prepared to cope with the emerging challenges. So far, we’re not coping with them. Still, there is one sense in which I am less grim than in my younger days. This book ends with the conviction that resistance to these dangers is at least possible.”

McKibben’s worst fear is summarized in his subtitle: “Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” In the first half of the book, he explains the present dangers to civilization, which include the risk of nuclear war and multiple hazards associated with climate change: increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, threats to food production, rising sea levels, and ocean warming and acidification. While these dangers have been widely discussed, McKibben provides a fresh perspective with surprising examples and an engaging writing style. What could be more familiar, cheap and simple than asphalt roof tiles? But McKibben explains how their manufacture and distribution depend on multiple big systems — undersea and desert oil drilling, limestone and sand mining, fiberglass fabrication, pipelines, refineries, rail lines, truck routes, building supply stores, etc. — all now at increasing risk because of their scale, complexity and susceptibility to disruption.

The middle part of the book discusses forces opposing solutions to the problems laid out in the first part — motivated variously by self-interest, grim realities, power, ideals and views about the proper role of government. These forces include Exxon, poverty, inequality, Ayn Rand, the Koch brothers, other very rich Americans, President Trump and Silicon Valley.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of April. See the full list.]

Some people hope that world problems will be solved by advanced new technologies, especially artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, along with devices geared to expanding our life spans and allowing us to colonize space. Considering each such technology in turn, McKibben explains his skepticism about its hoped-for benefits, and his concerns about potential undesirable side effects.

Finally, in the book’s last section, McKibben offers his reasons for hope. Foremost among these are solar panels, which are making cheap renewable energy available around the world, and nonviolent movements, whose successful practitioners against entrenched, well-armed oppositions have included Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Earth Day demonstrators and McKibben’s own group,

I share McKibben’s views about these environmental problems. The practical question we face has to do with tactics: How do we strike a balance between fear and hope, and adjust our tactics to best reach a diverse target audience?

As Yogi Berra noted, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. It depends not just on measurable present trends but also on unforeseeable decisions. Five years ago, I would never have predicted the public’s now-widespread recognition of climate change and its human causes (a view not yet shared by enough politicians).

McKibben’s book is much more about grounds for fear, which take up some 18 chapters, than about grounds for hope, which take up five. Fear will motivate some people who are currently undecided, and increase the motivation of others already convinced. But in my experience most people need a strong dose of hope to be spurred to action. Why waste effort on a hopeless cause? One group that has learned this lesson is the cancer lobby, which succeeds at raising funds for research by stressing cures that may be just around the corner more than the grim statistics of the disease’s ongoing toll.

In fact, there are reasons for hope besides those McKibben discusses. One is the change in policies of some powerful multinational corporations. I can already hear the horrified screams of many of my environmentalist friends as I say this. However, I’ve been on the boards of two of the most effective international environmental organizations, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, both of which are heavily involved with big, powerful corporations. I acknowledge that those corporations do some very bad things. But they also do some very good things on a large scale that their power makes them uniquely capable of doing. For example, Walmart has quietly been making efforts to manage its supply chain, its wastes and its truck fleet sustainably — partly, but only partly, because it discovered that it can save money by doing so.

You may already have closed your ears because of the bad things you know that even the best big companies also do. Listen, you extraterrestrial visitors from the Andromeda Galaxy, where companies and androids are either purely good or purely bad. Alas, here on Planet Earth, good and bad are mixed together; we don’t have companies that are purely good. If environmentalists refuse to engage with big companies, in order to push them to do more good things and fewer bad ones, we could well end up in McKibben’s worst-case scenario: human extinction.

Another reason I feel hopeful has to do with the success of many recent supranational agreements — bilateral agreements between nations, regional agreements and world agreements. Those agreements have addressed difficult issues and required negotiations between nations that hate and fight each other. But agreements have nevertheless succeeded in eliminating rinderpest and smallpox, delineating near-shore economic zones in the oceans, reducing chlorofluorocarbon damage to the ozone layer, setting standards for oil tanker pollution and establishing a framework for seabed mining with shared royalties. Those successes give me hope that we may similarly resolve other difficult international problems, including climate change.

My other concern about tactics has to do with the diverse audiences to which environmentalists like McKibben and me must address our books. It’s not enough for us to write for those who are already sympathetic or convinced. We also have to write for those who are skeptical or hostile. If we give up on the many rich, powerful, smart people who are skeptical of environmental threats, again we are doomed to McKibben’s worst-case scenario.

To convince a skeptic requires different approaches from those that work to reinforce the convictions of someone already converted. I witnessed this recently when I was with an environmentalist friend. We ran into another friend of mine who is rich, powerful, smart — and politically conservative. I introduced my two friends. My conservative friend asked my environmentalist friend what she did, and she answered, “I run U.C.L.A.’s sustainability program.” My conservative friend replied, “What’s that?,” the skepticism evident in his voice.

My environmentalist friend responded in a way that my conservative friend could understand: “That means running things so that your children and grandchildren will be living in a rich and thriving world.” She went on to describe how U.C.L.A., by combining its heating, cooling and power plants, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and saved money. The skepticism disappeared from my friend’s voice; he was ready to hear more.

It will take many different voices to persuade the world’s diverse citizens and corporations to collaborate on solving the world’s biggest problems. McKibben’s voice has been an influential one. My hope is that his new book will strengthen the motivation of those already sympathetic to his views. My fear is that it won’t convince many who remain hostile to them. I hope that my first prediction proves right, and that my second proves wrong.

Jared Diamond’s latest book, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis,” will be published in May.

Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
By Bill McKibben
291 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $28.

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