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Saving the planet
Extracts from an interview with Bill McKibben and some related thoughts based on the Isha Upanishad and the writings of Sri Aurobindo
McKibben has written extensively on the impact of global warming. His first of a dozen books on climate change, The End of Nature (1989), is widely regarded as the first book ever written for a general audience about the subject. McKibben is the founder of Third Act, which has a mission to organize people over the age of 60 for action on climate and justice, as well as a founder of 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign.
In what follows I will first reproduce highlights from the episode’s transcript, and then offer my own thoughts (based on Sri Aurobindo’s writings) on what must be done by us to save the planet, or rather what must happen for our planet to be saved.
It’s not the summer from hell, it’s the summer that sort of is hell.... The temperature in the North Atlantic is not just off the charts, it’s off the wall the charts are tacked to.
Bill McKibben: We’ve poured more carbon into the atmosphere since 1989 [the year The End of Nature was published] than in all of human history before it. And as a result, we’re now in the summer of 2023 — you know, it’s not the summer from hell, it’s the summer that sort of is hell.
We’ve had the hottest day measured on our planet and probably the hottest day ever for the last 125,000 years, the hottest week, the hottest month. The temperature in the North Atlantic is not just off the charts, it’s off the wall the charts are tacked to.
As a result, we’re seeing epic and killer heat waves and fires. As we’re talking here today, they’re trying to get them under control in Maui, where 36 people at least are dead. But north of us in Canada, they’re not going to get the biggest fires in Canadian history under control until it snows in the fall.
What I’m trying to say is we’re in an emergency. And when you’re in emergency, then you do things that are different from what you would ordinarily do because you have to get out of that emergency. If we don’t, if we allow the temperature to keep going up, if we don’t stop using fossil fuels, then we’re in fairly short order not going to have civilizations like the ones we’re used to because we can’t absorb an endless amount of this kind of violent chaos and flux.
We’ve raised the temperature about two degrees Fahrenheit so far. But we’re on track to raise it five or six degrees Fahrenheit. And that won’t be three times as bad as what we’ve done. It’ll be worse than that because the damage goes up exponentially. We think now that every tenth of a degree Celsius moves another 140 million people out of the kind of prime human habitat zone on this planet.
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Bill McKibben: When you mine lithium or cobalt, you put it in a device like a battery and there it lasts for a quarter century. When you mine coal and oil and gas, what do you do? You set it on fire. And so, you have to get some more the next day. We think that 40 percent of all the ship traffic on the planet is just carrying coal and oil and gas back and forth....
So, there’s nothing even close to a free lunch, but there are lunches that are gonna kill us. And that’s the one that we’re eating right now.
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Bill McKibben: Growth was perceived as an unalloyed good until the rise of the environmental movement in the late 1960s. Then in 1972, I think, the publication of this small book “Limits to Growth” turned out to be one of the two or three bestselling books of that decade.1 It was a report prepared by three researchers at MIT, one of whom, Donella Meadows, I came to know well and admire. And they used a computer, which in 1972 was still a kind of innovative thing to be doing.
And they programmed in a lot of parameters and punched the button. And what they said was, if we keep doing this, sometime in the second or third decade of the 21st century, we’re gonna run into deep ecological walls that we’re gonna crash against. Lots of people read it and liked it. But there were lots of pushbacks from the usual suspects against this.
And as the decade wore on — the decade that E.F. Schumacher published, “Small is Beautiful,” the decade that Jimmy Carter went on TV wearing a sweater and telling us to turn down the thermostat.... I think that really, the central debate of the 1970s, was which side of this are we going to come down on?
Amitai Etzioni, who was then working in the Carter White House, apparently came to him with a poll in 1978 that showed that a third of Americans were now anti-growth, a third were pro-growth, and a third didn’t know. And Etzioni said, the tension here is too great. This is going to be resolved one way or its other. And it was [resolved] with the election of 1980 and with Ronald Reagan’s declaration that it was morning in America again. And that’s basically where we’ve been for the last 40 years, back very much on this idea that growth was what we wanted. It’s what Clinton and Obama, as well as the Bushes and everybody else worked on.
