Bill McKibben’s recent pilgrimage to the White House didn’t end the way he’d hoped.
Among Americans who’ve never served as vice president, the founder of the web-based movement 350.org and author of the recent bestseller “Eaarth” is our leading climate change activist and writer. Thirty-one years ago, his first book, “The End of Nature,” sounded an alarm against global warming. It prescribed a cultural shift away from fossil fuels and consumerism.
For the decades since, McKibben has expounded some variation of that message. Other than becoming a father (he changed his view — announced in “The End of Nature” — that, for the sake of the planet, he and his wife shouldn’t have children), his personal actions have reflected the ideas he championed back then. McKibben lives in a Vermont village. He and his family raise much of their own food and rely on alternative energy. By all accounts, he spends much of his time hiking in the wilderness and contemplating the big ideas he writes about. As a scholar-in-residence at nearby Middlebury College, he transmits those ideas to young people. And he presses for them on a global scale through 350.org — an organization that draws its name from the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (350 parts per million) to which many scientists say we must return if we’re to have any chance of limiting the effects of climate change.
“Eaarth,” which was published last spring to favorable reviews (here on MNN and elsewhere) has its own forward roll. Just as McKibben three decades ago became one of the first writers to articulate the threat of climate change, he uses “Eaarth” to mark a sobering turning point: We’ve failed to reorder our civilization in a way that will forestall climate change. We’ve already altered the world so profoundly that it needs a new name — one that reflects that it is no longer the hospitable planet that nurtured us for so long. Now, McKibben argues, we must prepare to live with the consequences.
But his prescription for that new “Eaarth” sounds very much like his prescription for the old “Earth.” Back to the land. Small organic farms. Decentralized energy sources. Local decision making.
I can’t help but wonder whether McKibben’s antidote is a bit too pat. Since Henry David Thoreau’s revival in the 1960s, a certain type of progressive environmentalist (I count myself among them) has fantasized for a future that today seems frozen in time. Whether the problem was war or pollution, the power of huge corporations or the alienation of consumerist conformity, that vision came up the same — a de-concentration of power, a “return” to tried and true ways of doing things, a sense of balance.
McKibben was hardly the first to make the case for such a future — although to my mind he’s the most eloquent. In 1973, the economist E.F. Schumacher published “Small is Beautiful,” which became a bible for human-scale enterprises before anyone had even abbreviated the letters DIY. In 1975, there was Ernest Callenbach’s utopian novel, “Ecotopia”, about a mysterious eco-feminist-hippie-commune-style democracy in the Pacific Northwest.
I’m not saying, mind you, that Schumacher, Callenbach and McKibben were wrong. The durability of their warning argues that its preachers have earned the right to say “I told you so” (except that wouldn’t be nice now that our climate situation is so grave). And the vision of smaller scale approaches that are more in tune with nature certainly seems a healthier alternative to the path we’re following right now.
But look around you. The trend over the last three decades toward more consumerism, more centralized power and an even greater manipulation of nature should tell us that the message never sank in. It’s one thing to paint a picture of a better world; it’s quite another to figure out how to get there.
It’s even more challenging to figure out whether we as a society — and for that matter other societies around the globe — is equipped to adopt the very particular vision that intellectual idealistic Baby Boomers happened to come up with in the 1970s after reading about Thoreau's year at Walden pond. “Eaarth” is so different from our Earth and so bound to hit us with so many surprises that it’s difficult to imagine that the lifestyles we'll be forced to adopt will so neatly match the utopian vision of an earlier time.
McKibben’s recent trip to the White House — the one that I mentioned didn’t turn out so well — was about something that happened during the apogee of that communitarian era. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter placed a solar hot-water system on the roof of the White House. Even before climate change had become the central environmental issue of the day, it was a powerful, symbolic statement in favor of energy independence and reducing pollution.
“A generation from now,” Carter told the reporters gathered that day on the White House lawn, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”
Seven years later, Ronald Reagan made just as strong a statement in the other direction: His administration removed the solar thermal system. And the panels eventually made their way up to Unity College in Maine.
“So far, we haven’t heard a word from the White House about whether they’ll accept the gift and make the promise or not — which, frankly, surprises me,” McKibben wrote while en route to Washington. “I can’t think of a clearer win for the president, a better reminder to the legions of young people who worked on his campaign that he is still focused on the future.”
The stunt is part of a larger strategy. McKibben argues that “inside-the-Beltway green groups” made too many deals with special interests in their effort to get a weak climate bill passed. And that weak climate bill didn’t pass anyway. Now, as environmentalists retool for a climate action that’s perhaps two years away, building a mass movement is in order.
Good point. That strategy makes sense. And McKibben has a track record as an organizer that should encourage us. A year ago, 350.org coordinated more than 5,200 rallies for climate action in 181 countries — an event that CNN called “most widespread day of political action in the planet's history.” This year, on Oct. 10, 350.org, is organizing a “Global Work Party,” during which participants will install solar systems, create community gardens and take thousands of other tiny steps to combat climate change. If such actions build momentum — think of it as a Tea Party for people who understand science — they could have an impact.
At the same time, McKibben’s trip to Washington offers a cautionary tale. Officials invited him into the White House and courteously discussed the solar panels with him. But New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin explains that the quest was “destined to run up against an immovable hurdle: the intertwined bureaucracy involved in doing anything to the White House and the authority of the Secret Service over anything that happens on that fabled roof.”
It turns out that the White House roof has undergone quite a few changes since Carter’s day, and especially since Sept. 11, 2001. A solar installer who placed panels on another part of the executive complex in 2002 told Revkin that anti-aircraft missiles and other “spook stuff” on the roof weren’t likely to make way for an old solar panel.
Some things haven’t changed much in 30 years. We need the intelligence, eloquence, passion and leadership of a thousand Bill McKibbens — now more than ever, in fact. And, if we care about our children and our children’s children, we need to fight at his side.
But some things have changed a lot. And the idea that the solution can only reside in an idealistic vision imagined 30 or 40 years ago needs to change, too.
Ken Edelstein is the editor and publisher of GreenBuildingChronicle.com.