American culture is destroying itself and the planet, says leading activist Bill McKibben

WASHINGTON — Back when green was just a color rather than a movement, Bill McKibben was on the front lines of the environmental wars. After graduating from Harvard in 1982, he worked at The New Yorker but eventually quit to publish “Nature’s End” in 1989, a book that established him as a leading thinker on the damage that human activity is causing to the planet – and to future generations of humans.

Since 2001, he has taught at Middlebury College in Vermont and published books, including the most recent “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon”. A memoir of sorts, the book is best explained by its own subtitle: “A grizzled American looks back on his suburban childhood and wonders what the hell happened.”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Bill McKibben was one of the speakers at an Earth Day event hosted by the Center for Earth Ethics in April. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Although unromantic about the past, McKibben is particularly appalled by the American present, wondering how we became “a society strained by grim racial and economic inequalities, where life expectancy was falling even before a pandemic deepens our divisions, on an overheated planet whose physics the future is dangerously in question.

McKibben spoke to Yahoo News from his home in Vermont about what he said was a great day. It was humid in Washington, D.C., where climate change won’t be long make the weather similar to what Mississippi is experiencing today.

Yahoo News: You write about the neighborhood. What is it and why is it important?

Bill McKibben: I use several different words to refer to the same thing, that is, the feeling that we belong to communities as large as our species and as small as our neighborhood. During my lifetime, we encountered the extremely radical idea that our only duty was really to ourselves, perhaps our family.

It was the key switch. Jimmy Carter represented one world and Ronald Reagan the other. We have made a decisive choice.

For you, is the neoliberal turn the disastrous one that brought us here?

It goes beyond simple neoliberal economics. When I talk about Christianity, I think that’s what happened there too, from the community to the resolute attention of evangelicals to my Lord and personal saviour. We found ourselves in a very transactional and hyper-individual world in many ways.

I may have misinterpreted, but I don’t think you see this solely as the project of philosophical conservatives.

There were definitely seeds of it that came out of the 60s too. “Do your own thing” had Ayn Rand (an influential novelist and philosopher) at some level as well.

If, in a sense, our whole society is complicit in this arrangement, could it be that most people just want to live this way?

It’s possible. It’s a very interesting question. It’s clear that human nature contains both things, doesn’t it? There’s a pull to a kind of selfishness, and that evolutionary biologists can explain. But there’s also an appeal to a kind of sense of community and connection that, again, even evolutionary biologists can explain. Good working societies keep these things in balance right down to the idea that you might need a gun because you had to have a well-regulated militia. But it’s a very different world from the world where everyone decides they want their own AR-15 because that’s what freedom means.

There’s a lot in your book about debts that need to be paid. Can you explain this concept?

We have arrived at this extraordinary period of simply unimaginable wealth creation. But we now understand some of the costs, the expenses of others. Whether there are people in our own society excluded from the economic escalator or people whose lives are turned upside down by the carbon we have dumped into the atmosphere by becoming so prosperous.

I’m old-fashioned enough to think that debts owed should be paid off.

Often debts are only repaid if there is some compulsion to do so, right?

It’s true. In this case, there is no method to force it. That’s why we write books and we organize and so on. And appeals to people’s conscience, which is not a totally fruitless appeal.

But should the government be more muscular in these areas?

Sure. But ‘government’ is just another way of saying ‘we all work together’. So unless we come to a consensus within our society that we should do these things, the government will not do them.

What I’m trying to say is that some progressives have shown their frustration with democracy. They cannot impose these changes you write about, but they recognize their necessity.

Yes, and if we had perhaps an alternative to recommend to democracy, perhaps it would be worth thinking about, but probably not for me. Because, as the book points out, I grew up in Lexington, Mass., and had the idea that democracy matters imprinted on me from an early age.

You start the book with a very poignant image of what it was like growing up there. I guess house prices have gone up, well, not literally exponentially, but dramatically.

I would say literally. The house my parents bought for $30,000, or about $200,000 in today’s dollars, sold last year, and the last person who bought it paid $1 million for it. dollars and immediately tore it down, and on that narrow footprint of land built something that looks like a cross between a college and a medium-security prison.

Exponential is the only word to describe the speed at which house prices have risen. And that’s the definition in the sense of unearned income. People were just in the right place at the right time.

And what does that mean? What is the proliferation of wealth represented by real estate and stocks, what does it do to society?

This makes permanent the divisions and inequalities that existed when you got on the escalator. It ensures that people who weren’t able to get on the escalator at the bottom never make it back. The numbers are really quite remarkable on what happened to, for example, the wealth gap between white and black Americans during this period.

Are racial reparations necessary?

Yeah. I mean who knows what we’re gonna call them? And I am well aware that saying this is a great gift for right-wing politicians. Are you talking about them? But in terms of justice, there is no doubt.

I think that’s the underlying reason why people are so mad that someone is teaching racism in public schools. It’s not because I think people worry about their kids being burdened with guilt. Children are smart. The children studied history for a long time and did very well. It’s because people feel guilty themselves and don’t want to have to think about it. Because why would you want to think about it?

What would it say to you about this country if Trump or someone like him were elected in 2024?

The body rallied to fight the virus once. But clearly, it has weakened us even further to do so, and it doesn’t seem like the body politic is particularly strong or able to fight those fevers again. We will see. But, I mean, that would be a sign, I think that fever hadn’t gone down.

Can you explain the relationship between the cultural issues, the political issues you write about in this book and the climate work you have been doing for many years now?

The ideological framework we have lived in since Reagan was absolutely perfect for constantly expanding our demands on the environment and absolutely toxic for finding a way to curb the climate crisis.

These decades were a time when the United States uniquely possessed extraordinary leverage due to its wealth and superpower status. …and all that leverage has been used in the wrong direction when it comes to climate change.

Are you pessimistic about the future?

Well, look, the title of the very first book I wrote about all this when I was 27 or something was “The End of Nature.” So I’m not a Pollyanna. But I’m also, you know, I spend all day as a volunteer and an organizer, and I wouldn’t do this if I decided it was no use. I’m not stupid either. I’ll keep going as long as I can make a plausible argument that it’s worth it, and if I can’t, then I’ll retreat to the back porch to drink bourbon.

What kind of bourbon do you like?

What do you have?


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