We have to build like we haven’t built since the beginning of World War II. This time, not tanks and planes but solar panels and wind turbines.
Bill McKibben: Now the question is, what do we do? ... You would think that the most obvious answer would be to try and bring everything to a screeching halt and stop growing and start reducing our size and things. But that seems politically unlikely in a short term, in a democracy or in an autocracy.... In order to get out of the incredible mess climatically that we’re in, we have to build like we haven’t built since the beginning of World War II. This time, not tanks and planes but solar panels and wind turbines. Which happily is possible because the engineers have dropped the price of renewable energy 90 percent in the last decade. That means we live on a planet where the cheapest way to produce power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun.
So you’d say, let’s go hard in that direction. And I think we very much should. But if all we do is replace the fossil fuel that we’re burning now with solar panels, yes, it will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere. But it won’t get us out of this fundamental problem that these guys identified in 1972.... It’s not just the climate. I mean, we have 70 percent fewer wild animals on this planet than we did 50 years ago because we’ve taken out all the habitats. Our oceans are an unbelievable mess. And we’re a planet that’s 70 percent ocean. On and on and on. So I think probably the best we might be able to do at this late date is build the hell out of solar panels and wind turbines....
One of the beautiful things about solar panels and wind turbines is there’s sun and wind everywhere. It’s not like coal and gas and oil, which are owned by MBS and Putin and the Koch brothers. That’s great. But to really take advantage of that, it should be owned close to the community. That’s one of the reasons that Denmark, say, has gotten way ahead of everybody because they figured out how to do a lot of that. And then we should be looking at lots of other things....
There’s no use pretending that we don’t have to build out renewable energy fast. Because if we don’t, the temperature is going to get so high that ... thinking, sitting around thinking grand thoughts about restructuring society — all we’re going to be doing is pulling people out of forest fires and trying to somehow block the rising sea.
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Chris Hayes: The geopolitical implications of the level of refugees — it’s a routine thing now for boatloads of migrants to drown in the Mediterranean Sea as people flee to try to get to Europe.... The push factors of migration are a whole bunch of things, including climate. We should be clear. Climate is one of the things driving it.
Bill McKibben: We now think, the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] now thinks that climate and natural disaster caused by climate dramatically outpaces war as a reason for migration.... A million people came out of Syria to Western Europe after the civil war, itself largely triggered by climate change. They had the deepest drought in the history of what we used to call the Fertile Crescent and it moved hundreds of thousands of people off farms into Syrian cities that couldn’t deal with it. That million people coming into Western Europe was enough to turn the politics of that continent upside down. We’re now electing, you know, Mussolini fans to run Italy. And a million or two people on our Southern border was probably the single biggest reason that we ended up with Donald Trump ransacking American democracy.
Most of the people fleeing climate disaster did nothing to cause it. If you’re from Guatemala coming into Texas, your carbon emissions are one 20th what a Texan’s carbon emissions are. The iron law of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the sooner and the harder you get hit.
The U.N. estimates that if we let climate go at a kind of business-as-usual pace, it’ll produce between 1 billion and 3 billion refugees before the century is out. So, multiply what we’ve seen so far by a thousand and then try to figure out what it does to our politics. On top of that, remember that most of the people fleeing climate disaster did nothing to cause it. If you’re from Guatemala coming into Texas, your carbon emissions are one 20th what a Texan’s carbon emissions are. The iron law of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the sooner and the harder you get hit. So, at some point, it’s just going to overwhelm our political systems, our moral systems, our everything systems. And that’s just one manifestation of this crisis.
We can talk about food supply. We can talk about a dozen other things that are equally enormous. In the most basic terms, we are shrinking the board on which the human game is played. It’s considerably smaller now than it was when you or I were born, and it’s gonna get much smaller still. There are vast swaths of the world that are already getting too hot for people to reliably be able to live in. And there are most of the world’s major cities perched on the edge of oceans which have begun to rise pretty dramatically.
