Bill McKibben, fresh out of Harvard, where he was editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper, landed a job as a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1982. Early in his career, while grinding out pieces for “The Talk of the Town” section of the magazine, he began to emphasize the “physicalness of the world,” the fact that everything “depended on nature and consumed it for its existence.” Awarded a six-week fellowship at a writers’ retreat in Blue Mountain Lake, he “fell in love with winter and with wilderness.” His attachment to our “wild mountains was so intense and instant” that six months later, in 1987, he and his family moved to a remote spot in the Southeastern Adirondacks. Since then he has established himself as one of the most productive and eloquent of American environmental writers.
He arrived in the Adirondacks having spent his life in the city and the suburbs. “It did not take me long to fall in love with the natural world, a world more real and engaging than any I had known before. … And as quickly as my love for wild places grew, so too did my sense of their peril. My environmentalism began locally, fighting the constant threats to all the places where I hiked and canoed and lay out under the stars. It soon grew to encompass the globe, as I realized that the very climate of these remote Adirondacks was being changed by the habits of our species.”
The Bill McKibben Reader is a new collection of occasional pieces, previously published in a remarkably striking variety of Web sites, books and, mostly, magazines, from Harper’s and Rolling Stone to Christian Century and TomPaine.com. In terms of quality and breadth, these essays remind me of John McPhee (another New Yorker writer), but with an emphasis on the morality of human behavior where McPhee seems dedicated to the aesthetic of facts. Each writer displays a wide range of interests, an obsession with nature and a dazzling prose style.
McKibben is best known, perhaps, for his first book, The End of Nature (1989), about climate change and its consequences. The goal of this book was “to set the task that has dominated my writing and thinking since: how to come to terms practically, culturally, economically, theologically, politically, and emotionally with this most enormous problem humans have ever faced.” Updated in 2006, it has been translated into 20 languages and, along with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (both film and book) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change, has been one of the major vehicles by which Americans and others have learned to confront the looming apocalypse of a warming planet. One of the sections of The Bill McKibben Reader deals with climate change and reminds us that for every gallon of gasoline used, we emit about 5½ pounds of carbon in the form of CO2 and that coal is worse than oil. If we don’t clean up our act, we’re heading for “Hell on Earth.”
The first section of the anthology is all Adirondack, spelling out in exquisite and often humorous detail the inspiration he has found in his adopted home. “Blackflies … 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. They are a humbling force.”
A few historical glitches have slipped in: He overstates 19th-century forest destruction, asserts that the Blue Line is in the state constitution (it’s not), declares that bears and elk were wiped out during the era of intense logging (the bears thrived, and elk were never here) and asserts that the deer browse line we see on our lakeshores is in the hemlocks (it’s Eastern white cedar).
But these are minor lapses. The Adirondacks have been fundamental to McKibben’s emergence as a major advocate for environmental sanity, and it’s clear that the story of the Adirondacks as a place that has to a certain extent and in certain places healed after decades of indifference and abuse has kept despair at bay and provided a model for what can happen when people behave responsibly. “The Adirondacks are perhaps the world’s greatest experiment in ecological recovery, a place hard used a century ago and now slowly recovering, slowly proving that where humanity backs off, nature rebounds.”
Another section covers the relationship between contemporary media and our consumer culture, a subject brilliantly addressed in The Age of Missing Information (1992, reissued in 2006). McKibben worries about a culture where so much of experience is filtered through television and the Internet: It’s bad for both nature and community. “We live in the first moment when humans receive more of their information secondhand than first; instead of relying primarily on contact with nature and with each other, we rely primarily on the prechewed, on someone else’s experience. Our life is, quite literally, mediated.” This breeds “a kind of desperation in us, a frantic, reactive nervousness.” Henry David Thoreau (whom McKibben quotes, acknowledging Thoreau’s precedence in establishing this theme in our literature) said the same thing, but McKibben says it just as well and in a voice that should resonate with modern readers.
One of McKibben’s heroes is Wendell Berry, advocate of sustainable agriculture and communities and the more satisfying lives we would all have if we could return to a healthier relationship with the earth that feeds us.
This leads to contemplation of the inefficiencies of large-scale industrial agriculture and a fine piece on eating locally. It illustrates one of his key themes: the need to rethink the way we live and to live more simply, with better understanding of what sustains us, of what’s important as opposed to what’s merely convenient or familiar. Getting this right is both critical for the environment and personally enriching.
In a piece about the Skymall catalog, he rejects the proposal, endlessly foisted upon us by the consumer culture, that the myriad problems of daily life can be solved by the acquisition of more things. The planet and our souls are both degraded by consumer capitalism: “our possessions are linked directly to the destruction of the planet.” McKibben would be the first to remind us that there’s nothing especially new about challenging the hegemony of materialism. Emerson made the same point over a century and a half ago: “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” McKibben reinforces it, with elegance, amiability and verve.
He’s skeptical about the widespread American conviction that unregulated market forces will solve all our problems. On whether corporations will become better environmental players voluntarily or through the coercion of government regulation or incentive, he candidly declares, “if you want energy companies to rearrange their portfolios so that way more money goes to renewables and way less to hydrocarbons, the best way forward is not to appeal to the CEO’s conscience—it’s to pass laws to push him in the right direction.” He correctly notes that a robust regulatory apparatus has worked well in Europe, where automobile greenhouse emissions are significantly lower than in the U.S. Yet here, hamstrung by our blind faith in market solutions to all ills, rather than “compel Big Oil to take its windfall profits and build windmills … we stand quietly by, as if unfettered plunder were the obvious and necessary course.”
The group whose devotion to laissezfaire capitalism receives his most trenchant rebuke is evangelical Christians, who, he says, too often ignore the essential message of the Gospels. His disappointment with this wing of American Christianity reflects his own commitments; he was raised in a Protestant church and attends one now, where he is a Sunday-school teacher. He is part of the great American Protestant tradition of the jeremiad, which begins with the Massachusetts Puritans, passes through Thoreau and Emerson, and leads to contemporary progressive politics. It’s the tradition of awakening and reform. As a result, his tone can be a bit preachy, saying, more or less (my words, not his), “If you want to save your soul and help prevent the world from going to hell in a handbasket, you’d better change your wicked, wasteful ways.” But he has crucial points to make, and I don’t see any better way to make them.
McKibben’s life’s work is trying to figure out the intersection of environment and community. His most recent book, Deep Economy (2007), is an extended meditation on what makes a culture truly prosperous, as opposed to merely wealthy. He’s a moral philosopher, asking, “How do we want to live?” and “What matters to us?” The wide-ranging, always articulate essays in this book provide a window into a probing mind, asking the important questions and grappling with them aggressively but without rancor. It’s a friendly book, but it also grabs you by the collar and asks, “What are you doing with your life?”