[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I’ve been a fan of Bill McKibben’s writings for close to 30 years. That doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with, or even enjoyed, everything this endlessly prolific journalist-environmentalist-activist-pundit-essayist has produced over the decades (he’s had at least a couple of complete misses, in my opinion). But when, back in April, I heard he was returning to Wichita, KS, to promote his latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Finally Begun to Play Itself Out? at one of our delightful local bookstores, Watermark Books & Cafe, I knew it was a presentation I couldn’t miss. Though Falter, and the case McKibben made both for and in that book, isn’t one I’m likely to be madly repeating or repeatedly recommending to my students or others, I’m glad I was there.

Like plenty of folks who recognize–whether for reasons scientific or spiritual or social or all three–the environmentally and culturally destructive consequences of modernity’s relentless insistence upon economic and technological expansion, my relationship with McKibben’s (usually) thoughtful writing began with The End of Nature, his short and, I think, profoundly eye-opening extended essay from 30 years ago. Long before anyone, so far as I know, was using terms like “the Anthropocene,” McKibben was presciently leading his readers–like myself, an early 90s college student, someone with little scientific knowledge and only a small sense of how important terms like “community” and “sustainability” would eventually become in my life–through an argument about how the post-WWII human impact upon the climate, the oceans, and the soil, is both greater and more lasting than any previous human intervention. It was, and remains, a beautiful book: “When I say that we have ended nature, I don’t mean, obviously, that natural processes have ceased–there is still sunshine and still wind, still growth, still decay. Photosynthesis continues, as does respiration. But we have ended the thing that has, at least in modern times, defined nature for us–its separation from human society” (The End of Nature, Anchor Books, 2nd ed. [1999], p. 64). The hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere, the hundreds of millions of tons of industrial fertilizer we have put into our farmlands and watersheds: all of it was then warping, and today continues to warp, ecological processes which had evolved over billions of years in a direction reflective of humanity’s most short-term and utilitarian preferences. And as for the better human interactions with those natural processes–practices by which humans had been able, in a less expansive and technological era, to become (to quote Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson) “native to their place”? They were being warped, being made crude, short-term, and technological, too.

Someone familiar with these arguments as they have played out over the decades might notice an imperfect fit here, and they wouldn’t be wrong. McKibben and Berry and Jackson all recognize each other as compatriots in the effort to articulate a more sustainable and local way of life, one that is disconnected from the rat race of endless growth and change. Their mutual admiration is well documented. And yet, the place (both geographically and metaphorically) that McKibben is native to is one very different from the agricultural environs and mentality which grounds the reflections of thinkers like Berry and Jackson. McKibben is a Vermont writer, a mountain-climber and a cross-country skier, an organizer of protests across the nation and reporting expeditions around the globe; his adoration for, and his mourning for, nature is grounded not in husbandry but in observation. That is, of course, one of the reasons he has the readership he has: he can take his readers, as he does in Falter, from Alberta’s tar sands to Greenland’s melting glaciers to the accidentally protected (thanks to the land claimed by Kennedy Space Center) sand dunes along the Florida coast and take it in as a reporter, an admirer, a visitor–which is, of course, all the most of us will ever be.

I don’t put this forward as a criticism, but rather as a way of appreciating what McKibben has accomplished with his activism and arguments, while also noting what he, perhaps, can only occasionally authentically grasp. Falter is a fine book, with typically lyrical writing and sharp observations. In my judgment, though, it stumbles occasionally. Much of the anticipation over the book was due to it presenting itself, in part, as an update to The End of Nature, a reflection on the gains and losses of the argument which McKibben, as much as anyone, started 30 years ago. McKibben does not disappoint on this score: the first section of the book, “The Size of the Board,” is unsparing (and sometimes uncomfortably earnest) in its description of the complex, entwined environmental, economic, and political crises which rising ocean temperatures, increasing weather extremes, and local ecosystem collapses present us with in 2019. But in the middle portion of the book, McKibben’s thoughts lead him in different directions.

