Book Review of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben

Glen T. Martin

This thoughtful and very interesting book by a leading environmental activist is well worth reading. Besides accurately describing the climate crisis leading to a likely pending collapse of human civilization, Bill McKibben introduces important themes not much found in the literature on the environmental crisis. These themes include the cult of Ayn Rand individualism among the superrich, the development of super-intelligent computers that might replace humans, and the breakthroughs in genetic engineering that may point to actually designing future human beings.

Part One of this review will discuss what I take to be the main points of McKibben’s well-written book. It will necessarily omit much of the rich detail that makes this book so interesting and will focus on the main points brought up in each section of the book. Part Two will attempt a critical assessment of the book with an eye to the question of paradigm-shift and its relation to the need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Part One

McKibben divides his book into four parts relating to his overall theme of “the human game” which may at present be playing itself out. Part One is called “The Size of the Board.” Part Two is called “Leverage.” Part Three: “The Name of the Game,” and Part Four: “An Outside Chance.” In the first part, he describes some of the many horrific disasters that are happening around the world. While the dominant idea continues to be the “idea of progress”: thinking that the size of the board on which the human game is played can be continually increased. Reality has it that the board is in fact shrinking:

In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark “warning to humanity.” [Like the proponents of progress] they had charts, but theirs depicted everything from the decline in freshwater per person to the spread of anaerobic “dead zones” in the world’s seas. As a result, the scientists predicted, we face “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”; soon, they added, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with “persistent declining trends in productivity”…. There are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970…. The planet’s oldest and largest trees are dying fast. (pp. 11-12)

The list of the calamities depicted here, of course, goes on and on, and the next several chapters of this book mention many of them. We are threatened not only by large scale nuclear war, or destruction of the ozone layer, but also by relentless climate change: “perhaps the greatest of all these challenges” (p. 21).  The planet’s hydrology is changing, vastly drying up some regions while massive flooding and torrential rains occur in others.

And “as land dries out, it often burns” (p. 24).  McKibben cites the astonishing and unprecedented fires in California from 1987 to the present, the burning of vast regions of Siberia (and today, after this book was published, we have reports of hundreds of vast fires in the Amazon basin, threatening the vital “lungs of the Earth”).  These fires, destroying the very forests that we need to survive, like the unspeakable force of torrential rains now falling with the increased super-storms, are impossible to fight.  Melting ice and permafrost activate “feedback loops” that impel the climate past tipping points from which it is impossible to return. “This is our reality right now. It will get worse, but it’s already very, very bad” (pp. 25-33).

McKibben goes on to describe the past massive geological extinctions that have occurred in the billions of years of the existence of life on Earth. The conditions under which ours is happening are worse than most of the previous ones. The difference is that we are the geological force responsible for the current destruction. The Holocene geological period of the past 10,000 years provided humans with a fairly stable climate with which to develop civilization and spread throughout the Earth. But geologists have renamed our current period the “Anthropocene” because we are now the geological force changing the climate.

He goes on to describe the record temperatures now being recorded across the globe, in India, China, the US, Canada, Australia, Iran, the Person Gulf, Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam—virtually everywhere. He describes the rising oceans and their effects on coastal areas worldwide.  McKibben then turns to the politics of climate change. The basic principle of which is that “We literally don’t want to hear about it” (p. 67).

The entire global economy is based on burning fossil fuels.  President Obama turned to fracking in the US because this increased energy independence and because gas burns cleaner than coal or oil.  But scientists soon found that a certain small portion of the gas inevitably leaked from the processes of mining and transporting methane gas. And this leaked gas “traps heat in the atmosphere about eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide” (p. 68). We simply don’t want to hear about it.

Politicians (like President Obama) are “elected to run a political and economic system based on endless growth.” Similarly, Canada contains one of the two largest deposits of tar sands on Earth. “In the spring of 2017, [Canadian Prime Minister] Trudeau told a cheering group of Houston oilmen that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there” (p. 70). We simply don’t want to hear about it.

It’s not a good sign that the largest physical structures on our planet, its ice caps and barrier reefs and rain forests, are disappearing before our eyes.  So: problem from hell. Governments prefer to evade it. Human psychology is not designed to cope with it. It’s happening too fast. (p. 70). 

Part Two of the book is called “Leverage.” In this part, the next few chapters go into the cover-up of the problem by multinationals Exxon and Shell and many other powerful corporations. Their scientists told them clearly early on about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate, but they intentionally covered this up and mounted a multi-million dollar campaign designed to emphasize doubt about climate science. “Thus began the most consequential lie in human history” (p. 76).  He describes this process and its influence on governments in the US through the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations.

For much of Part Two, McKibben traces the influence of the novels of Ayn Rand on the political, economic, and corporate oligarchs of the United States. The basic principle of Ayn Rand’s writings is simple: “Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft.” He quotes her as saying “all codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people” (p. 91-92).

