Friday, May 31, 2019

The Wonderfully (if Perhaps Insufficiently) Radical Bill McKibben

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

I've been a fan of Bill McKibben's writings for close to 30 years. That doesn't mean I've agreed with, or even enjoyed, everything this endlessly prolific journalist-environmentalist-activist-pundit-essayist has produced over the decades (he's had at least a couple of complete misses, in my opinion). But when, back in April, I heard he was returning to Wichita, KS, to promote his latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Finally Begun to Play Itself Out? at one of our delightful local bookstores, Watermark Books & Cafe, I knew it was a presentation I couldn't miss. Though Falter, and the case McKibben made both for and in that book, isn't one I'm likely to be madly repeating or repeatedly recommending to my students or others, I'm glad I was there.

Like plenty of folks who recognize--whether for reasons scientific or spiritual or social or all three--the environmentally and culturally destructive consequences of modernity's relentless insistence upon economic and technological expansion, my relationship with McKibben's (usually) thoughtful writing began with The End of Nature, his short and, I think, profoundly eye-opening extended essay from 30 years ago. Long before anyone, so far as I know, was using terms like "the Anthropocene," McKibben was presciently leading his readers--like myself, an early 90s college student, someone with little scientific knowledge and only a small sense of how important terms like "community" and "sustainability" would eventually become in my life--through an argument about how the post-WWII human impact upon the climate, the oceans, and the soil, is both greater and more lasting than any previous human intervention. It was, and remains, a beautiful book: "When I say that we have ended nature, I don't mean, obviously, that natural processes have ceased--there is still sunshine and still wind, still growth, still decay. Photosynthesis continues, as does respiration. But we have ended the thing that has, at least in modern times, defined nature for us--its separation from human society" (The End of Nature, Anchor Books, 2nd ed. [1999], p. 64). The hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere, the hundreds of millions of tons of industrial fertilizer we have put into our farmlands and watersheds: all of it was then warping, and today continues to warp, ecological processes which had evolved over billions of years in a direction reflective of humanity's most short-term and utilitarian preferences. And as for the better human interactions with those natural processes--practices which had been able, in a less expansive and technological era, to become (to quote Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson) "native to their place"? They were being warped, being made crude short-term and technological, too.

Someone familiar with these arguments as they have played out over the decades might notice an imperfect fit here, and they wouldn't be wrong. McKibben and Berry and Jackson all recognize each other has compatriots in the effort to articulate a more sustainable and local way of life, one that is disconnected from the rat race of endless growth and change. Their mutual admiration is well documented. And yet, the place (both geographically and metaphorically) that McKibben is native to is one very different from the agricultural environs and mentality which grounds the reflections of thinkers like Berry and Jackson. McKibben is a Vermont writer, a mountain-climber and a cross-country skier, an organizer of protests across the nation and reporting expeditions around the globe; his adoration for, and his mourning for, nature is grounded not in husbandry but in observation. That is, of course, one of the reasons he has the readership he has: he can take his readers, as he does in Falter, from Alberta's tar sands to Greenland's melting glaciers to the accidentally protected (thanks to the land claimed by Kennedy Space Center) sand dunes along the Florida coast and take it in as a reporter, an admirer, a visitor--which is, of course, all the most of us will ever be.

I don't put this forward as a criticism, but rather as a way of appreciating what McKibben has accomplished with his activism and arguments, while also noting what he, perhaps, can only occasionally authentically grasp. Falter is a fine book, with typically lyrical writing and sharp observations. In my judgment, though, it stumbles occasionally. Much of the anticipation over the book was due to it presenting itself, in part, as an update to The End of Nature, a reflection on the gains and losses of the argument which McKibben, as much as anyone, started 30 years ago. McKibben does not disappoint on this score: the first section of the book, "The Size of the Board," is unsparing (and sometimes uncomfortably earnest) in its description of the complex, entwined environmental, economic, and political crises which rising ocean temperatures, increasing weather extremes, and local ecosystem collapses present us with in 2019. But in the middle portion of the book, McKibben's thoughts lead him in different directions.

First, he takes us through a long polemic against the Koch brothers and a handful of other oil company executives, libertarian economists, and Republican politician whom he holds all but solely responsible for the relative lack of action on climate change over the past 30 years. (I have no problem with the targets he's chosen, but am less than thrilled by the simplistic--and sometimes unsupportable*--ways in which assumes that choices by big money actors automatically control all electoral contests.) Next, he turns to a fascinating excursion through genetic engineering, transhumanism, and other obsessions of the Silicon Valley elite. This is great stuff--and includes many arguments that, in a world with a fierce and well-funded race to perfect in vitro, gene splicing, and AI technologies, deserve a more thorough theoretical unpacking. How it all connects to the "faltering" of the human game is, unfortunately, only inconsistently made clear.

What McKibben needs--and, to be fair, the book's wonderful concluding section, "An Outside Chance," occasionally provides it--is a strong argument about what human being is. Nature and wildness, community and connection, and a sense of both physical and temporal space (and hence an acknowledgement of the limits inherent to such)--all are necessary components of a flourishing human existence; that his writing makes, in my view, a strongly persuasive case for. But how to tie it together, such that it makes sense to say that, in the face of all of the above, the "human game" is "playing itself out"? That's a deeper theoretical project, one that McKibben, an inveterate observer and experimenter and writer, perhaps can only gesture towards. That's no small thing, to be sure--and when your gestures are as striking and thoughtful as McKibben's often are, then his valued role as a much-needed seeder and agitator of ideas is assured.

