We Are Living On Another Planet


Imagine we live on a planet. Not our cozy, taken-for-granted earth, but a planet, a real one, with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.

It’s hard. For the 10,000 years that constitute human civilisation, we’ve existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged; globally averaged, it’s swung in the narrowest of ranges, between 14.5 and 15.5 degrees Celsius. That’s warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centres of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plains and valleys year-round; it was the "correct" temperature for the marvellously diverse planet that seems right to us.

And every aspect of our civilisation reflects that particular world. We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitoes could not overwinter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and wheat can’t imagine another earth either.

Occasionally, in one place or another, there’s an abrupt departure from the norm — a hurricane, a drought, a freeze. But our very language reflects their rarity: freak storms, disturbances.

In December 1968 we got the first real view of that stable, secure place. Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon, the astronauts busy photographing possible landing zones for the missions that would follow. On the fourth orbit, Commander Frank Borman decided to roll the craft away from the moon and tilt its windows toward the horizon — he needed a navigational fix. What he got, instead, was a sudden view of the Earth, rising. "Oh my God," he said. "Here’s the Earth coming up." Crew member Bill Anders grabbed a camera and took the photograph that became the iconic image perhaps of all time. "Earthrise," as it was eventually known, that picture of a blue-and-white marble floating amid the vast backdrop of space, set against the barren edge of the lifeless moon.

Borman said later that it was "the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any colour to it. Everything else was simply black or white. But not the Earth."

The third member of the crew, Jim Lovell, put it more simply: the Earth, he said, suddenly appeared as "a grand oasis". But we no longer live on that planet.

In the four decades since, that Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has — even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth. Or Monnde, or Tierrre, Errde, оккучивать.

It still looks familiar enough — we’re still the third rock out from the sun, still three-quarters water. Gravity still pertains; we’re still Earth-like. But it’s odd enough to constantly remind us how profoundly we’ve altered the only place we’ve ever known. I am aware, of course, that the Earth changes constantly, and that occasionally it changes wildly, as when an asteroid strikes or an ice age relaxes its grip. This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on a par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.

The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed.

The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the Earth’s surface, are distinctly more acid and their level is rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful. The vast inland glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, and the giant snowpack of the American West, are melting very fast, and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle.

The great rainforest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great store houses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than full.

Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the 10,000 years of human civilisation. And some places with civilisations that date back thousand of years — the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Kiribati in the Pacific, and many other island nations — are actively preparing to lower their flags and evacuate their territory. The cedars of Lebanon — you can read about them in the Bible — are now listed as "heavily threatened" by climate change.

We have travelled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn’t. I know that I’m repeating myself. I’m repeating myself on purpose. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened. And the attempt to make it right usually makes things worse.

Sometimes the loops are almost comical. Versace is building a new hotel in Dubai, for instance, but the beach sand now gets so hot that guests burn their feet. Solution: a "refrigerated beach". As the hotel’s founder explained, "We will suck the heat out of the sand to keep it cool enough to lie on. This is the kind of luxury top people want."

Sometimes it’s not shake-your-head funny but almost unavoidable. As more and more of Australia desertifies, the country could find itself "using 400 per cent more energy to supply its drinking water by 2030 if the policy trend towards seawater desalination were to continue".

And often — usually in the poor world — it’s simply tragic. "Drinking water in Bangladesh is often full of salt as rising sea levels force water further inland," a Dhaka newspaper reporter wrote recently. That means women have to trek ever farther for a pitcher of clean water — sometimes several trips of several miles a day. "Some reports claim women and adolescent girls no longer have enough time and energy to carry out household duties like cooking, bathing, washing clothes and taking care of the elderly and infirm. It is even affecting their marriage prospects and family lives. Families who struggle to get clean water don’t want daughters to leave their homes and marry elsewhere." Adolescent girls forced to drink increasingly saline water found their skin was "turning rough and unattractive", and "men from outside the area had no interest in marrying them."

That’s life on our new planet. That’s where we live now.

This is an edited extract from Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, published by Black Inc. Bill McKibben is speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week.

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