Below, my review of ‘Falter’, the new book by veteran environmental writer, Bill McKibben, as it appeared in the Irish Times in May.
UNLESS you’re an economics graduate or a billionaire, chances are you may have never heard of Ayn Rand. Although she died in 1982, her legacy as arguably the most important political philosopher of our time casts a lengthening shadow. Her influence is no reflection of the quality of her output.
“Rand might as well have written in crayon; her ideas about the world are simple-minded, one-dimensional and poisonous,” Bill McKibben writes. But, he adds, “you don’t have to be right to be influential”. Former Exxon chief executive and US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson calls one of Rand’s volumes “my favourite book”, as does his erstwhile boss, the US president Donald Trump.
It might seem incongruous that a celebrated environmental writer finds it necessary in his new book to undertake such an in-depth excursion into the neoliberal swamp watered by far-right thinkers like Rand, but McKibben feels it’s worth the detour.
Born in the US in 1960, “between the New Deal and the Great Society”, McKibben’s activism was nurtured by both the civil rights and women’s movement. In the year he was born, a typical chief executive earned less than 20 times the salary of his workers. Today, they rake in nearly 300 times as much.
Who paid the price for this massive wealth smash and grab is not hard to identify. In 2017 a UN special rapporteur stated: “for one of the world’s richest countries to have over 40 million people living in poverty, and over five million in ‘Third World’ conditions is cruel and inhuman”.
Another recent study found that one in three residents of Lowndes County in Alabama tested positive for signs of hookworm, a dangerous parasite that thrives in unhygienic conditions and burrows through the soles of bare feet.
McKibben points out that his book is not primarily about poverty or inequality, but these help to “diagnose the intellectual and spiritual hookworm” he argues has “attached itself to the brains” of his country’s billionaire class.
Take Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. He would need to spend $28 million a day just to stop his humongous wealth from growing. By unhappy coincidence, this is exactly 1,000 times the meagre $28,000 median annual salary of an Amazon employee. Another US family, the Waltons, control more wealth than 42 per cent of all American families combined.
The new golden era of bare-knuckle capitalism, freed from government or regulatory oversight began in the Reagan-Thatcher era in the early 1980s, a moment writer Jonathan Freedman called “the second age of Rand… when laissez-faire philosophy went from the crankish obsession of right-wing economists to the governing credo of Anglo-American capitalism”.
The billionaire bubble
The world’s wealthiest industry is energy, and among these, Exxon is a giant. In July 1977, one of its senior scientists warned of the growing dangers of fossil fuel combustion: “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical”, scientist James F Black told his senior Exxon colleagues.
Four years later, another internal memo from Exxon scientists warned of “potentially catastrophic events” if they kept burning fossil fuels. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible”, the 1982 document warned.
In a decision likely to reverberate into geological time, Exxon senior executives decided to fund doubt and denial of the hard evidence their own scientists, among many others, had produced. “Thus began the most consequential lie in history,” McKibben observed.
The massive and ongoing fossil fuel-funded conspiracy to undermine public confidence in climate science was not simply about greed for the 100 or so energy companies who funded the conspiracy. “Self-interest mixed perfectly with ideology,” McKibben observes. “These billionaires thought they had cracked the code of history. Climate change was for them inconceivable because it would get in the way of profits… but also because it marred the purity of their belief system.”
They “believed more strongly in their particular economic fantasia than they did in physics or chemistry, and so they churned out an endless series of deceptions”. That these energy tycoons also chose to deceive themselves into claiming that climate science is one giant scam, McKibben posits, can be explained “only as a reflection of life in the billionaire bubble. If greed warps your life, you assume it warps everyone’s”.
The Great Dying
Where Falter is most compelling is where it details the unfolding ecological and climate apocalypse, including evidence from paleoclimatology. Some 252 million years ago, during the End Permian extinction event, massive volcanic eruptions ignited vast deposits of coal, oil and gas (sound familiar?), sending global carbon dioxide levels spiralling. In total, 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial vertebrates went extinct.
The triggers for what is known as the Great Dying are eerily similar to today, but differ in one crucial detail: now, annual human-induced carbon emissions are 10 times greater than at any time during the End Permian disaster.
The publication of Falter comes 30 years after McKibben’s seminal 1989 book, The End of Nature. “This volume is bleak as well,” he warns us, “in some ways bleaker, because more time has passed and we are deeper in the hole.” In 1989, he never entertained near-term human extinction as a serious possibility. Now, he is far less certain.
McKibben also dedicates space to considering the fast-emerging technologies of artificial intelligence and gene editing. Given these tools are largely in the hands of the hyper-rich, he paints them with a distinctly dystopian hue, but I am not convinced the author believes electromagnetic civilisation will survive long enough for these dark angels to be unleashed.
Bill McKibben is an accomplished storyteller and Falter does not disappoint. It peels back the flimsy pseudo-intellectual fig leaf the wealthy – and their acolytes in economics departments and right-wing media outlets – used to paper over their ecocidal greed and veniality.
Whether you’re new to environmental science or are a grizzled veteran, there is much to recommend in McKibben’s masterful new volume.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator