Isn’t traveling great? I love the . . . no, not the luxurious accommodations on today’s state-of-the-art aircraft, nor the mouth-watering bag of desiccated pretzels (all three of them), nor the physical intimacy with complete strangers with which one is sharing a 12-hour flight across the Pacific, nor even the vague guilt at the colossal carbon footprint one is generating while flying. No, one of the few remaining charms of long flights is the rare chance to read, something that seems to happen vanishingly infrequently for me in regular life anymore. Hours on end with no interruptions (except perhaps the intermittent pleas to play the electronic version of battleship with one’s child), nowhere else one could be going.
So, on our (no longer very) recent trip to the Antipodes I was able to read two books, seemingly worlds apart but actually with a curious connection between them. Rather against my will, I seem more and more often these days to find myself drifting into ruminations about the end of the world as we know it. It’s hard to avoid such dystopian daydreams what with accelerating global warming, the sixth wave of extinction underway, the reigning environmental Ponzi scheme known colloquially as “the global economy”, and various other wonders of modern civilization celebrated by our friends at the Cato Institute and such places.
But, to quote Monty Python, “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who . . .”
Let’s do the bad news first. After passing by it in the airport bookstores several times in recent months, even picking it up and leafing through a few pages, I finally succumbed to the macabre fascination and bought a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What really hooked me in the end was that the story is about a man and his young son traveling through the wasteland together and that hit a nerve.
My impressions: The book is both horrific and irresistible. The End Of The World with no silver lining, no blinking, and no punches pulled. I don’t know how to describe its — it is the bleakest, most disturbing narrative perhaps ever written, the more so because of the growing sense that it could in fact happen. But this also, in some perverse sense, makes it hopeful for me. I can’t believe, or it’s hard for me to believe, that the world could truly be completely destroyed with only humans remaining. Life is simply too strong and tenacious. Though it is possible that we’re dumb enough.
It seems much more probable that we would end up with The World Without Us (which I haven’t read). Perhaps it’s only a question of time scales. Ultimately, at some point, humans will disappear as all species do. The question is whether we will go out with a whimper, such that The World Without Us is left, or with a bang, as in The Road. Even in the latter case, life will return and a new age will begin. But it may well be centuries. Even millennia. Depending on how badly we stumble . . .
But that is hardly a topic for polite dinner conversation. Perhaps it’s best to just move on. The world is in trouble. It is what it is, as the current cliche goes. So what are we going to do about it?
That, for the most part, is the subject of the Bill McKibben’s excellent recent book Deep Economy. So let us turn to what might reasonably be called the good news. If you’re tired of reading and hearing about impending disaster (perhaps especially because it’s likely to be true), if you’re suffering paralysis about what you can do constructively to help turn the world from its current alarming path, this book is a real shot in the arm, as would be expected from this true hero of American environmental letters.
Basically, McKibben’s thesis is that the solution to the multifaceted complex of threats facing modern civilization is a return to humanity, meaning the humane life of small, more self-sufficient communities — anti-globalization, if you will (one reviewer of the book described him as the “anti-Thomas Friedman”). And (horrors!) anti-growth. Meaning that the dogma of economic growth, which is more fundamentalist than any religious belief worldwide, comes under some harsh scrutiny. Its time to live within our means, not just because it is necessary to prevent the collapse of global civilization (in case that is not sufficient justification) but because it will make us happier. Does economic growth make you happy? It does if you’re starving. But most Americans aren’t. We long ago reached the point of diminishing returns on the relationships between consumption and happiness. How much happier has the opening of the new Wal-Mart outside of town made you (even ignoring the several stores that closed in the aftermath)?
Local food, local power generation, local community, yes even neighborliness. These are McKibben’s answers. There have of course been many critics of globalization, and in the hands of a lesser writer, this thesis might sound smarmy and naive. But McKibben’s argument is characteristically informed, measured, balanced, and strongly supported with examples from the real world. Very compelling. And let’s face it — it becomes clearer every day that what the world needs is a fundamental rethinking of the way we do things and think about things. This book makes me think that there may yet be a silver lining.