Making the Case:
A talk with environmentalist BILL McKIBBEN
Highlights from Issue 35: Gambling
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
By David Gargill
In 12 books and countless magazine articles written over the last quarter century, Bill McKibben has tracked and suggested a way to alleviate the impact of human life on the natural world. In doing so, he has emerged as one of our most trenchant environmental writers and campaigners: Over the past few years, he has organized the largest demonstrations against global warming in the country’s history, and in March, Holt Paperbacks published a collection of his essays titled The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life. McKibben is also the editor of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, a compendium spanning more than 150 years, which was published in April as part of the Library of America series.
Stop Smiling: Quite a lot of culling was required to compile this volume and, at 900-plus pages, it still has considerable heft. Is it safe to assume that contained herein are the most noteworthy works of environmental writing?
Bill McKibben: There was really no way to have an objective criteria, but I was looking for pieces that were both beautiful and made a difference in what came afterward, though not all of them did. I was guided by an interest in the dialogue between environmental writing and the environmental movement to a large degree. And, of course, the desire to have the different parts of the country represented.
SS: You write in your introduction that we wouldn’t have national parks without George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, or the Wilderness Act without Robert Marshall and Howard Zahniser. But can you talk for a moment about the writing as writing, from Thoreau up to the present day?
BM: It’s been our great contribution to world letters, this account of the conflict between people and the world around them — not just conflict, but cooperation. It began with a massive figure, Thoreau, who is so massive that he warped the chronology. Muir is a representative early figure, inventing a whole new grammar of ecstasy in the wild and launching a new way of looking at the world that powered the environmental movement for a long time, and continues to do so. By the mid-20th century, writers like Aldo Leopold are beginning to suggest the emerging science of ecology, teaching us how everything is tied in — even human communities. And writers like Rachel Carson augment that understanding, reminding us that modernity might not be without its deep shadows. Then we reach 1970, the first Earth Day, which coincides with the genre’s true flowering.
SS: It seems that much of the early literature employed a simple conceit: aesthetics were used to stir people to stewardship by arousing a dormant appreciation of nature, which perhaps had been subdued by the prosaic demands of modern life: “The hurrying to and fro and confused jabbering of men,” as Thoreau said. The recent writing seems like some sort of econobioethics — a far more intellectually rigorous and pragmatic literature. In his foreword to the text, Al Gore writes about the need to “disenthrall ourselves” in order to fulfill “our ultimate manifest destiny; to save the world.” Is that an apt way to describe its evolution? From awe, to advancing an agenda and proposing solutions?
BM: There’s still plenty of awe, but the form has moved from a fascination with the wild toward an understanding that the wild will be protected only when we get it right in human communities. I would say it’s gone from the nature-writing end of the spectrum to the environmental-writing end. The tougher the shape the world has gotten into environmentally, the more people have risen to its defense with words.
SS: But can words on a page contend with Dick Cheney, Dow Chemical, American Electric Power, ADM and an armada of Japanese whaling boats?
BM: Yes, they can still be potent, but only if they help motivate a movement. I spend all my time trying to organize national and international grassroots movements around global warming. Last year we organized 2,000 demonstrations across America, and now we’ve just launched a website called 350.org to do the same kind of work around the world. We rely heavily on the written word to make the case.
SS: In your introduction you say, “Only on this continent was Culture fully conscious while Economy went about the business of knocking down Nature.” What does that say about us, that we were fully conscious and still made a mess of things?
BM: We were the first people to be fully conscious while we were despoiling our continent, so we noticed! But it also says that these are very tough forces to resist, because there are many good reasons behind much of what we’ve done, and there was always very little chance that we were going to keep this pristine continent that we found when the Europeans first arrived. It’s been a constant struggle but environmentalists have won an awful lot: protected lands, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which the rest of the world now follows. And America invented the fighting NGO with the Sierra Club and other groups. That’s the model for the rest of the world.
SS: Granted, it’s important to have laws to protect the environment and strong secondary institutions to influence government, but it seems that we’re not only fighting the moneyed corporate interests; we’re also fighting some pretty deeply embedded drives in ourselves. The acquisitive nature of man has been raised to the level of sacrament here in America. We’re want-machines by any measure, and we can make bogeymen of the multinational concerns and their Beltway cronies. But ultimately, this struggle is with ourselves.
BM: You said it, and that’s why environmental writing is, at its root, an extremely philosophic enterprise. I think it’s mainly in the US that there’s an absolutely central literature where arguably our best writer, Thoreau, was working from the start, and where this literature has so powerfully influenced our sense of who we are.
SS: Or who we should be. Since the onset of the Industrial Age, hasn’t science shown us a great deal of what we can and can’t do in good conscience? And do China and India deserve even harsher indictments for the irresponsible hyper-expansions they’re now undertaking? Are they unconscious, or unconscionable?
BM: Well, in both cases the great deforestations happened a very long time ago. These societies — at least some constituencies among them — are doing a magnificent job of trying to come to grips with the enormous wave of industrialization that is sweeping over the Asian continent, and there are nature writers emerging in both places doing their very best to figure out how to slow that juggernaut down and try to shape it in a way that helps people and doesn’t hurt them.
SS: England, the first industrialized nation, was dragged kicking and screaming into the Industrial Revolution. The idea met with great resistance, with the majority content in their agrarian serfdom and inimical to this business of revamping society. Thomas Friedman and others have said that a similarly arduous, unpopular and obviously contrary revolution of the green variety is required to curb the excesses of our society and forge a sustainable future. Do you agree? And if so, can you suggest the role environmental writing might play in such an effort?
BM: I do, and I think writing will play the role that it always does: to illuminate the dangers and possibilities of the moment. In this case, it will try to help people envision what a world beyond cheap fossil fuels would look like, while reminding them of the pleasures of the natural world, of human contact, and help to lure us away from the infatuation with stuff that is the hallmark of our age.