Interview: How Our Economy is Killing the Earth

The outer ring of suburbs is already in huge trouble. I think that many of the inner suburbs will do well because they are places that have held their value and are on rail lines and commuter lines. My guess is that we'll see a lot of experimentation with people growing something other than grass on their lawns.

I was in Ann Arbor the other day, and people were completely excited about putting up front-yard, raised-bed gardens throughout one neighborhood after another. Suburbia also has a lot of rooftops. And that's one of the places where we're going to find our power.

With you have done a lot of lobbying and advocacy in Washington. Do you feel there's a growing understanding of these issues in Congress?

No, I don't. I feel that we are losing on the most important issues in Congress, and I think the reason is that we haven't built a big enough, powerful enough movement to demand change. We're seeing next to no coherent action on climate change. If any kind of bill emerges, it's going to be a very watered-down and tepid one.

At a certain level you can blame all the senators and representatives for it, but I think it's also fair to blame those of us who care about this issue—because we haven't built the kind of political power that we should. We assumed that because scientists had said the world was coming to an end that that would be enough to motivate our political system to act.

As it turns out, that's not how politics works. You need to meet power with power. We're never going to compete in terms of money; the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable enterprise humans have ever undertaken. So we're going to have to compete with bodies and with spirit and with creativity.

I'd be remiss not to ask your response to the ongoing disaster in the Gulf.

For us, it's a real contradiction to be talking about taking on the climate challenge at the same time as you're talking about searching out ever more hydrocarbons in ever more difficult places. We didn't anticipate the Deepwater Horizon spill, of course, but it certainly proves the point. There are two things to take away from it.

Number one, how desperate we are for energy right now, drilling for oil a mile beneath the surface of the earth. It shows we have run out of the last drops of easy oil on this planet.

Number two, we can directly see the damage the oil is doing to the environment now because the water is turning black. But the Gulf, and every other ocean on earth, is also already 30 percent more acidic from absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Even if that oil had made it to shore and into the gas tanks of our cars, it still would have done huge environmental damage.

In Hot, Flat and Crowded, Tom Friedman calls for a "green revolution" not just to help the environment, but the economy—with new industries, new technologies, and many new green collar jobs. What's your take on that?

Some of it is real—as I say in the book I'm all for pursuing it. But it's folly to just pull the internal combustion engine out of the machine, toss in a wind turbine, and keep rolling on as before. I think there are more systemic and profound changes coming.

I think it's going to be a tough stretch—for many reasons, including the fact that global warming just keeps happening faster and faster. In the last six weeks we've set new, all-time high-temperature records for seven different nations around the world. We were talking with our organizers in Pakistan on a day when the mercury hit 129ºF, an all-time Asia record. This is happening very, very quickly, and we don't have generations in which to transform the world. We need to get to work in every way that we can think of right now.

Maybe I've seen too many movies set in a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has had to return to its agrarian, muscle-powered past. But isn't Eaarth's vision of where we're headed in some ways dystopian?

I think it's quite possible that we could be headed for a serious collapse if we don't get to work right away. I don't think there's any reason to think that civilizations can cope with a temperature increase of 4º or 5º or 6º—the 1º we've done so far is straining us in huge ways. But I do my best to outline what kind of world might work, within limits. I think it is more agrarian than the one we have now; I don't think we're going to have 1 percent of our population producing our food—that number will go up.

I also think that that world can be considerably sweeter than the one we live in. At the moment if we're both lucky and alive, as we move towards a world that values community, that values relationship ahead of consumption, we'll find some benefits to counteract the very real losses we'll encounter along the way.

Presented by

Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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