He traces the impact of Rand specifically through a number of these oligarchs such as Tom Perkins (one of the richest men on the planet), to the Koch brothers, Charles and David (heads of a vast economic empire), to US Senator Mitt Romney, to Rupert Murdock (media mogul and owner of the infamous Fox News Corporation), to senior officials in the current Trump administration (including Trump himself), to the CEO billionaires who run the High-tech empires out of Silicon Valley in California.

Part Three is called “The Name of the Game.”  Of the many books coming out on the climate crisis, this book is unique in that it delves into two technological breakthrough phenomena that open possibilities for the future of humanity that are deeply problematic.  These are, first, the super-computer revolution portending future computers that may be smarter than humans and might conceivably replace humans. Second, there are the breakthroughs in genetic engineering that now allow human beings to genetically design new human beings that are being born.

These chapters are very interesting, and they raise the same fundamental question raised by the book itself: what is “humanness”?   How can we find meaning in being human within a sustainable world with maturity, intelligence, and love without destroying what we are through perpetual climate changing economic growth, through attempting to replace ourselves with computer robots, or through attempting to design better human beings by means of genetic engineering.  Part Four, called “An Outside Chance,” asks the question whether we can alter our current trajectory in all three of these areas. The possibilities do not inspire optimism, but there is still some hope.

Part Two

Bill McKibben focuses on resistance and maturity at the end of his book. The book describes very well the immense juggernaut impelling civilization forward toward collapse and total human disaster. The movement of resistance has grown, in part due to McKibben’s own efforts and those of the organization he helped found, 350.org.  However, the juggernaut of wealth, power, and institutional inertia has not been slowed and it may not be possible to stop it before the human game falters for good. That is why Part Four of the book is called “an outside chance.”  It does not look good, but there is still a chance: “we have yet to turn the tide” (p. 191).

There are “two new technologies” that might turn the tide and give civilization the chance to survive: “One is the solar panel and the other is the nonviolent movement.”  To make effective use of the nonviolent movement means that we must overcome the libertarian idea that somehow freedom means that only I matter. We must realize, with one thinker he quotes, that “moral enhancement of a person does not restrict freedom” (p. 201). Moral enhancement means we need to stand with others to protect the human game and to reduce inequality and suffering.

The price of solar panels is dropping, and they are being installed in places like Ghana in West Africa, making a huge difference in people’s lives. Clean energy through wind and solar must be an essential factor in avoiding planetary scale climate disaster: “The latest studies, from labs such as Mark Jacobson’s at Stanford, make clear that every major nation on earth could be supplying 80 percent of its power from renewables by 2030, at prices far cheaper than paying the damage for climate change.” We also, of course, need to “eat lower on the food chain, build public transit networks, densify cities, and start farming in ways that restore carbon to soils” (p. 211). We have the technical capacity to make the transition. The only limiting factor is “political will.”

McKibben mentions the legacy of thought about nonviolence from Henry David Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. He means by “nonviolence” not just acts of resistance but “building mass movements whose goal is to change the zeitgeist and, hence, the course of history.” It is also “the method by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few” for “the fight over climate change is ultimately not an argument about infrared absorption in the atmosphere, but about power and money and justice” (pp. 219-20).

As Naomi Klein has said, if we can’t get a serious carbon tax from a corrupted Congress, we can impose a defacto one with our bodies. And in so doing, we buy time for the renewables industry to expand—maybe even fast enough to catch up a little with the physics of global warming… In the early summer of 2018, Pope Francis used precisely the language we’d pioneered in that fight: most oil, gas, and coal, he said, needed to “stay underground.” We’d begun to change the zeitgeist, which is the reason we’d gone to work in the first place…. Anyone who thinks that time is therefore on the side of the oil companies is reading history wrong. This movement will win (though, as we’ve seen, it many not win in time). (pp. 222-24)

In this closing section on our “outside chance” for having a future on this planet, Bill McKibben speaks of solar energy and nonviolence as “technologies less of expansion than of repair, less of growth than of consolidation, less of disruption than of healing” (p.226).  He goes on to discuss the ideas of maturity, balance, and scale.  We need the maturity of being able to see what we are now doing and understand that we have the amazing power to stop it, and not do it. As Pope Francis said, we can keep it underground. We can also not replace humans with computers and not begin making designer babies.

We need to “balance” our right-wing ideologies with “structures” that make fraternity real: “labor unions, voting rights, and a social safety net” (p. 230). Finally, we need proper scale to counterbalance the obsessions with efficiency and growth.  We need to slow things down: “Taken all together, the results suggest that instead of dreaming about utopia, we should be fixated on keeping dystopia at bay” (p. 235).

McKibben’s “epilogue” contrasts the space program at Cape Canaveral with the surrounding beach and wildlife protection area where it is located.  Instead of shooting for the stars, or other planets, as if this could somehow save us, we need to be protecting this “unbearably beautiful planet.” We should be loving our planet and its people to feed the hungry, to protect sea turtles and sea ice, to welcome newborns into the world and surround the old when they are passing on.  The human game, is, and can be “graceful and compelling,” and it is only our love of it that will allow us to save it (p. 296).

