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Falter by Bill McKibben
Social sciences

Falter

by Bill McKibben

Excellent choice

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Quick take

The end of the world is here. Read all about it.

Synopsis

Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking book The End of Nature—issued in dozens of languages and long regarded as a classic—was the first book to alert us to global warming. But the danger is broader than that: even as climate change shrinks the space where our civilization can exist, new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics threaten to bleach away the variety of human experience.

Falter tells the story of these converging trends and of the ideological fervor that keeps us from bringing them under control. And then, drawing on McKibben’s experience in building 350.org, the first truly global citizens movement to combat climate change, it offers some possible ways out of the trap. We’re at a bleak moment in human history—and we’ll either confront that bleakness or watch the civilization our forebears built slip away.

Falter is a powerful and sobering call to arms, to save not only our planet but also our humanity.

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Falter

Thirty years ago, in 1989, I wrote the first book for a wide audience on climate change—or, as we called it then, the greenhouse effect. As the title indicates, The End of Nature was not a cheerful book, and sadly its gloom has been vindicated. My basic point was that humans had so altered the planet that not an inch was beyond our reach, an idea that scientists underlined a decade later when they began referring to our era as the Anthropocene.

This volume is bleak as well—in some ways bleaker, because more time has passed and we are deeper in the hole. It offers an account of how the climate crisis has progressed and of the new technological developments in fields such as artificial intelligence that also seem to me to threaten a human future. Put simply, between ecological destruction and technological hubris, the human experiment is now in question. The stakes feel very high, and the odds very long, and the trends very ominous. So, I have no doubt that there are other books that would offer readers a merrier literary experience.

I know, too, that this bleakness cuts against the current literary grain. Recent years have seen the publication of a dozen high-profile books and a hundred TED talks devoted to the idea that everything in the world is steadily improving. They share not only a format (endless series of graphs showing centuries of decreasing infant mortality or rising income) but also a tone of perplexed exasperation that any thinking person could perceive the present moment as dark. As Steven Pinker, the author of the sanguine Enlightenment Now, explained, "None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become." People, he added, just "seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch."

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Why I love it

As an environmental journalist, I’m a connoisseur of bad news: Every day I read about how we’re exterminating wildlife, demolishing forests, and cooking the planet. It’s hard, sometimes, to balance realism with optimism, to retain faith in humanity while acknowledging our misdeeds. That’s why I’m grateful for Bill McKibben’s Falter, a book that manages the difficult trick of both terrifying readers and inspiring them. Never has our demise been so entertaining.

McKibben rose to prominence with his 1989 climate exposé The End of Nature; his latest work is about the end of us. At the moment, he admits, Homo sapiens are having a good run, blessed with declining rates of poverty and violent conflict. But climate change and its symptoms—heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires—are reversing social progress. Economic inequality threatens to unravel society, while Artificial Intelligence and gene editing may distort what it means to be human. Silicon Valley might finish us off, if fossil fuels don’t get us first.

That sounds bleak, but McKibben’s lively prose makes Falter a deeply engaging read, if not exactly a pleasurable one. And he offers two sources of solace: the proliferation of solar panels, which are providing carbon-free electricity to the masses; and the growing trend of climate activists protesting for a fairer, cooler future. Falter may not leave you hopeful, but it’s a bracing reminder that our species can’t go down without a fight.

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