So, the job one, job two, job three for human civilization is to arrest the rise in temperature as soon as possible. And the only way to do that is to turn off fossil fuel. And in the world in which we live, in which people are going to continue to demand heat and air conditioning and mobility, I think the only way in the short run to do that is to build out this clean energy system…. That’s the imperative here. And we’re in the emergency room. We’re not in the cosmetic surgeon’s office. We’re in the emergency room and the patient is running in unbelievable fever. We should be freaking out.
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Bill McKibben: The way to think about it is that the advent of fossil fuel upended everything because it gave everybody the equivalent of a hundred or a thousand servants that they didn’t have before. There’s hundreds of thousands of, or tens of thousands of man hours of labor in a barrel of oil. So it was completely seductive and it produced, I think on balance, all kinds of good for a long time. Growth is like that.
But, you know, I’m a father. If my daughter at age 12 had stopped growing, I would have taken her to the pediatrician and said something’s wrong. But if my daughter at age 30, as she is now, was growing eight inches every year, I’d take her to the doctor, too, and say this does not seem right. So, you know, because something was good for a while, doesn’t mean that it’s good forever....
If we don’t solve the climate crisis, then every other question around us is essentially moot.
There’s also the fact that we don’t pay enough attention to that 9 million people a year on this planet die — that’s one death in five on our earth — from breathing the combustion byproducts of fossil fuel.... If you’ve been to Delhi or Shanghai, you’d get this in a minute. But it happens here, too. We have hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood asthma every year. We know who gets to live next to highways and refineries. So we know whose kids get asthma.
And as we’ve been reminded in the last couple of years, relying on a resource that only exists in a few places means that people who control those few places get way too much power and they’re likely to use it to ... launch a land war in Europe in the 21st century. So the reasons for trying to move quickly off this seem to me larger than any other question we face as a society. The question becomes how to do it.
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Bill McKibben: There’s a lot of people saying we don’t want to use farmland for solar panels. Farmland is great. But what do we mostly grow on farms in this country? We mostly grow corn and most of it goes to make ethanol, 60 percent of the corn in Iowa, that’s the richest top soil on our planet, is just turned into ethanol. And you could get the same amount of automobile mileage by taking a twentieth of that land and putting up solar panels and connecting them to EVs....
I can remember a few years ago going over to Dartmouth to have a debate with a guy who was a sort of aging hippie, which is a group I very much like.... But he was dead set against some wind turbines, for all the obvious reasons. Don’t want to cut down a tree to do it. Don’t want to disrupt an ecosystem. What are all perfectly good reasons, but all small reasons compared to the scale of the damage that we’re doing.
So we had this debate. And I was being, you know, polite and things because I’m a polite guy. Then we had the question and answer period and one of these undergraduates walked up to the mic and he said to the other guy, “I just have one question. How did you get your head so far up your butt?”
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Bill McKibben: One of the things that really made me sad about what [“Democratic” Senator] Joe Manchin did to the, whatever we call it now, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Build Back Better Act, the endlessly reduced Green New Deal, one of the things that made me really sad was that he took out Bernie’s call for a $10 billion civilian climate core to get young people all over the country out building the stuff that we need. And that would have been useful but more than that, it would have been beautiful and morale-boosting, and which is precisely why Joe Manchin took it out, you know. Last thing he wants is a bunch of empowered youth figuring out how to get past coal....
In 1980, running for president, Jimmy Carter proposed putting enough money in the federal budget that the U.S. would be getting 20 percent of its power from solar energy by the year 2000. Had we done that, we would have been in an utterly different place. Instead, in the most important by far election of my lifetime, we elected Ronald Reagan, who tore down the solar panels on the roof of the White House.
