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Editor’s note: Donna Seaman’s Booklist Interview of Bill McKibben for our first-ever Spotlight on the Environment was awfully hard to cut down to one page. Read on as they talk at length about global warming and greenwashing, cynicism and consumerism—and reasons for hope.
BKL: Your writing is notable for its clarity. Is this a quality you developed during your apprenticeship to the great William Shawn at the New Yorker? You’ve dedicated your essay collection to him.
McKIBBEN: One of the wonderful things about writing for the New Yorker was that I was writing anonymously. I was 22, so that gave me room to learn my craft. And I was writing a lot, because there weren’t many other people around who wanted to do those small pieces. I would do two or three most weeks. You’d send a piece to Mr. Shawn, and you’d get back a galley from Mr. Shawn which had a very good set of questions, and also a galley from Eleanor Gould, who was the grammarian at the New Yorker for generation upon generation. And it was amazing to discover in a 700-word piece how many places you’d been unclear, imprecise, open to interpretation, and on and on. I never went to graduate school—this was as close as I got, and it was a remarkable education.
And what fun to be surrounded by people who were, to a person, the best writers you could imagine. Not only was I down the hall from Mark Singer and Jonathan Schell, I was also able to go into the library, which was a room with big bound black leather scrapbooks, one for each writer, or, in some cases, many for a writer. You could sit there and read day after day all the work that Joe Mitchell had done for the New Yorker, or all the work Sandy Frazier had done for the New Yorker. I did a lot of that.
BKL: Is there an ethical aspect to that deep attention to grammar, to getting things right, to expressing things clearly and with integrity? Is there a value implicit in this pursuit of precision and correctness?
McKIBBEN: Absolutely. One of the lessons I learned, in part at the New Yorker, is to give the benefit of the doubt to whomever you’re arguing with. To try to understand what people are saying. People who say global warming is not a problem, well, I don’t want to deal with it. But listening ends up making one’s own case that much stronger.
A fair-minded civility was high on the list at the New Yorker. Of course, this was an anachronism already. This was New York journalism in the early 1980s, people were paying the most attention to new operations like Spy, which was pioneering the outer boundaries of irony. Irony was not a big part of the New Yorker’s approach. I was quite young then, and some of that rubbed off on me.
BKL: By publishing John McPhee and Jonathan Schell and so many others, the New Yorker has contributed hugely to the environmental movement.
McKIBBEN: It is amazing to look at the New Yorker and see how much of the important work has showed up there. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth. I think this did have something to do with the fact that Shawn was very interested in reality. People made great fun of the New Yorker when I was there when Shawn published a long series about corn, soybeans, and rice, the major crops of the world. I got why people were poking fun. It wasn’t as entertaining as writing about celebrities, or whatever Vanity Fair was covering at the moment. But on the other hand, this is actually what people eat. It turns out to be incredibly important and therefore interesting. The willingness to be serious is the prerequisite for the ability to be deeply interesting.
BKL: You left the New Yorker, and New York City, and went, can we say, back to the land. In reading your essays about your life in the Adirondacks and in Vermont, I think of the back-to-nature movement of the 1960s and 1970s. A naïve, foolishly romantic gesture for many, yet, at base, certainly a legitimate and important act. This was also a time of major environmental legislation. We often malign and trivialize that era, but this was when the groundwork was laid for significant environmental protection. This is when people worked hard to raise environmental consciousness and to call attention to the fact that how one lives has an ecological impact.
McKIBBEN: In certain ways it was a moment of real seriousness in the second-half of the twentieth century when people asked themselves questions that really mattered. They didn’t always come up with spectacularly good answers, and people were better at shaking off things they didn’t like than figuring out new things that might work. And most were caught up in the cult of individualism. Part of me is glad that I was too young for the 1960s––I was born in 1960. Part of me is sorry that I missed it, but I think I would have fallen into all the obvious and, in retrospect, dull political and cultural excesses of the period. But certainly, you still see, in places like Vermont, the wonderful residue of that time. People who came and made a commitment to a place and lived that commitment out.
As for that burst of great political energy that resulted in the passing of environmental protection legislation, well, some of it came straight out of literary works. Rachel Carson was the first person to take the shine off the idea of progress and to make us reconsider whether all was quite as it seemed. And we’re still living in her shadow. And from that springs the first Earth Day, and from that springs all that good legislation. When I say it was serious, the stuff that grew out of that period, the idea of limits, was the first attempt of our society and culture to mature a little bit. And then we cast it all aside for 30 years. Now we’re back to having to do it again and it’s going to be harder this time around because we’re deeper down in the hole.
