The Indefatigable Bill McKibben

The Indefatigable Bill McKibben

An interview with the environmentalist about what inspires him, how he became a writer, and his recent book, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon.


Back in 1989, when most important political people were still dithering about carbon dioxide’s true effects on the planet, journalist and activist Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, a book that predicted that life as we knew it was about to change, catastrophically and irrevocably, unless radical action was taken. He was just 27 when he wrote that book. It’s not apparent that McKibben, now 61, has had many vacations since then. He’s the author of numerous other books and articles, the founder of the environmental organization, and the instigator of a new project, Third Act, which mobilizes older adults for progressive change, including on global warming.

Over his several decades writing about and organizing around climate change, McKibben has become a trusted source of insight on the crisis. Fluent in both the science and the politics of our dire situation, he can speak deftly on the latest climate legislation and render jargon-heavy scientific reports into real-world terms.

In his recent book, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, McKibben discusses his lifelong experience in the climate movement and the many disappointments it has weathered. In his introduction to a new edition of The End of Nature in 2005, he wrote, “I’ve spent every day since its publication praying that this book would be proved wrong. Those prayers have not been answered.” Yet in spite of all those disappointments, McKibben continues his noble toil.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Camille Baker

Camille Baker: I read somewhere that you’ve described your book as being “as close to a memoir as you’ll ever write.” Do I detect some resistance to the idea of writing a memoir there?

Bill McKibben: Yes—because I’ve had as average a life, in many ways, as is possible to imagine. As I pointed out in the beginning, I grew up halfway down something called Middle Street in the prototypical American suburb. So I’ve devoted my life to mostly telling other people’s stories, quite enjoyably. My happiest job ever was writing “The Talk of the Town” for The New Yorker, back in the days when it was all about people no one had ever heard of.

But I’ve really begun to understand in the last while that the current discontents and fractures in our society have at least some of their roots in that world that I grew up in. So its very normalcy began to seem more interesting to me. It was extraordinary to go back into my own life and find out that the world that I’d grown up in wasn’t quite what I had imagined. The beginning of the book was, in certain ways, the real revelation for me—the story that I told about the two events in my 10th year, one of which I knew about and the other I didn’t. It was fascinating to start thinking about all that.

CB: Can you describe your writing process, for this book and generally?

BM: I started writing for money in junior high, covering sports. And in those days, I got paid 25 cents a column inch. If I’m trying to be verbose, that may be why. But, you know, I’ve written for a very long time and an awful lot, so, for me, what’s most interesting always now is getting to do the research on things. And in this case, that meant really talking to a lot of people, but also going back to those very early years as a writer, because I was relying on the archives of the local newspaper in many cases, and that was the newspaper where I’d started work as a 14-year-old. So that was nostalgic, too. I kept tripping over my own basketball stories and other stuff. And it was also a reminder, by the way, of just how much we’re losing as local newspapers disappear. I don’t know how one would do this project 50 years from now.

CB: You write that your first gig out of college was a job at The New Yorker. What was that like, and how did it inform the rest of your writing?

BM: About a week after graduating college, I showed up at Mr. [William] Shawn’s New Yorker and started writing “The Talk of the Town.” And I wrote a lot of it for the next five years, because I was by far the youngest person at the magazine. I think I’m quite fortunate that in those days “Talk of the Town” stories were anonymous. I was writing mostly in the New Yorker “we,” the royal “we,” and anonymously. So I was able to happily fly under the radar in New York in a way that probably wouldn’t be possible if you’re writing two or three of those things a week now.

CB: I also read that at some point an editor at The New York Times courted you, trying to convince you to become a reporter. I wonder if that felt like a sort of inflection point for you. You were deciding whether you were going to be an actor in the climate crisis, or merely an observer and recorder—is that right?

BM: Yes. I quit The New Yorker after five years, when Sy Newhouse took it over and they fired Mr. Shawn, more or less. And that annoyed me, so I quit. And right about that point, yes, an editor from the Times took me to lunch a few times trying to convince me to come to work there. But I realized I just had a strong sense that that wouldn’t work, because I was writing The End of Nature then, and it was clear to me that I wasn’t—I don’t know quite how to say this—I wasn’t exactly “objective” in the sense that the Times probably would have demanded then. I really cared about the outcome of the climate crisis; I didn’t want the planet to burn up and blow away.