It seems to me that climate change is a kind of test of whether the big brain was a good adaptation or not. It can get us in a lot of trouble. And now, we’ll find out if it can get us out of that trouble. And my guess is that the answer lies less in the size of the brain in the end than in the size of the heart it’s attached to.
The next 18 months feels like the key moment.... This coincides with this extraordinary El Nino now dawning on the planet that’s going to keep raising the temperature at least for the next 18 months. And we’re going to see things that we have never seen before. That’ll be tragic. It will be grim. And it will also be a test of our maturity as a species. Can we take in that spectacle and say, okay, we have to do this? We have to do this in the same way that we had to fight fascism in Europe in the middle of the last century and we had to do it then. That’s the question.
And I think we’ll find out. I think, not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems to me that climate change is a kind of test of whether the big brain was a good adaptation or not. It can get us in a lot of trouble. And now, we’ll find out if it can get us out of that trouble. And my guess is that the answer lies less in the size of the brain in the end than in the size of the heart it’s attached to.
This is gonna be ultimately — there’s plenty of questions of self-interest and self-preservation — but there are also deep, deep questions about human solidarity that we’re going to answer one way or another in the next few years. And it’s a horrible burden for everybody who’s alive now to deal with that, but it’s also a tremendous privilege to get to deal with that and to answer deeper questions than any human beings ever had to answer before about what our point is here on this planet.
Yours truly at last: I now come to the part where I offer my thoughts (based on Sri Aurobindo’s insights) on what must happen for our planet to be saved.
The first verse of the Isha Upanishad2 — arguably the most profound of all Upanishads — contains two statements. The first (in Sri Aurobindo’s translation) is this:
All this is for habitation by the Lord (Isha), whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion.
In the view of the Upanishad, all manifestation, whether that of an individual being or thing or that of the universe as a whole, is founded on motion — a concept that implicates both space and time. (One may think of motion as changes in spatial relations, and one may think of manifestation as what happens when something that is intrinsically unmoving enters into changing spatial relations with itself.) The second statement gets right to the heart of the matter:
By that renounced thou shouldst enjoy; lust not after any man’s possession.
Enjoyment by renunciation? What is one to make of this apparent paradox?
What is to be renounced is not the world, as the great illusionist philosopher Shankara preached, but desire. The only way to truly enjoy the world and all it contains is not to desire anything. This calls for a radical change of consciousness, a transformation of our experience of self and world into an experience of our self as the Lord — as Sachchidananda, as that which constitutes, contains, and enjoys the world — and of the world and all it contains as the Lord’s garment or dwelling place.
The second verse also is made up of two statements. The first is a bold retort to Shankara’s call to inaction:
Doing verily works in this world one should wish to live a hundred years.
The second, as paraphrased and interpreted by Sri Aurobindo, says: “to you there is no other way than this, action clings not to a man.” In other words, this is the only way for us to truly be in the world. And if this is how we are in the world, then how we act in the world can no longer entrap us in a tangle of potentially disastrous consequences:
Thus it is in thee and not otherwise than this; action cleaves not to a man.
So, the answer to those “deep, deep questions about human solidarity that we’re going to answer one way or another in the next few years” is not just that we need a “bigger” heart but that a radical change of being and acting in the world is required. What is needed is a supramental way of being and a desireless way of acting and a solidarity that is rooted in identity, in becoming That which has created the world for its habitation. As Sri Aurobindo wrote in The Human Cycle,3
It is a spiritual, a greater than the rational enlightenment that can alone illumine the vital nature of man and impose harmony on its self-seekings, antagonisms and discords. A deeper brotherhood, a yet unfound law of love is the only sure foundation possible for a perfect social evolution, no other can replace it....
