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Is Silicon Valley a threat to humanity?

In his new book, pioneering environmentalist Bill McKibben sounds the alarm on technology's role in our extinction

Journalist and activist Bill McKibben has been writing about climate change longer than the vast majority of inhabitants of the planet have been aware of the issue.

In 1989, McKibben's "The End of Nature" was the first book for a popular audience to address the topic of what was then called "the greenhouse effect." Since then, the former New Yorker staff writer has written more than a dozen books (including one novel), and helped found the grassroots climate activist organization 350.org.

McKibben's new book, "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?," takes stock of how well humankind is coping with the effects of climate change. The resulting picture is far from encouraging. Arctic ice keeps melting, the oceans continue to rise and extreme weather -- from firestorms to hurricanes -- still spreads across the globe. Meanwhile, powerful new technologies threaten to strip people of their jobs and perhaps their humanity.

McKibben places blame for the sad state of affairs in many directions. McKibben takes aim at the climate change denialists, such as the Koch brothers and their libertarian networks that are known for lobbying against efforts to expand government's role in health care and combating global warming. He shows how the Koch brothers aren't shy about funneling billions of dollars into campaigns to convince people to vote against their own interests, especially when it comes to climate change.

But in "Falter," he concentrates some of his disdain for one author in particular, Ayn Rand, author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." A fanatical believer in the libertarian "rugged individualist" and an opponent of anything that could be construed as altruism, Rand espoused a system wherein kindness and compassion were for chumps.

He writes, "You could argue that the most important political philosopher of our time is the novelist Ayn Rand. Indeed, given the leverage of the present moment, leverage that is threatening to end the human game, you could argue that she's the most important philosopher of all time."

McKibben also turns his attention to artificial intelligence and bioengineering, not for what they might do to the environment, but how they might change the soul of humanity.

For example, in "Falter," he writes about Ray Kurzweil, a "director of engineering" at Google, whose transhumanist beliefs offer the possibility of uploading consciousness to a digital storage site.

Assuming such cyberpunkish aspirations ever come to fruition, McKibben asks what happens when smarter-than-human, disembodied intelligences become divorced from mortal concerns. On top of that scenario, McKibben also considers what might occur if the cheap and easy gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 suddenly begins to allow doctors to alter genes before birth to create physically superior offspring.

After doling out a heaping portion of doom and gloom, McKibben, a Gandhi Peace Prize Laureate, takes care in "Falter" to offer some hope for anyone who would like to see humanity survive for another century or more. "Falter" is a bracing call to arms, one that concerned readers ignore at their peril.

Asked what we've done to combat climate change in the three decades since the publication of "The End of Nature," McKibben said succinctly, "We've pretty much wasted them."

Readers will be happy to know that McKibben does perceive two possible escape hatches from our collective folly -- solar energy and nonviolent resistance.

Solar panels offer the rapid spread of renewable energy across the developing world, he argues.

As for resistance, he notes that 350.org has organized thousands of rallies around the world, demonstrating particular resistance to the Keystone Pipeline and facilitating the launch of a fossil fuel divestment movement. The organization is named for climate scientist James E. Hansen's contention that any atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million is unsafe. Concentration levels are now estimated to exceed 400 parts per million.

McKibben is a Methodist who especially appreciates the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He writes, "I believe, as I've said before, that nonviolence is one of the signal inventions of our time -- perhaps, if we are lucky, the innovation for which historians will most revere the twentieth century."

McKibben emphasizes that he operates as both an organizer and a reporter.

"I've ended up in a lot of places the last few years that let me tell stories, from Greenland to Africa and from all the places where I've been organizing. When I'm doing that, I always keep a notebook in my back pocket so I can do some reporting, too."

Some of that writing will likely emphasize the need for rapid, thoughtful responses to the monumental challenges ahead, a response not likely to come from the current Executive Branch in Washington.

"I've said before that climate change is a timed test, and we're running out of presidential cycles," McKibben said. "The idea that we would waste another four years in Trump World is almost too painful to imagine."

McKibben will appear at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Sunday, April 28, at 4 p.m.

The event is a homecoming of sorts. McKibben is a Palo Alto native, who now resides in Vermont. He spent many of his formative years in the Northeast, attending high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, and graduating from Harvard University. But his roots are in the West. His father, Gordon, a former business editor of the Boston Globe, had gone to Stanford and was editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily.

McKibben has few memories of his early years in Palo Alto, given his young age.

"My main memories of Palo Alto are my father (being) sad at the fact that the house he sold would've sold for 80 times as much 30 years later," he said.

Freelance writer Michael Berry can be emailed at mikeberry@mindspring.com.

What: Bill McKibben will speak about his new book "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?"

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real

Menlo Park.

When: 4-5:30 p.m., Sunday, April 28.

Cost: $15-$45.

Info: For more information, go to keplers.org.

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