I can remember sitting at lunch and thinking to myself, “This is exactly the job that I would have aspired to five years ago. But I don’t think it’s gonna work now.” So, instead, I just moved up to the Adirondacks, up into the middle of the woods, and started trying to write books. And I was lucky, because my first one hit home. There’s never, ever any guarantee about that kind of thing. Books are a strange business. But because of that first one, I’ve lived out in the woods ever since.

CB: I was listening to a conversation between you and Richard Powers, the author of The Overstory and other books, earlier. You discuss religion at length in The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon, and there was a moment in your conversation with Powers when you said that you find that trees can talk to you in some way. Do you feel like there is a sense of faith in the natural world that is present in your writing?

BM: [Laughs] It’s an interesting question. I wrote a book once about the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible, which is my favorite of all scriptural accounts. It’s also the first great piece of nature writing—in the Western canon, anyway—and powerful to me because it’s all about this, I think. I mean, the rabbis have interpreted it in many ways over the years. But I think it is all about these questions of scale that are so interesting to me. Viewed from our current perspective, it’s a story about us becoming very, very large very fast as a species, in the last couple of hundred years, and the dangers that come with that. My sense of the natural world, which is a place I love and am comfortable in, has always also been very caught up in questions about the human world. The End of Nature is haunted by the idea that we’ve gotten too big—that we’re overwhelming everything else on the planet. And that has both a very practical dimension, in terms of the dangers of the climate crisis, and a spiritual dimension, in terms of our unease on this earth at this point.

CB: I imagine you must be asked about hope all the time, not least because you wrote a book partly about hope a couple of years back. Hope, to me, seems so central in the climate movement: We feel hopeless, because things are getting worse. But we strive to maintain a hope that we are at least capable of effecting change. What do you do to cultivate your own sense of hope?

BM: Mine has been a continual story of having one’s hopes a little dashed. I wrote The End of Nature when I was 27, and I wasn’t optimistic about how we were going to deal with things—hence the title—but it certainly didn’t occur to me that we basically wouldn’t do anything to try and deal with it. So my hopes that someone else would take care of that have been dashed repeatedly.

On the other hand, for me, hope comes in the form of the movement-building that it’s been a great honor to participate in. Getting to work with millions of people around the world in the last 15 years, as this movement has arisen, has truly been wonderful. Just to get to see how many people and how many places—including places that did nothing to cause the crisis that we’re in—have been willing to try and come together to do something about it has been very moving. It’s plenty to keep me going.

So much of that work was with younger people. I started with seven college students when I was in my 40s. Now, as we start Third Act, it’s wonderful to watch people who thought their moment for affecting the world was done as they begin to sense that they can have a huge and important role to play. So I’m enjoying that, and it’s giving me—if not always hope about outcomes—great determination to keep pushing. At this point, we’re obviously not going to stop climate change; that’s no longer on the menu. But we still maintain the capacity to stop it short of cutting civilization entirely off at the knees. That’s gonna be a close, close call, but it’s imaginable.

In the same way, the other thing we’re working on at Third Act is democracy. We’ve obviously lost a good deal of innocence there, watching our Capitol invaded by people who wanted to stop the presidential election, something that would never have occurred to me in the world where I was growing up. But I’m hopeful that perhaps we can recover some on that front as well. And those two things seem to be well worth whatever energy I’ve got left to play with.

When I’m in a dire mood, the reason is that, unlike every other thing that we deal with, every other political challenge, climate change is completely a time-limited test. The problem with climate change is that, once the Arctic has melted, no one’s got a plan for how you freeze it back up again. It’s very unlike other crises that we deal with. And that does worry me, I must say. That’s what keeps it all very urgent to me. I finally took two weeks off and went to Alaska, because I pretty much had to—I really needed some deep wilderness to get me back in the game. But this fight’s definitely measured in years, not even decades at this point anymore. So, back to work.

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