This is a solution to which it may be objected that it puts off the consummation of a better human society to a far-off date in the future evolution of the race. For it means that no machinery invented by the reason can perfect either the individual or the collective man; an inner change is needed in human nature, a change too difficult to be ever effected except by the few. This is not certain; but in any case, if this is not the solution, then there is no solution, if this is not the way, then there is no way for the human kind. [p. 220]
To this, Sri Aurobindo adds, mercifully:
there is no logical necessity for the conclusion that the change cannot begin at all because its perfection is not immediately possible. A decisive turn of mankind to the spiritual ideal, the beginning of a constant ascent and guidance towards the heights may not be altogether impossible, even if the summits are attainable at first only by the pioneer few and far-off to the tread of the race. And that beginning may mean the descent of an influence that will alter at once the whole life of mankind in its orientation and enlarge for ever, as did the development of his reason and more than any development of the reason, its potentialities and all its structure. [p. 221, emphasis added]
In the final chapter of The Life Divine,4 Sri Aurobindo, having stated that “to be fully is Nature’s aim in us,” goes on to explain what this means and what it implies. And the things that are implied “are impossible without an inward living; they cannot be reached by remaining in an external consciousness turned always outwards, active only or mainly on and from the surface.”
In men, says the Upanishad, the Self-Existent has cut the doors of consciousness outward, but a few turn the eye inward and it is these who see and know the Spirit and develop the spiritual being. Thus to look into ourselves and see and enter into ourselves and live within is the first necessity for transformation of nature and for the divine life.
To be sure, “[t]his movement of going inward and living inward is a difficult task to lay upon the normal consciousness of the human being; yet there is no other way of self-finding.”
It was in 1940 — World War II had just begun — that these words and the following passages were written:
At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way. A structure of the external life has been raised up by man’s ever-active mind and life-will, a structure of an unmanageable hugeness and complexity, for the service of his mental, vital, physical claims and urges, a complex political, social, administrative, economic, cultural machinery, an organised collective means for his intellectual, sensational, aesthetic and material satisfaction. Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites....
[T]he problem is fundamental and in putting it evolutionary Nature in man is confronting herself with a critical choice which must one day be solved in the true sense if the race is to arrive or even to survive....
At first sight this insistence on a radical change of nature might seem to put off all the hope of humanity to a distant evolutionary future; for the transcendence of our normal human nature, a transcendence of our mental, vital and physical being, has the appearance of an endeavour too high and difficult and at present, for man as he is, impossible. Even if it were so, it would still remain the sole possibility for the transmutation of life; for to hope for a true change of human life without a change of human nature is an irrational and unspiritual proposition; it is to ask for something unnatural and unreal, an impossible miracle.
But what is demanded by this change is not something altogether distant, alien to our existence and radically impossible.... It is, besides, a step for which the whole of evolution has been a preparation and which is brought closer at each crisis of human destiny.... What is necessary is that there should be a turn in humanity felt by some or many towards the vision of this change, a feeling of its imperative need, the sense of its possibility, the will to make it possible in themselves and to find the way. That trend is not absent and it must increase with the tension of the crisis in human world-destiny; the need of an escape or a solution, the feeling that there is no other solution than the spiritual cannot but grow and become more imperative under the urgency of critical circumstance. To that call in the being there must always be some answer in the Divine Reality and in Nature. [1060–97]
Today, eight decades hence, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is no other solution. Or, as Sri Aurobindo wrote shortly after World War I, “if this is not the solution, then there is no solution, if this is not the way, then there is no way for the human kind.”
The Limits to Growth predications have recently been updated by Gaya Herrington (https://doi.org/10.1111/jiec.13084). From the abstract: “The two scenarios aligning most closely with observed data indicate a halt in welfare, food, and industrial production over the next decade or so, which puts into question the suitability of continuous economic growth as humanity’s goal in the twenty-first century. Both scenarios also indicate subsequent declines in these variables, but only one—where declines are caused by pollution—depicts a collapse.”
Sri Aurobindo, Isha Upanishad (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 2003). URL: https://bit.ly/SriAurobindo-Isha.
Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle – The Ideal of Human Unity – War and Self-Determination (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department. 1997). URL: https://bit.ly/SriAurobindo-THC-IHU-WSD.