First, he takes us through a long polemic against the Koch brothers and a handful of other oil company executives, libertarian economists, and Republican politician whom he holds all but solely responsible for the relative lack of action on climate change over the past 30 years. (I have no problem with the targets he’s chosen, but am less than thrilled by the simplistic–and sometimes unsupportable*–ways in which he assumes that choices by big money actors automatically control all electoral contests.) Next, he turns to a fascinating excursion through genetic engineering, transhumanism, and other obsessions of the Silicon Valley elite. This is great stuff–and includes many arguments that, in a world with a fierce and well-funded race to perfect in vitro, gene splicing, and AI technologies, deserve a more thorough theoretical unpacking. How it all connects to the “faltering” of the human game is, unfortunately, only inconsistently made clear.

What McKibben needs–and, to be fair, the book’s wonderful concluding section, “An Outside Chance,” occasionally provides it–is a strong argument about what human being is. Nature and wildness, community and connection, and a sense of both physical and temporal space (and hence an acknowledgement of the limits inherent to such)–all are necessary components of a flourishing human existence; that his writing makes, in my view, a strongly persuasive case for. But how to tie it together, such that it makes sense to say that, in the face of all of the above, the “human game” is “playing itself out”? That’s a deeper theoretical project, one that McKibben, an inveterate observer and experimenter and writer, perhaps can only gesture towards. That’s no small thing, to be sure–and when your gestures are as striking and thoughtful as McKibben’s often are, then his valued role as a much-needed seeder and agitator of ideas is assured.

Two gestures–just random implications that struck me as I worked through his thoughtful sentences–of McKibben’s stand out most particularly to me. One has to do with technology; the second has to do with scale. The first is rooted in “obsolescence,” and how that fact is reflected in both our destructive (and only partly unknowing) efforts to transform the planet into a simple source of energy extraction, and in the modern obsession with technological and genetic improvement. In both cases, we can see, at bottom, the desire to make other people, other things, and even ourselves and our immediate environs, into things that can be controlled, used, reliably replicated…and then, presumably, disposed of.

Current humans have changed so little over the millennia that, say, Stonehenge still makes us feel something. It was created by creatures genetically very much like us, creatures who processed dopamine the same way we do. They are much more like us than our grandchildren would be, should be go down [the designer baby] path. But those modified grandchildren will also no longer be really related to their future….When we engineer and design, we turn people into a form of technology, and obsolescence is an utterly predictable feature of every technology we’ve ever seen…The randomnness of our current genetic inheritance allows each of us a certain mental freedom from determinism, but that freedom disappears the day we understand ourselves [or, I would add, our natural environment] to be, in essence, a product (pp. 170-172).

McKibben, perhaps to his discredit, has never really been any kind of Luddite; he recognizes the arguments against invasive technologies, but he’s always liked his doo-dads and toys. Still, here he has stumbled upon something important–the fact that there is a freedom which is lost when one puts one’s lifestyle, or indeed one’s very life, on the technological treadmill. The freedom I’m talking about is one that McKibben, good liberal Methodist that he is, would quickly recognize: the freedom of knowing, and disciplining oneself to, the truths of creation, and finding an open-ended space of meaningful action therein. To get off that treadmill, and save that freedom, one could see McKibben as calling for, shall we say, “counter-technologies.” He focuses on the possibility of solar energy (the cost and capacities of which are improving every year) to liberate us from corporate energy dominance, and non-violent resistant (such as McKibben, through his organization 350.org, has been able to use, sometimes even successfully) to liberate us from corporate financial and political dominance. An odd duo, to be sure. But in the language of his reflections, their potential to free us from looming disposability, from the sense of the “inevitability” of the warped systems around us which Wendell Berry has rightly condemned, make sense: “Solar energy and nonviolence are technologies less of expansion than of repair, less of growth than of consolidation, less of disruption than of healing. They posit that we’ve grown powerful enough as a species, and that the job now is to make sure that that power is shared and controlled” (p. 226).

