Climate change isn’t Bill McKibben’s only worry – vtdigger.org
Vermont author and activist Bill McKibben knows the title of his new book — “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” — won’t sway skeptics to think he’s anything but doom and gloom. That’s why people may be surprised to flip to Page 1 and find “An Opening Note on Hope.”
“A writer doesn’t owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty — but I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair,” he begins. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered writing what follows.”
Thirty years ago, the onetime New Yorker magazine staff writer released “The End of Nature,” the first book to introduce the idea of global warming to a general audience.
“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there,” the then 28-year-old penned in a 1989 work since published on six continents in two-dozen languages.
Google the words “global warming” and you’ll reap 140 million results. But when McKibben wrote his book three decades ago, he could stack all the available reports atop his desk. Proposing “The End of Nature” then was like telling the Flat Earth Society the world is round.
McKibben, 58, has gone on to pen a dozen more titles, be named “probably America’s most important environmentalist” by the Boston Globe and become a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, where he and students founded what’s now the international grassroots activist group 350.org.
“When I wrote ‘The End of Nature,’” he recalls in an interview, “my theory of change was people will read my book and they will change. I no longer have that theory. I think books are a key part of making an argument, but I no longer confuse the argument with the fight. It would be obnoxious to write a book saying things are dire if you aren’t actively engaged in trying to stop them.”
And so on the 30th anniversary of his seminal work, McKibben is set to tour the country with a 304-page follow-up that tackles not only the current state of climate change but also other manmade challenges ranging from social media to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
‘Nothing slows us down’
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“What I want to talk about is the human game,” McKibben writes in the book’s introduction, “the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life; of dance and music; of dinner and art and cancer and sex and Instagram; of love and loss; of everything that comprises the experience of our species.”
That’s both a tall order and a tightrope walk for someone aiming to balance honesty and hope.
McKibben starts with the positives, be it worldwide declines in extreme poverty (living on $2 a day or less) and violence (of the 55 million people who died in 2012, war killed just 120,000) or increases in literacy (85% of adults now can read) and productivity (currently a collective $60 trillion in goods and services).
“Humans, all of us together, have built something remarkable, something we rarely stand back and simply acknowledge,” he writes. “The sum of the projects of our individual lives, the total of the institutions and enterprises we have created, the aggregate of our wishes and dreams and labors, the entirety of our ceaseless activity — it is a wonder.”
It’s also endangered, the author says. The number of wild animals on the planet is half what it was in 1970, he notes, “an awesome and mostly unnoticed silencing.” Trees are falling just as fast from pests, diseases and development, with five of the world’s six oldest specimens having died in the last decade.
“And yet nothing slows us down — just the opposite,” he writes. “By most accounts, we’ve used more energy and resources during the last 35 years than in all of human history that came before.”
As he does in his first book, McKibben explains how burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil causes carbon to combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide that’s playing havoc with the Earth’s atmosphere, allowing sunlight in but preventing some of the resulting heat from radiating out.
This, in turn, is not only warming the planet — annual temperature averages are hitting record levels, melting more than half the ice in the Arctic and raising sea levels — but also warping precipitation and wind patterns, spurring extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves that spark floods and wildfires.
‘Let’s be, for a while, true optimists’
McKibben’s new book reveals that oil companies have known about the danger for decades. He shares internal documents that show how many built new drilling platforms with higher decks long ago to compensate for sea levels they knew would be rising.
“Which is to say, Donald Trump is a horrible human being who has done all that he can think of to retard progress on climate change,” he writes, “but it’s not his fault the planet is overheating.”
Then again, by denying the problem, the president isn’t helping.
“Climate change has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it,” the author continues. “It’s part of our mental furniture, like urban sprawl or gun violence.”
Settling with his wife and daughter in Ripton in 2001, McKibben bought a small plot once owned by poet Robert Frost, built a solar-powered home and began to ponder why society wasn’t doing more.
“Yes, climate change is a very hard problem,” he writes. “But there’s something more going on here than the usual inertia.”
McKibben devotes the second half of “Falter” to pointing out the growing gaps in social and economic equality that are leading to singular, selective gains — and, in his opinion, collective loss.
“Basic human solidarity has, especially for the most powerful among us, been replaced by a very different idea,” he writes. “The path we’ve started down is the not-so-gradual replacement of humans with something not so slightly different: a man with a phone more or less permanently affixed to his palm is partway a robot already.”
The answer, McKibben believes, is less FaceTime and more face-to-face time.
“The human game,” he says, “is a team sport.”
The author is set to embark on a national tour to spread his message of cooperating for the common good. He’ll start Friday at Manchester’s Northshire Bookstore, then travel cross-country before returning to Vermont to speak in a series of readings throughout the state.
McKibben knows someone will ask how he can drive and fly about as he rails against fossil fuels.
“I tend to point it out myself,” he says. (Take the time the Washington Post asked him to prove he’s not puritanical: “Well, I spend a lot of my time driving and traveling across the world telling people not to drive a lot.”) “But I can’t wait until the tracks in Middlebury get fixed so I can take a train.”
For in the end, the Vermonter has hope.
“Let’s be, for a while, true optimists, and operate on the assumption that human beings are not grossly defective,” he caps his book. “Let’s assume we’re capable of acting together to do remarkable things.”
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