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

WASHINGTON – Back in the days when green was just a color and not a movement, Bill McKibben was at the forefront of 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 harm 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 kind of memoir, 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.Environmentalist Bill McKibben.

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

Though unromantic about the past, McKibben is particularly dismayed by the American present, wondering how we have become “a society fraught with grim racial and economic inequality, in which life expectancy was decreasing even before a pandemic aggravated our divisions. on a warming planet whose physique the future is dangerously questioned ”.

McKibben spoke to Yahoo News from his Vermont home on what he said was a beautiful day. He was humid in Washington, DC, where climate change will soon make weather conditions similar to what Mississippi experiences today.

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

Bill McKibben: I use several words to talk about the same thing, which is the sense that we belong to communities as big as our species and as small as our neighborhood. Over the course of my life, we have come across the extremely radical idea that our only duty is 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.

For you, is the neoliberal turn the disastrous one that has brought us to this point?

It goes deeper than just neoliberal economics. When I speak of Christianity, I think that is what happened there too, from the community to the resolute attention of the evangelicals on my personal Lord and Savior. We ended up in a very transactional and hyper-individual world in so many ways.

I might be misunderstood, but I don’t think you see this as just a project of philosophical conservatives.

There were certainly seeds that came out of the 1960s as well. “Do your thing” also had Ayn Rand (an influential novelist and philosopher) in a way.

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

It’s possible. This is a very interesting question. Clearly human nature contains both, right? There is an attraction to a kind of selfishness, and this evolutionary biologists can explain. But there is also a call to a kind of sense of community and connectedness that, once again, even evolutionary biologists can explain. Good working societies balance these things up to the idea that you might need a gun because you had to have a well-regulated militia. But this is a very different world than where everyone decides they want their own AR-15 because that’s what freedom means.

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

We have come to this extraordinary period of simply unimaginable wealth creation. But now we understand some of the costs, the expenses of others. Whether there were people in our own society excluded from the cheap escalator race or people who are seeing their lives disrupted by the carbon we poured into the atmosphere as we got so prosperous.

I am old enough to think that the debts owed should be paid off.

Debts are often only repaid if there is a compulsion to do so, right?

It’s true. In this case, there is no way to force it. That’s why books are written and organized and so on. And it appeals to people’s conscience, which is not a wholly fruitless appeal.

But should the government be more beefy in these areas?

Of course. But “government” is just another way of saying “we all work together”. So unless we create a consensus within our society that we should do these things, the government won’t do them.

What I am trying to achieve is that some progressives have shown frustration with democracy. They can’t enforce these changes you write about, but they recognize the need for them.

Yes, and if there was perhaps an alternative to democracy to recommend, it might be worth thinking about, but probably not for me. Because, as the book points out, I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and from an early age I was impressed with the idea that democracy is important.

You start the book with a very touching picture of what it was like to grow up there. I guess house prices have gone up, well, not literally exponentially, but considerably.

I would say literally. The house my parents bought for 30,000, which was about $ 200,000 today, was sold last year and the last person who bought it paid a million dollars and immediately. demolished, and on this narrow footprint of land he built something that looks like a cross between a middle school and a medium security prison.

Exponential is the only word to describe the rate at which house prices have risen. And this is the definition in the sense of unearned income. People were in the right place at the right time.

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

It makes the divisions and inequalities present when you step on the escalator permanent. It makes sure that people who have not been able to get on the escalator at the bottom never reach the delay. The numbers are truly remarkable as to what happened to, say, the wealth gap between white and black Americans over this time period.

Are racial reparations needed?

Yes. I mean, who knows what we will call them? And I know what to say that is a great gift for right-wing politicians. Are you talking about them? But in terms of justice, there is no question.

I think this is the underlying reason why people are so crazy about someone teaching about racism in public schools. It’s not because I think people are worried that their children will be burdened with guilt. Children are smart. Children have been studying history for a long time and have done well. It’s because people feel guilty and don’t want to have to think about it. Why why would you want to think about it?

What would he tell you about this country if Trump or someone like him were elected in 2024?

The body mobilized to fight the virus once. But it clearly weakened us even further to do so, and right now it doesn’t seem like the body politic is particularly strong or in a place to fight those fevers again. We will see. But, I mean, it would be a sign, I guess 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 poisonous for finding a way to curb the climate crisis.

These decades have been a time when the United States uniquely possessed tremendous influence due to 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 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 organizer, and I wouldn’t do that if I decided it wasn’t needed. I’m not an idiot either. I will continue like this until I can argue plausibly to myself that it is worth it, and if I cannot, then I will retire to the back porch and drink bourbon.

What kind of bourbon do you like?

What do you have?


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