Bill McKibben: The Making of an Environmentalist

Bill McKibben: The Making of an Environmentalist

Bill McKibben: The Making of an Environmentalist

Two new anthologies explore the virtues and occasional shortcomings of Bill McKibben’s quest for environmental salvation.



Winter is harsh in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, but black fly season–a six-week stretch in May and June–is even more pitiless. “Blackflies hover in a cloud about your face and move with you for miles, so great is their need for your warmth and company and blood,” observes Bill McKibben, who lived in the region for a number of years. The insects swarm on any sliver of exposed flesh. They crawl into ears, noses and mouths, leaving trails of bites in their wake.

Under siege from the flies, some towns have enlisted exterminators to treat larvae-infested streams with an organic pesticide. One year a petition calling for this measure circulated in Johnsburg, where McKibben lived. But he and some of his neighbors balked at signing it, even if they had trouble accounting for their qualms. McKibben ultimately arrived at this explanation: the black flies “remind me day after day in their season that I’m really not the center of the world, that I’m partly food, implicated in the crawl and creep of things.” The petition failed, and the annual plague continued.

This vignette goes a long way toward illuminating McKibben’s ethos. He reveres what is natural, even if he doesn’t like it. Indeed, he welcomes visceral reminders that the world is not designed to serve his interests. These reminders jolt him out of the solipsism he dislikes in himself and that he sees as rampant among Americans. For this he largely blames consumer culture, where, he notes, every commercial ingratiatingly addresses “you” and your pettiest desires. Rejection of the consumer mentality–which can prevail in the woods as well as at Wal-Mart–is central to McKibbenism. And yet, as any ascetic knows, renunciation can breed its own manner of self-indulgence, just as humility can engender pride. McKibben recognizes these ironies. “I consume inconvenience,” he writes in “Consuming Nature,” “turning it into a pleasurable commodity; it becomes the fuel for my own sense of superiority.”

The author of a dozen books and countless magazine articles, McKibben is ubiquitous on the sustainability scene–the go-to environmentalist for keynote speeches, forewords, blurbs and anthologies. He has now compiled a collection of selected work, The Bill McKibben Reader, and it reveals a writer whose environmentalism runs deeper than the mainstream versions he’s helped to inspire. The contemporary “green” resurgence is still largely limited to small-bore economic and personal adjustments–hybrid vehicles, cap-and-trade proposals, solar panels. McKibben’s environmentalism, by contrast, is essentially religious: a guiding set of beliefs about what humans owe to a sacred source of life.

Religious overtones are, of course, not unusual in environmentalism, as demonstrated by a splendid new anthology of American environmental writing McKibben has edited, American Earth. In “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” from 1867, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, describes his encounters with Yosemite Valley in a mood of unmistakable spiritual ecstasy, and always defers to nature’s perfection. Consider alligators, then reputed to be creatures of the devil. Muir, anticipating the “deep ecology” proponents who would deplore “anthropocentrism,” wrote, “Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God.” In “Huckleberries,” from 1861, Henry David Thoreau expresses a similar faith in nature, ascribing to it a divine form of wisdom and benevolence: “nature is doing her best each moment to make us well…. Do not resist her.”

Such devotion to nature often fosters distaste for human appetites and designs. Our environmental sins are gluttonous consumption and slothful convenience-worship. They take the shape of the roads carved through national parks, condemned by Edward Abbey; the dam built in the glorious Hetch Hetchy Valley, lamented by Muir; and the DDT poisoning birds, protested by Rachel Carson. But environmentalist creeds vary, just as theologies do. There have historically been at least two strands of thought in the ecological movement: one, exemplified by Muir and Abbey, worships wilderness; the other, represented by Wendell Berry, finds spiritual sustenance in the intimate cultivation of the land.

McKibben, who rightly includes in the anthology an excerpt from his first book, The End of Nature–the taut, slender volume he published in 1989–is sympathetic to both views. But he seems more instinctively drawn to the notion of nature as a sublime and mysterious force. Among McKibben’s sacred texts, alongside the UN’s IPCC reports and Thoreau’s essays, is the Bible, in particular the Book of Job. Responding to Job’s complaints and questions about his rotten fortune, God supplies a seeming non sequitur:

Who cuts a path for the thunderstorm
and carves a road for the rain–
to water the desolate wasteland,
the land where no man lives;
to make the wilderness blossom
and cover the desert with grass?

McKibben has called this vivid deflation of man’s self-importance the first piece of environmental writing. But he has realized with sorrow that God’s retort no longer obtains. “God’s unanswerable taunts to Job were suddenly–in my lifetime–turning into the empty boasts of an old geezer. ‘Were you there…when I closed in [the sea] with barriers and set its boundaries, saying “Here you may come but no farther; here shall your proud waves break.”‘ Job has to stand in humble silence, but not us,” McKibben wrote in a 1996 essay. Automobiles and airplanes and factories have triggered an upward creep in global temperatures, which has raised sea levels, violating those divinely ordained boundaries.

