WASHINGTON — Back when green was merely a color as opposed to a movement, Bill McKibben was on the frontlines of the environmental wars. After graduating from Harvard in 1982, he worked at the New Yorker but eventually left to publish “The End of Nature” in 1989, a book that established him as a leading thinker on the damage human activity is causing to the planet — and future generations of humans.
Since 2001, he has been teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont and publishing books, including most recently “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon.” A memoir of sorts, the book is best explained by its own subtitle: “A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened.”
Though hardly romantic about the past, McKibben is especially dismayed by the American present, wondering how we became “a society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before a pandemic deepened our divisions, on a heating planet whose physical future is dangerously in question.”
McKibben spoke to Yahoo News from his home in Vermont on what he said was a lovely day. It was humid in Washington, D.C., where climate change will soon enough render weather conditions akin to what Mississippi experiences today.
Yahoo News: You write about neighborliness. What is that, and why is it important?
Bill McKibben: I use a number of different words to talk about the same thing, which is the sense that we belong to communities as large as our species and as small as our neighborhood. Over the course of my life, we encountered the extremely radical idea that our only duty was really to ourselves, perhaps our family.
That was the key switch. Jimmy Carter represented one world, and Ronald Reagan the other. We made a decisive choice.
To you, the neoliberal turn is the disastrous one that has brought us to this point?
It goes deeper than just neoliberal economics. When I’m discussing Christianity, I think that’s what happened there too, from community to evangelicals’ single-minded focus on my personal Lord and savior. We’ve ended up in a very transactional and hyper-individual world in so many ways.
I might be misreading, but I don’t think you see this solely as the project of philosophical conservatives.
There were certainly seeds of it that came out of the ’60s as well. “Do your own thing” had Ayn Rand (an influential novelist and philosopher) on some level too.
If, in a sense, our entire society is complicit in this arrangement, could it be that simply most people want to live this way?
It’s possible. It’s a very interesting question. Clearly human nature contains both things, right? There’s a draw to a kind of selfishness, and that, evolutionary biologists can explain. But there’s also a draw to a kind of sense of community and connectedness that again, even evolutionary biologists can explain. Good working societies hold 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 that’s a very different world than 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 that concept?
We’ve come to this extraordinary period of just unimaginable wealth creation. But we now understand some of the cost, the expense of others. Whether there were people in our own society shut out from the economic escalator ride or people who are having their lives turned upside down by the carbon that we poured into the atmosphere in the course of becoming that prosperous.
I’m old-fashioned enough to think that debts owed should be repaid.
Often debts are only repaid if there’s some compulsion to do so, right?
That’s true. In this case one lacks any method of forcing it. That’s why one writes books and organizes and so on and so forth. And appeals to the conscience of people, which is not a completely fruitless appeal.
But should government be more muscular in these areas?
Of course. But “government” is just another way of saying “all of us working together.” So unless we build a consensus within our society that we should do these things, then the government is not going to do them.
What I am trying to get at is that some progressives have shown frustration with democracy. They can’t compel these changes that you write about, but they recognize their necessity.
Yes, and if one perhaps had an alternative to recommend to democracy, maybe it would be worth thinking about it, but probably not for me. Because, as the book points out, I grew up in Lexington, Mass., and I had the notion that democracy is important imprinted on me at an early age.
You start out the book with a very poignant image of what it was like to grow up there. I’m guessing home prices have increased, well, not literally exponentially — but considerably.
I’d say literally. The house my parents bought for 30 grand, which was roughly 200 grand in today’s dollars, it sold last year, and the last person who bought it paid a million dollars for it and immediately tore it down, and on this narrow footprint of land has built something that looks like a cross between a junior high and a medium security prison.
Exponential is the only word to describe how fast home price values have gone up. And that’s the definition in a sense of unearned income. People just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
And what does that mean? What does the proliferation of wealth as represented by real estate and stocks, what does that do to society?
It makes permanent whatever divisions and inequalities were present when you got on the escalator. It makes sure that people who weren’t able to get on the escalator at the bottom, never catch up. The numbers are really quite remarkable about what happened to, say, the wealth gap between white and Black Americans over this period of time.
Are racial reparations necessary?
Yeah. I mean who knows what we’re going to call them? And I’m well aware that to say that is a great gift to right-wing politicians. Do you talk about them? But in terms of justice, there’s no question.
I think that’s the underlying reason people are so crazy about having anyone teach about racism in the public schools. It’s not because I think people are worried that their children are going to be burdened with guilt. Children are smart. Children have studied history for a long time and done just fine. It’s because people are feeling guilty themselves and don’t want to have to think about it. Because why would you want to think about it?
What would it tell you about this country if Trump or someone like him were elected in 2024?
The body rallied to fight off the virus once. But clearly it weakened us yet more to do it, and it doesn’t feel right now like the body politic is especially strong or in a place to fight off those fevers again. We shall see. But, I mean, it would be a sign, I think that that fever had not broken.
Can you explain the relationship between cultural issues, the political issues you write about in this book and the climate work that you’ve been doing for many years now?
The ideological framework that we’ve been living in since Reagan was absolutely perfect for constantly expanding our demands on the environment and absolutely poisonous for figuring out a way to rein in the climate crisis.
These decades have been a period when the U.S. has uniquely possessed extraordinary leverage because of its wealth and superpower status. … And all that leverage was used in the wrong direction when it came to climate change.
Are you pessimistic about the future?
Well, look, the title of the very first book that I wrote about all this back when I was 27 or something, it 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 organizer, and I wouldn’t do that if I had decided there was no use. I’m not an idiot either. I’ll keep it up as long as I can make a plausible argument to myself that it’s worthwhile, and if I can’t, then I will retire to the back porch to drink bourbon.
What kind of bourbon do you like?
What do you got?