Perch Lake seen from above on a hill

Defined by life

Eaarth, by Bill McKibben

This morning, Bill McKibben stood in the pulpit at the church that Katie and I have been going to for a few months. The author and climate change activist gave a brief talk–not a sermon–about where things stand with climate change and the work to do something before it’s too late.

McKibben is the founder of an effective and respected advocacy organization called 350.org. Last October 24, they organized what CNN called the “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” comprised of 5,200 actions in 181 countries. McKibben’s 1989 breakthrough book, “The End of Nature,” was originally published serially in the New Yorker when he was a staff writer there.

One thing I learned was the origin of the “350” thing. It’s quite simple. In 2008, NASA scientists published a paper saying that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the breaking point for global warming:

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, but likely less than that.

James Hansen, et al, Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?, 2008

McKibben briefly covered much of what has been most widely discussed: the big, noticeable effects of global warming, like the melting Arctic and the vanishing polar bears. He warned that the climate bill that will be introduced in the U.S. Senate in 10 days by Sen. Kerry and others might as well have been written by the electric utility industry, is full of loopholes, and simply will not arrest the accelerating progress of global warming.

As far as President Obama’s actions, he paused at length and then said that Obama has done more on climate change than any previous President. Then he said that he had also drunk more beer than his 12-year-old niece.

I have lately been frustrated that the problem with a lot of environmental work is that there simply are too many humans. Other efforts can feel like treating the symptom, and not the cause. I got a kick out of the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaign of handing out condoms on Valentine’s Day with illustrations of endangered species printed on them.

Polar Bear condom package

The question of population growth was the first question put to McKibben after the service and he responded with some surprising information. He said that fertility rates are dropping and the planet’s population is expected to top out at about 9 billion in 20 or 30 years, I think. He said that obviously 9 billion is beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, but there is a bit of a fertility bubble right now and birth rates will soon start to slow.

McKibben then repeated something that I’ve been hearing more and more about lately, which is that programs that seek to educate and empower women in societies around the globe are proving remarkably effective at slowing population growth. Once women have options beyond just having a bunch of kids, they go from having six to maybe two. He also said that he is the proud parent of one child.

The population argument is also somewhat inconsequential because people in countries like the United States where birth rates are relatively low consume so much more of everything–including energy–than people in developing countries where birth rates might be higher. An American family uses as much energy between midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 as a Tanzanian family uses in a year.

People forming "350" in India

Hundreds of students at "Tiger Fest" in India call for 350 in order to protect endangered species like the tiger. (350.org)

There’s a lot of hype out there regarding climate change. McKibben impressed me as someone who had given a lot of information and theory and science a long, dispassionate examination, and was now very passionate about spreading what he had learned. He was in Minnesota for less than 24 hours, landing last night and catching a flight right after the second service. He speaks again tomorrow night in Portland, Oregon and the next night in Seattle. In fact, his touring schedule would put just about any rock and roll band to shame.

McKibben has a new book out, which also explains the furious tour. It’s called “Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet” (the second “a” in “Eaarth” is not a typo, the author said to “channel your inner-Schwarzenegger” when pronouncing it).

Wooded pasture

Our friends Brian and Rachel joined us for the service and we had breakfast afterward, then Katie and Rachel left to do some “crafting” and Brian and I ran an errand or two and then went back to our house, where we had a few cups of Oolong tea and played a game of chess. The sun was spilling in the bay window and the view to the lake was starting to be obscured by the burgeoning green on the trees.

We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves and the beautiful afternoon and decided to try to the samurai method we had been discussing earlier, which was that any major decision can and should be made in the length of time it takes to drink a cup of tea. We had a few cups of tea–I recently read that Oolong is considered to be best after three or four steepings (it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true!)–and considered our options as we played.

Red pines on the banks of a lake

We talked about the game a bit, again visiting on the idea that it is so enjoyable and endlessly complex, and also that it is a perfect distillment of war. But later I got thinking and realized it’s completely inaccurate in regards to war because in chess, the two sides start out perfectly equal, as far as numbers of soldiers, equipment, and resources.

What war has ever been fought between two perfectly equal forces? Underdogs can and often do win, but the very imbalance of the opposing forces and how their leaders respond to their own and their enemy’s strengths and weakness is the true test of a strategic mind.

Birch tree branches and pale spring leavespale

About the time we were drinking our third cup of tea and finishing up the game, I decided that some part of me wanted to get into Wisconsin. We packed up the dog and some provisions and pointed the car east. The iPod provided the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and lots more, but the music had to compete with the wind rushing in open sunroof and windows.

When we crossed the St. Croix, I figured out where I wanted to go and we navigated to a little county park with a lake where we had gone to swim and canoe and fish a few times in the past.

Speed limit 10 mph sign with wooded bluff in the background

The gate was locked across the road when we got the park, but that actually proved to be fortunate. There were a few other cars parked there so we joined them and set off walking up the road and into the park. It’s not a big park and if we’d driven in we might not have gotten much of a walk. And, in this season of so many ticks, walking on the road was frankly sort of relieving.

The road climbed a big hill through dry grassy hills and I felt like we were walking in some parks I remember in western North Dakota. Lola ran ahead, checking out the tops of the hills on both sides of us. After reaching the top, we were able to see the valley to our right where there were a couple horse farms nestled in between the ridges and not much else around. It exceeded my arbitrary aesthetic standards. It looked like heaven, really.

A horse grazes on a Wisconsin farm with budding and blooming trees around it.

Although I thought we would just walk on the road down to the lake where Lola could swim, we spotted a trail that headed that way and decided to check it out. It was a beautiful trail which wound down the hill through woods, primarily planted red pine, which I can’t help having a fondness for.

The trail was beautifully-constructed; often it was inexplicably carpeted in moss. Rocks and timbers had been well-placed and erosion-preventing waterbars had been placed generously. The trail slowly cut down the hills sideways and soon, the lake began to appear shimmering through the woods. It is a cold, clear lake not open to motors and is home to stocked rainbow trout and the biggest largemouth bass I’ve ever caught.

Turquoise water in a Wisconsin lake

Down at the lake, Lola finally got to swim. She had been driving for the water from the moment it came in sight and one could feel her happiness when she finally plunged in.

There were some other folks fishing around a bend, but otherwise there was no one around. We took a break at a picnic table in the shade before heading back up and a loon splashed around on the lake and called one short call while we sat and watched the water.

Wooded hillsides

Perch Lake seen from above on a hill

A moss-covered hiking trail


2 thoughts on “Defined by life

  1. i’ve also been trying the samuri method of taking a cup of tea and using the time it takes to drink it to make decisions. so very nice!

    1. I know! I should have said, it was you of course who got me thinking about the idea. It really is a good way to make a decision, both for the time limit and for the good frame of mind that having a cup of tea puts you in.

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