BKL: Whatever happened to thrift? People used to take pride in keeping things in good repair, saving money, reusing things. American ingenuity came out of making do. Then in the postwar era thrift was maligned, then forgotten.
McKIBBEN: We convinced ourselves that our economy worked best if we consume more and more all the time, at which point thrift became an anathema. Leaving those of us who are Yankee by temperament outside the mainstream. I have to confess, it was no great sacrifice for me to move to the country and take up a simple life. There was no environmental insight involved initially.
When I lived in New York, my apartment was broken into during the day. My roommate was there and they tied him up. He was home in the afternoon because he was a movie critic. He had the first generation of Betamax and the first generation of home computer, and they took all that. From me they took a cardboard box in which I was storing my dirty clothes. And a box of old records. That was what I lost. So I had a little bit of that down-to-basics thing to begin with. And I still have some. My daughter, bowing to J. K. Rowling, refers to me as the Dark Lord because I wander around the house, diligently turning off lights.
BKL: In thinking about the escalation of consumer society, which you parse so thoroughly in Deep Economy, and in thinking about the opening years of this century, a phrase from the past comes to mind: “the military-industrial complex.”
McKIBBEN: Yes, but it’s also the suburban-consumer-industrial complex. What’s really amazing is to look at the last 50 years in this country and realize that, yes, we’ve spent a great deal on the military, but basically most of our money has gone to suburbanizing America. To building bigger houses further apart from each other. That’s been the single biggest sink of our economic resources. And not only does it come at a high ecological cost, it also turns out to come at a high social cost. If this was making us ungodly happy that would be one thing. But it isn’t. That’s the thing that has interested me most in the last 10 or 15 years, the state of our inner lives, the sense of how communities erode, and trying to understand how getting community back may be some part of the way we’ll deal with environmental crises. Which is why, for me, moving to the woods and the mountains was important. But it was also important to spend a lot of time at the local backwoods Methodist church. And to be able to start figuring out community on a scale that made sense to me.
BKL: You write in Deep Economy and in some of your essays about how participating in a clearly defined community is good for our health. Experts say that people who do volunteer work feel better overall. They catch fewer colds, and suffer less from disease. This is evidence for the amazing connection between body and soul.
McKIBBEN: We’re intricately evolved organisms. It wasn’t that long ago that our ancestors were spending all day sitting around grooming each other to pull the lice out of our fur. That’s who we were, and to a large extent, that’s who we still are. But we have the idea that it might be more fun to spend your life looking at a television screen. And that is a plausible idea. It’s certainly easy to do; it has certain immediate rewards. And it was worth experimenting with to see how well it would work out. That’s why I wrote The Age of Missing Information. But it just turns out not to be true. It isn’t a good life. Since part of me is a deep empiricist, I do want us to figure out what will work.
BKL: In Fight Global Warming Now you write: “We see the fight against global warming as a way to bridge the ever-widening gaps in our country and help create common ground. We’re never all going to agree about everything, but we may be able to agree that stopping the planet from going kaput is a good idea. Just about the only good thing about the global warming crisis is that everyone has something at stake.”
McKIBBEN: People have said in the past, were some alien life form to suddenly appear on the planet and challenge us, instantly, overnight, we’d all be hard at work together figuring out how to ward off this threat. Well, in some sense, we’ve now got a threat as big as that. And it’s either going to unite us or it’s going to fatally divide us. It could be that the differences around the world in people’s wealth will be so enormous, we’ll founder on them and be too paralyzed to take action.
BKL: The idea of an alien threat to Earth brings to mind all the Cold War science fiction, which you consider in your essay in The Bill McKibben Reader, “Imagine That.” You write about how global warming seems not to appeal very much to the imagination, and how, consequently, little art has been made in response to it, as opposed to the remarkable flowering of creative responses to the AIDS epidemic.