Starting with The End of Nature, which is considered to be the first book about global warming for a general audience, McKibben, with the obstinacy of an Old Testament prophet, has been urging our society to change its ways and foretelling doom if we do not. But he has also increasingly invoked redemption and moved from Muir’s emphasis on wilderness to a Berry-esque embrace of community and small-scale farming, although tensions remain between these two orientations.

McKibben is a journalist by profession, and there is also tension in his work–both fruitful and limiting–between the proselytizer and the sober-minded reporter. His commitment has driven his prodigious output, much of which is first-rate; all of his work is, in turn, in the service of promoting his values. It has resonated strongly with the growing number of readers who share those values–who crave community and simplicity and fear the disruptions of climate change. His writing offers wisdom, humor and intermittent poetry, but it promises about as many surprises as Sunday school.

Born in 1960, McKibben grew up, he recalls, “a good suburban child” with one brother. His parents, churchgoing Methodists, were among the “good liberal residents” who had moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, for the schools. Judging by his adjectives of choice, it was a wholesome, blessedly boring childhood.

This upbringing launched him into exceptional early success. He served as president of the Harvard Crimson, and after graduating in 1982, he landed a job as a staff writer at The New Yorker, contributing primarily “Talk of the Town” pieces. At the urging of his editor, William Shawn, he lived on the streets briefly for a piece about the homeless. On this assignment he met his wife, the gifted writer Sue Halpern, who was working as a homeless advocate at the time.

McKibben’s core values, which would be easily transposed onto environmentalism, were forged before he ever contemplated hugging a tree. In college and as a young man in New York City, he grappled with the incident in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus advises a supplicant, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” McKibben was disturbed by this counsel, for like the supplicant he was drawn to Jesus’ lesson but unable to submit to it. Eventually he arrived at what he considered a compromise: to lead an extremely frugal life and save his earnings. “In doing so I preserved both the option to do something heroic at a later date…and also the right to feel superior to my yuppie peers.” Once, while he was out, his apartment was robbed: the burglars tied up McKibben’s roommate, David, and made off with loads of David’s belongings. McKibben’s total losses, in his reckoning, came to two cardboard boxes. The crooks dumped his dirty laundry out of one box and his modest record collection out of another, and used them to tote away David’s computer and VCR.

Near the end of his tenure at The New Yorker–he quit when S.I. Newhouse bought the magazine in 1985 and fired Shawn–McKibben wrote a piece tracing the origins of the utilities in his apartment, such as water and electricity. Researching the article alerted him that even Manhattan, which had apparently trampled nature underfoot, was at its mercy all the same. Around this time, he spent six winter weeks at a writing retreat in the Adirondacks. Smitten with the landscape, he moved with Halpern to the region soon thereafter. Nearly every day he hiked in the woods outside his house. In the summer, he and his wife rode their bikes to a lake to swim most afternoons. The couple would also lug sleeping bags up a mountain for nights under the stars.

McKibben alludes to these idyllic scenes in The End of Nature, but at its core, the book is a dark tale of paradise poisoned. He never allows himself the forthright crankiness of, say, Thoreau. But this debut, much more than his later work, simmers with anger and grief. Having studied and absorbed the research about what was then called the “greenhouse effect,” he argued that since we had begun to alter the climate–an almost unfathomable thought at that time–we had destroyed nature, understood as a realm untouched by and more powerful than people. On hikes, he writes, he entered “a world apart from man.”

But once in a while someone will be cutting wood farther down the valley, and the snarl of a chain saw will fill the woods. It is harder on those days to get caught up in the timeless meaning of the forest, for man is nearby. The sound of the chain saw doesn’t blot out all the noises of the forest or drive the animals away, but it does drive away the feeling that you are in another, separate, timeless, wild sphere.
 Now that we have changed the most basic forces around us, the noise of that chain saw will always be in the woods.

At first blush, the thesis invites plenty of objections, most involving charges of hyperbole and the slippery semantics of nature. He had found nature in Con Ed’s steam plant on Seventy-fourth Street, after all. As one reviewer pointed out, we are not the first species to significantly affect the atmosphere: blue-green algae contributed to the air much of the oxygen that enabled the emergence of mammals. Another reviewer argued that global warming embodies the essence of nature, in which organisms are programmed to blindly pursue their self-interest. Successfully combating global warming, therefore, would cause the true, and welcome, end of nature and the triumph of human reason.

But McKibben had defined his terms clearly: he was referring, for the purposes of his argument, to nature as a historical human idea. The meaning of raindrops and sunlight on our backs would change, he wrote, because we would know that human activity had influenced them. His definition may have been reductive and sentimental, but it was potent for those very reasons. He captured the sick feeling evoked by a Budweiser can in the woods or a weirdly balmy January afternoon.