To gesture towards humankind as a species that has “grown powerful enough” is to bring us to his other vital, if insufficiently explored, idea, and that is scale. (Though to be fair, McKibben has written a whole book which revolves around the subject before–it’s his best book, I think, one that I’ve used often.) Obsolescence–and the short-cuts, expediencies, and conveniences which it is the inevitable end point of–often feels forced upon us by the systems and expectations that we can’t imagine managing a complex society without. That is not a flawed observation; complexity does produce its own relentless logics. So perhaps what we most need is to simplify, to retreat from connections that suck our paychecks, educational goals, military obligations, and most of all our hearts and minds, into the cult of Big and More:

If the only things you wanted in the world were efficiency and growth, then you’d scale things up–and we have: large corporations, large nations. But we’ve reached the point where size hinders as much as it helps, where it reduces the many ways the human game might be played down to just a few….[B]oth nonviolence and solar panels nudge us, at least a little, toward a smaller-scale world less obsessed with efficiency….We’ll have to fight to make sure this happens–that communities control their local energy sources, and that those sources are developed with everyone’s interests in mind–but at least it’s a possibility. Home, community, is the ground on which we can actually play the human game, and it is a false efficiency to undermine it….There a time and a place for growth, and a time and a place for maturity, for balance, for scale (pp. 231-233).

The problem which McKibben has been struggling with, on and off, for more than three decades is unlike any that we know of any human society having had to struggle with before. It is a problem rooted in our own perceptions, and the way our technologies and economies have (both metaphorically and literally) warped and shrunk our planet and its organic, created rhythms so thoroughly that we often can neither perceive or even perhaps conceive of what we have lost. No loss is total, of course; McKibben knows that (and, more over, knows that selling the apocalypse is the shortest short-term strategy of all). But just because nature–of some sort–continues, and human life–or some definition thereof–keeps on stumbling forward, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay close attention to what harms and losses we’re experiencing along the way. Whatever confusion or frustration or limitations attend McKibben’s writing, he’s always helped me see things worth seeing, and think things worth thinking. And I’m not alone in thinking that way–Wichita, KS, is hardly a haven for environmentalist, localist, anti-capitalist, small-c conservative thought, but his presence at Watermark brought the whole gang of us out; my only regret was that it was the end of the semester, and I couldn’t bring any students out to meet him. Fortunately, he’ll be back in Kansas next September, speaking at The Land Institute (under Wes Jackson’s kindly eye, no less!). I’ll be there, students in tow, hoping they, like me 30 years ago, will hear or read something that, even if they don’t fully agree with or appreciate it, will get them to think and see differently.

*For the problems with McKibben’s reliance upon Nancy MacLean’s screed against James Buchanan, public choice theory, and the supposed secret libertarian plot to destroy democracy, see here, here, and here.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I’m probably one of the very few people who actually have known Charles Koch (1973- ) AND Bill McKibben (2007). I agree with Charles’ libertarian principles and admire his company and influence. I recommend McKibben’s The End of Nature for raising serious questions about humankind’s influence on the planet, and the need for some limiting principle. However McKibben the lone, concerned thinker has been superseded by McKibben the polemicist and deluded mob leader (350.org), whose every utterance nowadays is designed to build political support for his undertakings. Hence his attack on the evil Koch brothers as the source of the Planet’s current ills, and his denial of scientific method and practice in embracing and perpetrating today’s climate propaganda deluge. When I raised (on stage) Svensberg’s experiment linking cosmic rays and cloud formation, since corroborated by CERN, Bill nearly shouted “science rejects that!!!” End of discussion. I was stunned. Bill reportedly told the late William Tucker that he couldn’t support nuclear energy, as James Hansen has, because “I’d lose half of my supporters”, you know he’s become a fake. It’s too bad – his original message still is important.

    • I strongly dissent from the idea that 350.org is a mob, or that McKibben is their deluded leader, John. Like every single pressure group or protest organization ever (whether they be for civil rights, against abortion, or anything else), there has no doubt been people associated with 350.org who have said or done things that are irrational or extreme, and initiatives launched by it which are ultimately more about brand-building than their actual stated cause, but such is the inevitable concomitant of mounting a popular campaign. The (limited) success that the campaign has had in regards to convincing many entities to divest themselves from oil and gas companies, and in regards to keeping the fight over the Keystone Pipeline in the news, are legitimate causes for praise, in my view. On the other hand, your anecdote about nuclear energy sounds unfortunately plausible, and as I note in my review, the best that can be said about his crusade against the supposed secret Koch cabal is that’s simplistic in the extreme. So you definitely have a few points here. (I’ve never met either of the Koch brothers, incidentally; it would be neat to do so, though admittedly the only thing more than a few of my friends would ask me is what I threw in their face.)

      • I find it humorous, and telling, that many people who despise the Koch’s are perfectly willing to give Soros a pass, and that the exact same thing is true in reverse.