Two gestures--just random implications that struck me as I worked through his thoughtful sentences--of McKibben's stand out most particularly to me. One has to do with technology; the second has to do with scale. The first is rooted in "obsolescence," and how that fact is reflected in both our destructive (and only partly unknowing) efforts to transform the planet into a simple source of energy extraction, and in the modern obsession with technological and genetic improvement. In both cases, we can see, at bottom, the desire to make other people, other things, and even ourselves and our immediate environs, into things that can be controlled, used, reliably replicated...and then, presumably, disposed of.

Current humans have changed so little over the millennia that, say, Stonehenge still makes us feel something. It was created by creatures genetically very much like us, creatures who processed dopamine the same way we do. They are much more like us than our grandchildren would be, should be go down [the designer baby] path. But those modified grandchildren will also no longer be really related to their future....When we engineer and design, we turn people into a form of technology, and obsolescence is an utterly predictable feature of every technology we've ever seen...The randomnness of our current genetic inheritance allows each of us a certain mental freedom from determinism, but that freedom disappears the day we understand ourselves [or, I would add, our natural environment] to be, in essence, a product (pp. 170-172).

McKibben, perhaps to his discredit, has never really been any kind of Luddite; he recognizes the arguments against invasive technologies, but he's always liked his doo-dads and toys. Still, here he has stumbled upon something important--the fact that there is a freedom which is lost when one puts one's lifestyle, or indeed one's very life, on the technological treadmill. The freedom I'm talking about is one that McKibben, good liberal Methodist that he is, would quickly recognize: the freedom of knowing, and disciplining oneself to, the truths of creation, and finding an open-ended space of meaningful action therein. To get off that treadmill, and save that freedom, one could see McKibben as calling for, shall we say, "counter-technologies." He focuses on the possibility of solar energy (the cost and capacities of which are improving every year) to liberate us from corporate energy dominance, and non-violent resistant (such as McKibben, through his organization 350.org, has been able to use, sometimes even successfully) to liberate us from corporate financial and political dominance. An odd duo, to be sure. But in the language of his reflections, their potential to free us from looming disposability, from the sense of the "inevitability" of the warped systems around us which Wendell Berry has rightly condemned, make sense: "Solar energy and nonviolence are technologies less of expansion than of repair, less of growth than of consolidation, less of disruption than of healing. They posit that we've grown powerful enough as a species, and that the job now is to make sure that that power is shared and controlled" (p. 226).

To gesture towards humankind as a species that has "grown powerful enough" is to bring us to his other vital, if insufficiently explored, idea, and that is scale. (Though to be fair, McKibben has written a whole book which revolves around the subject before--it's his best book, I think, one that I've used often.) Obsolescence--and the short-cuts, expediencies, and conveniences which it is the inevitable end point of--often feels forced upon us by the systems and expectations that we can't imagine managing a complex society without. That is not a flawed observation; complexity does produce its own relentless logics. So perhaps what we most need is to simplify, to retreat from connections that suck our paychecks, educational goals, military obligations, and most of all our hearts and minds, into the cult of Big and More:

If the only things you wanted in the world were efficiency and growth, then you'd scale things up--and we have: large corporations, large nations. But we've reached the point where size hinders as much as it helps, where it reduces the many ways the human game might be played down to just a few....[B]oth nonviolence and solar panels nudge us, at least a little, toward a smaller-scale world less obsessed with efficiency....We'll have to fight to make sure this happens--that communities control their local energy sources, and that those sources are developed with everyone's interests in mind--but at least it's a possibility. Home, community, is the ground on which we can actually play the human game, and it is a false efficiency to undermine it....There a time and a place for growth, and a time and a place for maturity, for balance, for scale (pp. 231-233).

The problem which McKibben has been struggling with, on and off, for more than three decades is unlike any that we know of any human society having had to struggle with before. It is a problem rooted in our own perceptions, and the way our technologies and economies have (both metaphorically and literally) warped and shrunk our planet and its organic, created rhythms so thoroughly that we often can neither perceive or even perhaps conceive of what we have lost. No loss is total, of course; McKibben knows that (and, more over, knows that selling the apocalypse is the shortest short-term strategy of all). But just because nature--of some sort--continues, and human life--or some definition thereof--keeps on stumbling forward, doesn't mean we shouldn't pay close attention to what harms and losses we're experiencing along the way. Whatever confusion or frustration or limitations attend McKibben's writing, he's always helped me see thing worth seeing, and think things worth thinking. And I'm not alone in thinking that way--Wichita, KS, is hardly a haven for environmentalist, localist, anti-capitalist, small-c conservative thought, but his presence at Watermark brought the whole gang of us out; my only regret was that it was the end of the semester, and I couldn't bring any students out to meet him. Fortunately, he'll be back in Kansas next September, speaking at The Land Institute (under Wes Jackson's kindly eye, no less!). I'll be there, students in tow, hoping they, like me 30 years ago, will hear or read something that, even if they don't fully agree with or appreciate it, will get them to think and see differently.

*For the problems with McKibben's reliance upon Nancy MacLean's screed against James Buchanan, public choice theory, and the supposed secret libertarian plot to destroy democracy, see here, here, and here.

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