In the years since that dirge, the turmoil scientists foresaw has begun to materialize, more quickly than the most unnerving models projected. Those warm winter days scarcely warrant comment anymore–indeed, a very cold January is more likely to arouse surprise, if not a kind of indignation. Glaciers melt furiously as the Maldives sink. In the space of a couple of hurricane and Oscar seasons, global warming went from being the target of scoffs to the background din of twenty-first-century life–outside, on the radio, in overheard conversations, it’s inescapable. But this awareness has not yet produced an actual reduction in emissions, and the sense of urgency is harder to maintain than our driving habits.

McKibben, meanwhile, has sustained his urgency for twenty years. Like anyone in the persuasion business, he has had to decide what tactics and tone will best serve his message. The End of Nature elicited fear and sorrow. This may have been a reflection of his own mind-set as much as a strategic decision, but it was appropriate: he sought to convey that global warming was real and needed to be taken seriously. Now, the explicitly stated goal of his writing is to prompt action. He calls for a response at many levels, seeking to enlist government (international treaties, federal laws, state and city policies), technology (solar and wind energy but also, he concedes, maybe nuclear power) and, most crucial in his view, imagination to foster new habits, values and economies. Toward that end, he has sought to balance an emphasis on threats with a focus on the exciting potential to creatively address the problem and live richer lives in the process. In recent years, he’s been betting on the galvanizing powers of hope–invoking an organic, locally grown carrot, among other prospects–while always keeping the stick of droughts and underwater metropolises close at hand.

McKibben devotes his most vigorous advocacy to change at the individual and community levels. In Deep Economy, he applauds the farmers’ market, varieties of which have proliferated throughout the nation, growing from 340 in 1970 to 3,700 in 2004. They lead to tastier meals, reduced carbon emissions and stronger communities: he refers to research showing that shoppers have ten times as many conversations browsing these stalls than in supermarket aisles. Other local resources–for example, wood from local trees rather than faraway rainforests–yield multiple benefits as well. Not only does local sourcing eliminate the need for oil for transportation; it means that people think more and care more about resources as they become less abstract, McKibben writes.

Deep Economy succeeds as an inspiring and beautifully written manifesto for local economies and against the cult of economic growth. That said, McKibben occasionally skimps on analytical rigor. For example, he asserts that according to recent research, after a certain point material wealth fails to produce satisfaction: “In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and after that point the correlation disappears.” He cites one article in the endnotes to support this claim. Some readers will wish for more context and less breathlessness in his parroting of this rather arbitrary-seeming figure. Does this sum yield the same amount of happiness in Jakarta, Milwaukee and London? In a given place, does every person derive exactly the same number of smiles per dollar?

Dubious quantifications notwithstanding, McKibben’s argument essentially rings true; indeed, it’s based largely on the sensible economic principle of diminishing marginal returns. “We make these kinds of mistakes regularly,” he writes. “Two beers made me feel good, so ten beers will make me feel five times better.” In today’s America, a fourth television does seem rather less likely to improve quality of life than a modest increase in the amount of time spent chatting with neighbors. But even if this isn’t so, McKibben is always ready to reiterate, there’s the pesky fact that we have no choice–we have to change our consumption patterns or jeopardize our televisions and our neighbors.

Frustrated by the government’s inertia on climate change, McKibben has in recent years supplemented his writing with activism. He and some graduates of Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is a scholar in residence, spearheaded the grassroots Step It Up campaign. Since 2006, they have organized hundreds of Earth Day events throughout the country, demanding that Congress take measures to deeply cut greenhouse gas emissions. His new activist handbook, Fight Global Warming Now, another collaborative project with the Middlebury alums, is based on their experiences.

His turn toward activism has not been free of ambivalence. In “Speaking Up for the Environment,” from 2001, he tells the story of getting arrested in Washington for holding a sign in the Capitol Rotunda demanding environmental action. A group called the Alliance for Democracy planned the protest. The night before, its members gathered in a church basement to prepare and shared their hesitations. McKibben feared losing credibility as a writer. “Real, serious Writer Writers look on,” he notes. “They can hold strong opinions, write powerful op-eds, but they tell us what is happening, what should happen. They themselves aren’t supposed to ‘happen.'” But he concludes, “Without that kind of commitment, my writing life wouldn’t make much sense.”

Activism is the logical conclusion of the commitment that animates all of McKibben’s work. And while he seems drawn to journalism for other reasons, too–the rewards of research and of the craft of writing–these elements are plainly subordinate to, and sometimes tarnished by, his commitment. Like a politician on the stump, he has a limited repertory of talking points–we learn more than once in The Bill McKibben Reader that the average bite of food travels 1,500 miles from field to mouth and that three-quarters of Christians mistakenly believe the Bible contains the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.”