McKIBBEN: Happily in the two years since I wrote that, there’s been a boom in people doing art of various kinds around the subject. I can attest to this since having written that piece, everyone who writes a poem about global warming feels the need to email it to me. So it will be interesting to see if global warming really will engage people. We’re haven’t started yet. This fight has barely begun, and it’s going to take up our entire lifetimes and the lifetimes of another few generations. So we’ll see if we can engage heart and soul as much as our heads with this. I don’t know. That’s one of the reasons that it’s dangerous that we’ve become so disconnected from the natural world. Because that’s one of the easiest ways for people to perceive the threat and understand what’s at stake.
BKL: That’s where strong journalism and literature come in.
McKIBBEN: That’s why it’s so good that we’ve had such wonderful writing about this by Elizabeth Kolbert and others on global warming, and many writers on related topics. Just this last year we’ve had great books about local food. The fact that Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver both managed to write wonderful pieces of nonfiction that people are very eager to read is a very good sign.
BKL: Books have always been a primary factor in the environmental movement. Do you think that libraries have played a role, too?
McKIBBEN: Yes, for me much of my environmental awakening was literary. It was starting to read Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and others. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I was working on a Library of America anthology of American environmental writings from Thoreau on, American Earth, which will be out in the spring. I’ve spent a lot of time reading, and realized just how crucial at each stage books have been from the very beginning. But libraries are key in another way, too, maybe even more significantly. They’re the one institution in our society that has figured out how to institutionalize sharing. One of the things I love about being a writer is that it’s a curious hybrid of commercialism and the opposite. Just enough people buy books in order to keep those of us who write them in business. But the great pleasure of it is knowing that every person in America has access to everything I’ve written. All they have to do is go down to the library and check it out. I’m not sure I’d be in this business otherwise. I really treasure that.
The library is also the great metaphor for where we need to go. It’s an historical accident, it seems to me, that this sort of sharing has been confined to books. Why not tools? Why not cars? Why not all sorts of other things in our lives that we could think about in the same way? Libraries and good independent local bookstores tend to be the places where communities think about themselves, where people come together to create just that kind of community. Libraries are a completely wonderful invention, and very American in the old sense of American, the deep commitment to small-deed democracy and civic life.
BKL: Within one year you provided us with Deep Economy, a complex and nuanced work that rewards repeated readings, and a veritable activist’s primer, Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community. Now you say that you have a new genre, the action email.
McKIBBEN: At a certain point, I just got sick of nothing happening. I began to feel as if I’d spent an awful long time writing about global warming and figuring that someone would come along and do something about it. And a certain number of people did, Al Gore, certainly. But not enough. There wasn’t a grass-roots movement. I didn’t really know how to make one, but I’ve always been completely fascinated by the history of the civil rights movement and the history of Gandhian movements. And there are these wonderful young people around Middlebury College who were doing great organizing around global warming. They were very fired up about it. So it seemed to me worth taking a flyer at whether or not, with no money or anything, we could manage to do a national campaign. And with beginner’s luck we did. It worked out beyond our wildest imaginings.
This past November, we were in the basketball stadium at the University of Maryland with 7,000 college kids from around the country. And there was Nancy Pelosi up on stage leading them all in this chant, “80 percent by 2050,” which was the goal that we had enunciated. We’d written it on a piece of cardboard at the first rally we held in Vermont the year before, and at that time it was an extremely radical idea no one in Washington would have though of embracing. A year later, thanks to all kinds of people around the country, here was the Speaker of the House chanting it. I was much less cynical at the end of the year that I was at the beginning. Our culture leads us toward cynicism, so it was nice to be lead away from it.
BKL: Is environmentalism a generational cause? Will college and high school students be the one to bring about change?
McKIBBEN: Well, that’s part of it. But it’s got to be multi-generational. We had quite a bit of luck organizing retirement communities. The first act in the lives of adult baby boomers was quite interesting, in the middle act they turned out to be altogether too good at consumption, and settled comfortably into that. It would be nice if, toward the end, they could go out with a more interesting flourish.
BKL: You’ve been writing about global warming for 20 years. I imagine you’ve gone through a lot of distress over the lack of constructive response.
McKIBBEN: One of the great ironies of my professional life was having written The End of Nature in 1989, the first book about climate change, and I’ve spent 20 years wishing that I’d been wrong. And hoping that I’d be proved wrong. One of the reasons I may be past the point of being freaked out by all of this––I mean, I’m scared about it, depressed by it sometimes, clearly, but I think I’m able to work hard on it––is because I went through all of the emotional turmoil in the late 1980s. Now I get to watch everybody else suffer.