His appeal concerning the ways we can resist and change the course of things is moving and deeply humanistic. But is it really a change in the zeitgeist?   If he means by “zeitgeist” the spirit of radical individualism and the Ayn Rand orientation of power, domination, and egoism, then perhaps these recommendations do somewhat address changing the zeitgeist in this sense. But the outdated zeitgeist that must be changed and the emerging transformed zeitgeist go much deeper.  Solar panels and the nonviolence movement are only two components of fundamental paradigm-shift that must take place from fragmentation to holism. Perhaps, we indeed must envision and work on behalf of a realizable practical utopia.

This book, for example, contains no structural analysis of capitalism. Neither does it contain any systematic critique of the dominant world system of sovereign nation-states interfaced with global capitalism. There is no discussion of “paradigm-shift”—the need to shift from an outdated paradigm from which capitalism and nation-states derived that included atomism, determinism, positivism, and moral nihilism (all features of the Ayn Rand arrogance of today’s superrich oligarchs).  There is no real discussion of the emerging contemporary paradigm of holism, ontological freedom, the reintegration of fact and value, or moral universalism. (Some of the books in the Bibliography below provide a fuller analysis of these phenomena.)

This book, while full of interesting and valuable details and insights, does not give us the tools necessary to develop a truly new zeitgeist, to accomplish the truly deep paradigm shift necessary for human survival and flourishing.  The egoism and destructive individualism of our superrich ruling class is not independent of the system itself, which empowers and produces them. The entire world system, composed of militarized sovereign nations and ruthless multinational capitalist corporations, must be transformed. No combination of the nonviolence movement with economically viable solar panels will suffice.

It is not that maturity, balance, scale, and love are out of place. It is rather that the world system as we now know it defeats these qualities, producing instead nationalism, dogmatism, egoism, and nihilism, even among the marginalized and desperate poor (as the “Trump follower” phenomenon clearly shows). Truly realizing what Mahatma Gandhi called “Truth” or what Buckminster Fuller called “Universal Mind,” that is, truly changing the zeitgeist, requires fundamental world system change. Einstein said we must learn to think in an entirely new way as citizens of “one world.” This is the role of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Erich Fromm declared that real change in human institutions would precipitate a corresponding change in human consciousness.

The Earth Constitution is therefore both means and ends. Its holism brings all humans together to solve our truly global problems, something sovereign nation-states find almost impossible to do. It sets up the institutional mechanisms for a democratic global economy that works for everybody, and a comprehensive environmental program in which all nations and persons are on the same page. It inspires loyalty to the Earth and future generations, something that the present system demanding quarterly profits for corporations or “patriotism” toward nation-states cannot possibly accomplish.

The new zeitgeist must be worldcentric, free of dogmatism, selfless in the sense of agape or karuna (Christian love or Buddhist compassion), and it must be grounded in truly universal moral truths.  The Earth Constitution represents the institutional transformation most closely correlated to the transformation of human consciousness. The idea that nonviolent resistance can slow down the juggernaut enough for solar panels to cover the globe will not save our planet. The idea of universal human solidarity under a truly humanistic global political and economic system, one mandated to end war and ensure sustainability for the entire planet, will alone be sufficient to preserve, enhance, and fulfill the human game.

Like so many climate change environmentalists, McKibben appears to accept the nation-state system without question.  Like so many of them, he focuses on politics within the United States as if the rest of the world would simply follow suit if we could only get things right within the US. One of the threats to existence that he identifies is nuclear holocaust, but he never appears to realize that the threat of nuclear holocaust is a consequence of a world divided into competing sovereign states, that it can only really be effectively addressed through enforceable democratic world law.

This book by Bill McKibben appears to have no awareness of these essential features of a truly transformed zeitgeist as embodied in the Earth Constitution. The book represents a thoughtful maturity within the present system but not the new global zeitgeist that is imperative if there is to be a future for humanity. The Earth Constitution protects by enforceable law all the things that Bill McKibben wants, and it gives us the institutional and technological mechanisms to make it happen. If we do not want the human game to falter and fail, ratifying the Earth Constitution should be our fundamental objective.

 

Brief Bibliography

 

Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World-Economy. Updated Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Roman & Littlefield Publishers.

Chossudovsky, Michel and Andrew Gavin Marshall, eds. Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century. Montreal, Canada: Global Research.

Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Finnis, John (1980). Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Foster, John Bellamy, et. al. (2010). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Harris, Errol E. (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Kovel, Joel (2007). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World. London: Zed Books.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Martin, Glen T. (2011). The Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.  The Constitution can be found on-line at www.earth-constitution.org.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation.

McKibben, Bill (2019). Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? New York: Henry Holt and Company.