  2. It’s not clear to me what the insufficiently radical part from the title is?

    I don’t take Bill seriously, but I do have a serious question maybe you can ask him next time you see him–why does he bother any more? By his own rhetoric of 20+ years ago, we’re way past the point of no return, and there’s no way to save the planet, so why keep going? Recall he didn’t just say things would be bad, and now we can make them better / less bad, he literally said civilization was doomed.

    Also, “joking” that your friends would ask you why you didn’t assault a public figure they disagree with politically isn’t really funny. Just sad.

    • This is an odd couple of comments, Brian.

      I do have a serious question maybe you can ask him next time you see him–why does he bother any more? By his own rhetoric of 20+ years ago, we’re way past the point of no return, and there’s no way to save the planet, so why keep going?

      But that’s not his own rhetoric, insofar as I can recall from having read quite a lot of his work over the years. Is it his belief that the damage done to the ecosystem is so great as to make it very unlikely that the natural operations of our planet will long continue to provide the living conditions which the human species has freely extracted and accommodated itself to over the past century and a half? Yes, absolutely. Does the above sentence equal “civilization is doomed”? I don’t how it can be taken to mean such, and the fact that he continues to write and campaign and protest on behalf of solar panels and ending oil dependency, etc., would seem to suggest to that would agree with me. Unless, of course, by “civilization” you exclusively mean “the petroleum-based, technology-enabled, socio-economic luxury and ease enjoyed by much of the world’s human population in 2019”? If so, then I suppose you may be right. In any case, since you’re certain he “literally” said that, please send me the relevant text; I’d be interested to read it.

      “joking” that your friends would ask you why you didn’t assault a public figure

      I don’t see how I was joking in my comment in response to John McClaughry; I was describing what some of my activist friends would almost certainly express as a wish, and as I think any reasonable parsing of the implied voice in that sentence would make clear, I don’t share their wishes.

      • 1. It’s hard to keep the various prophets of environmental apocalypse over the past few decades straight. McKibben and 350 always stood out to me for the stridency of their language. I don’t have at my fingertips any particular quote.
        2. I realize you weren’t attributing such urges to yourself, I didn’t say otherwise. Humor on the internet is hard. I was leaving it ambiguous on all sides if you were serious or not, the quotes were supposed to make clear that it wasn’t actually a joke though.

  3. From Ehrlich’s chiliastic “Population Bomb” in 1968, over half a century not one single prognostication by any AGW Catastrophist has proven less than 180 degrees off-target.

    By now, even the ludicrously agitprop UN IPCC is on multiple record as saying that, not only are their inanely simplistic “models” mere false fronts, but darkling in-groups’ intrinsic motivation is simply a One World communo-fascist globalist despotism designed explicitly to parasitze the many by the few. Anyone who doubts this should review the UEA’s “Climategate” transcripts by Phil Jones et al. from 2009… though Farnish, Schellhuber, McKibben came late to this party, they grunt-and-fuss as to the Manor born.

    Since late Pliocene times, plate tectonic continental dispositions walling off Eastern from Western hemispheres have engendered cyclical global Ice Ages averaging 102 kiloyears, interspersed with median 12,250-year interstadial remissions, for the first time since pre-Cambrian Ediacaran eras over 500-million YBP.

    Continental ice sheets vanished 14,400 YBP; skewed by the 1,500-year Younger Dryas “cold shock” (11,950 – 10,450 YBP), Earth’s latest Holocene Interglacial Epoch ended 12,250 + 3,500 – 14,400 = AD 1350. Precipitated by that year’s Kambalny strato-volcano eruption in Kamchatka, the subsequent 500-year Little Ice Age (LIA) ended 1850/1890, succeeded by a 140-year “amplitude compression” rebound due to end with the current 20-year chill-phase from AD 2010 to 2030.

    Now entering a 70+ year Grand Solar Minimum similar to that of 1645 – 1715, astro-geophysical patterns indicate that by c. AD 3500 or so, 40 – 60% of Planet Earth’s crop-growing habitable zones will lie beneath 2½ miles of continental ice-sheets analogous to Würmian glaciations prevailing from 116,400 to 14,400 YBP. Having willfully sabotaged humanity’s coal, oil, nuclear defenses against Great Winter, death-eating Luddite sociopaths have much to answer for.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here