BKL: Thoreau was worrying about the diminishment of the wild. This has been going on for a long time.
McKIBBEN: Yes. Thoreau was so insanely prescient, it’s no wonder no one paid any attention to him in his time. It was like he was sending coded messages to the future, some of which we can now finally get. But it’s also true that the part that he missed, probably due to temperament, is the importance of community. This is where environmental writing has gone in the last 40 years. Community has replaced wildness as the single biggest driving idea in American environmental writing. Of all the writers, Wendell Berry may be the exemplar of that.
BKL: In going back to your reflections on how our environmental predicament hasn’t appealed to the imagination, I think it’s in part because we conceive of our heroes as loners, individuals bucking the system.
McKibben: Yes, it’s tough for Americans. We’re so unused to the idea that living in a community sets certain limits on behavior. The library is the perfect example. There are things you have to do to make it work. You have to be reasonably quiet while you’re there. You have to return the books on time. You’re not allowed to write in them. It’s different than what we’re used to. Those are lessons that are going to be tough for us to learn, but very possible because in the end, it’s so much sweeter than what we’ve built, the hyper-individualized, deeply privatized lives that we lead.
BKL: We’re in the midst of an intense political campaign in which “change” has become everyone’s watchword. Do you see change in the political process that bodes well for environmental change?
McKIBBEN: The Internet is completely fascinating. Watching the emergence Howard Dean campaign four years ago was so interesting. Watching how Internet work led to the building of a community and face-to-face meet-ups around the country with tens of thousands of people coming together to engage in politics, something that Americans don’t do easily. It was quite remarkable.
But it’s a huge battle, to keep people engaged. And I think global warming is the place where it’s going to be fought. I think it’s going to turn out to be the final exam. We’ll figure out whether our big brain is all that adaptive or not. Because it could go either way: our ability to figure out new technology, and our ability to figure out how to make the economics of it work, which we could do. Our ability to figure out how to expand the sphere of our compassion to include all kinds of people all around the world, and our ability to look back into our own history and figure out how important local community is in every way. Those are things that we could muster in the next decade or two to really deal with the biggest problem we’ve ever faced. On the other hand, our inertia, and the momentum of our system of the moment, may lead us to ignore, deny, evade or mock the whole thing. I don’t know how it’s going to work out.
BKL: As eloquent as you and your environmental writer colleagues are, corporations are expert at greenwashing.
McKIBBEN: Yes, the general rule is, the more penguins per e-commercial, the more damage you can be sure the corporation is doing. It’s a square-root relationship.
BKL: There’s talk now of “green-collar work,” and the prediction that as new technologies arise, people will find new jobs and “create a green work force.”
McKIBBEN: It’s one of the ways our society tries to understand new things. We’re so used to looking at everything through an economic lens. I think what’s going to change, if we’re going to make it out, is that we’re going to start looking at things through other lens. I think the two most important ones are going to be durability, whether or not we can maintain what we have in the future, and the question of satisfaction. Which, oddly, is the one question that the American economy, the American culture, really hasn’t asked. Partly because we may not have wanted to find out the answer. We’ve never done a very good job of saying, well, we’re really a lot bigger now, but are we in fact any happier? That was the really interesting part of writing Deep Economy. Trying to figure out those questions.
BKL: Consumer culture is based on never being satisfied, because then people would stop buying.
McKIBBEN: The notion that what we’re supposed to do is consume––well, I have no doubt, none at all, that given a hundred years, we would work our way out of that. Given a hundred years, we’ll find more interesting ways to spend our time. My only worry is that we don’t have a hundred years. And I don’t know if we can do it in 15 years. That’s why it’s a good fight.
We just don’t know yet. It’s too soon to conclude we can’t do it. Although the scale of the transformation is going to be very large. And it’s going to be larger culturally than it is technologically. We can do the solar and wind part. That’s what we’re good at, building stuff. And that will help. But it will only help if it comes with changes in our habits and appetites. That’s why it’s good to be able to look at Western Europe and see that people there are living somewhat differently there and it’s having measurable effects. They use half as much energy per person; that’s a lot. And they are, by all accounts, happier than we are. I think what’s happening there is that they have stronger communities and less of an investment in the myth of ultra-individualism. In the end, truth wins out.
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