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Date: Mon, 12 May 2008 19:44:22 -0700
From: Michael Gurstein <>
Subject: [stuff-it] FW: A Last Chance for Civilization

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From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG [mailto:moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG]
Sent: May 12, 2008 7:07 PM
Subject: A Last Chance for Civilization

The World at 350 A Last Chance for Civilization
By Bill McKibben
posted May 11, 2008

Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that
there will always be a second act, and a third, and a
do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and
forgiveness and a Brand New Start -- even for us, the world looks a little
Terminal right now.

It's not just the economy. We've gone through swoons
before. It's that gas at $4 a gallon means we're
running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society.
It's that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of
bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It's that
everything is so inextricably tied together. It's that, all of a sudden,
those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on
about the "limits to growth" suddenly seem... how best to put it, right.

All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk
on planet Earth.

There's a number -- a new number -- that makes this
point most powerfully. It may now be the most important
number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA's Jim
Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with
several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued
-- and I have never read stronger language in a
scientific paper -- "if humanity wishes to preserve a
planet similar to that on which civilization developed
and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate
evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2
will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at
most 350 ppm." Hansen cites six irreversible tipping
points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in
rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we
don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them,
judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may
already be behind us.

So it's a tough diagnosis. It's like the doctor telling
you that your cholesterol is way too high and, if you
don't bring it down right away, you're going to have a
stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese,
and, if you're lucky, you get back into the safety zone
before the coronary. It's like watching the tachometer
edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to
take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk
up front.

In this case, though, it's worse than that because
we're not taking the pill and we are stomping on the
gas -- hard. Instead of slowing down, we're pouring on
the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news
that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts
per million last year -- two decades ago, it was going
up barely half that fast.

And suddenly, the news arrives that the amount of
methane, another potent greenhouse gas, accumulating in
the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. Apparently, we've
managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of
permafrost and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun
to bubble forth.

And don't forget: China is building more power plants;
India is pioneering the $2,500 car, and Americans are converting to TVs the
size of windshields which suck juice ever faster.

Here's the thing. Hansen didn't just say that, if we
didn't act, there was trouble coming; or, if we didn't
yet know what was best for us, we'd certainly be better
off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
His phrase was: "...if we wish to preserve a planet
similar to that on which civilization developed." A
planet with billions of people living near those oh-so-floodable coastlines.
A planet with ever more vulnerable forests. (A beetle, encouraged by warmer
temperatures, has already managed to kill 10 times more trees than in any
previous infestation across the northern reaches of Canada this year. This
means far more carbon heading for the atmosphere and apparently dooms
Canada's efforts to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, already in doubt because
of its decision to start producing oil for the U.S. from Alberta's tar

We're the ones who kicked the warming off; now, the
planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that
Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white
shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation
back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs
80% of the sun's heat. Such feedbacks are beyond
history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama
had in mind.

And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them
-- to reverse course. Here's the Indian scientist and
economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel
Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job
when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon
Mobil, forced out his predecessor): "If there's no
action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the
next two to three years will determine our future. This
is the defining moment."

In the next two or three years, the nations of the
world are supposed to be negotiating a successor treaty
to the Kyoto Accord. When December 2009 rolls around,
heads of state are supposed to converge on Copenhagen
to sign a treaty -- a treaty that would go into effect
at the last plausible moment to heed the most basic and
crucial of limits on atmospheric CO2.

If we did everything right, says Hansen, we could see
carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly and the
oceans begin to pull some of that CO2 out of the
atmosphere. Before the century was out we might even be
on track back to 350. We might stop just short of some
of those tipping points, like the Road Runner
screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff.

More likely, though, we're the Coyote -- because "doing everything right"
means that political systems around the world would have to take enormous
and painful steps right away. It means no more new coal-fired power plants
anywhere, and plans to quickly close the ones already in operation.
(Coal-fired power plants operating the way they're supposed to are, in
global warming terms, as dangerous as nuclear plants melting
down.) It means making car factories turn out efficient
hybrids next year, just the way we made them turn out
tanks in six months at the start of World War II. It
means making trains an absolute priority and planes a

It means making every decision wisely because we have
so little time and so little money, at least relative
to the task at hand. And hardest of all, it means the
rich countries of the world sharing resources and
technology freely with the poorest ones, so that they
can develop dignified lives without burning their cheap

That's possible -- we launched a Marshall Plan once,
and we could do it again, this time in relation to
carbon. But in a month when the President has, once
more, urged us to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge, that seems unlikely. In a month when the
alluring phrase "gas tax holiday" has danced into our vocabulary, it's hard
to see (though it was encouraging to see that Clinton's gambit didn't sway
many voters). And if it's hard to imagine sacrifice here, imagine China,
where people produce a quarter as much carbon apiece as we do.

Still, as long as it's not impossible, we've got a duty
to try. In fact, it's about the most obvious duty
humans have ever faced.

A few of us have just launched a new campaign,
Its only goal is to spread this number around the world
in the next 18 months, via art and music and ruckuses
of all kinds, in the hope that it will push those
post-Kyoto negotiations in the direction of reality.

After all, those talks are our last chance; you just
can't do this one light bulb at a time. And if this campaign is a Hail Mary pass, well, sometimes
those passes get caught.

We do have one thing going for us: This new tool, the
Web which, at least, allows you to imagine something
like a grassroots global effort. If the Internet was
built for anything, it was built for sharing this
number, for making people understand that "350" stands
for a kind of safety, a kind of possibility, a kind of

Hansen's words were well-chosen: "a planet similar to
that on which civilization developed." People will
doubtless survive on a non-350 planet, but those who do
will be so preoccupied, coping with the endless
unintended consequences of an overheated planet, that civilization may not.

Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure
and security provided by a workable relationship with
the natural world. That margin won't exist, at least
not for long, this side of 350. That's the limit we

Bill McKibben is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury
College and co-founder of His most recent book
is The Bill McKibben Reader.


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