A capable stylist, McKibben is frequently clever and occasionally lyrical. But, perhaps because he is at times more focused on disseminating his message than on polishing it, some of his prose is exasperatingly imprecise. He too often relies on word repetition for emphasis, rather than searching for the most apt phrase. “When I say frugal, I mean frugal”; “sweet, sweet corn”; “way, way out.” Browsing a SkyMall catalog, he observes, “We’ve officially run out not only of things that we need, but even of things that we might plausibly desire.” Of course, we haven’t run out of such things: what he means is closer to the opposite. It may seem petty to point this out, but these tics and slips accumulate.

These shortcomings are most apparent in The Bill McKibben Reader. Ostensibly his greatest-hits collection, the volume is less impressive than a number of his books. Aside from the repetition and disproportionate sloppiness, this may be partly a matter of a McKibben overdose. After 400 pages, some readers will want to jettison their cars and plant zucchinis, but others may be possessed by the urge to buy imported bottled water and take an SUV joyride.

More charitably, the comparative weakness of the Reader may be explained in part by its inherent inability, as a collection of excerpts and magazine articles, to showcase McKibben’s gift for sustained argument. In his best books, McKibben embroiders his thesis with insights and anecdotes and bolsters it with statistics and studies. He has always united his wish to persuade with an allegiance to facts and a moderate tone. Following a visit to China, he acknowledged that its economic growth, alarming to many environmentalists, was making dramatic improvements in Chinese lives. Even The End of Nature, his most emotional book, was praised for its civility.

In the relationship between the reporter and the proselytizer, the former marshals evidence to support the latter and gains credibility when he strays from the party line. The collaboration between the two is one of his greatest strengths–his fervor spurs the legwork of reporting and the construction of a measured case. But it also prevents him from fully adopting one identity or the other. If he let an agnostic curiosity take over and lead where it may, perhaps he would arrive at truly unpredictable insights and conclusions, allowing for greater intellectual vitality in his work.

Alternatively, what if he were to embrace his inner preacher? No writer wants to be accused of preaching, but preaching can be done well. Just read the work of McKibben’s heroes: Wendell Berry, Thoreau and Edward Abbey, all of them unafraid to offend and possessing singular visions and voices. In a 1988 essay about Abbey, McKibben cites this passage: “Dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it. Dusty? Of course it’s dusty–this is Utah!” The quote leaps out of the book, and the surrounding prose–McKibben’s–suddenly seems a little too polite.

Even though the content of McKibben’s recent work is fairly upbeat, a tragic sense looms, because on some level we’ve already lost. We’ve lost the wild–the pure, sovereign “nature” McKibben venerated. Yet, having mourned, he has adapted his ideals. He now seems to endorse the view that, as he writes in his introduction to the anthology, “the traditional American distinction between raped land and virgin land was unhealthy, and that therefore good stewardship–husbandry, to use the old term–was required.” At least in our time, this shift represents a kind of growing up. The love of the wild involves ecstasy and innocence, properties of youth. Accepting responsibility for our role as stewards is a reconciliation to our circumstances. The world apart from man is gone; the solution to the planet’s problems is going to have to come from the species that caused them.

To McKibben, stewardship is not a matter of further manipulating nature so as to extract carbon dioxide from the air and clear the way for the status quo. In The End of Nature, McKibben wrote that genetic engineering, while it might succeed in preserving a livable planet for humans, would represent nature’s final death throes. Today, “carbon-eating” genetically modified trees and crops appear to be on the horizon. McKibben doesn’t address these possibilities directly in his recent books. His silence suggests, at best, a lack of enthusiasm.

For McKibben retains his profound discomfort with unbridled human power. Reasonable people–even reasonable environmentalists–can disagree about, say, the ethics of exterminating black flies with a relatively benign pesticide. There is something adolescent, perhaps, about McKibben’s insistence on braving the flies. But the alternative–expecting the world to be retooled for our convenience–is the attitude of a toddler.

Many converts have come to the global warming cause, but most are rather like Christians motivated by fear of the Apocalypse. After all, you needn’t care about the trees or the whales or the polar bears to oppose global warming; you only need to care about yourself and your connection to the future. Of course, McKibben, too, wants passionately to avert catastrophe. But he knows that this may be at once too narrow and too ambitious a goal. On some level global warming is, to him, primarily a symptom of misguided priorities and insensitivity to the life surrounding us. Most of us root for the polar bears; we’d be very grateful to keep some semblance of the seasons, which have lent a backdrop of stability to our lives. But ultimately, we fear for ourselves, for our civilization and our grandchildren. If a technological deus ex machina could save us, we’d rejoice. Bill McKibben is looking for another kind of salvation.

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