Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Cultural Environmentalist

Bill McKibben is interested in preserving the subculture in which people like him are heroes, and wants to make it the dominant culture. But not by force, exactly…

If you look up Bill McKibben on the web, you will find almost nothing but praise. McKibben’s first book, The End of Nature, was the first popular work to warn about global warming and he remains a front-and-center environmental activist. The recent marches in various locations to protest government inaction on global warming, called Step It Up? (the photo is perfect) That was a McKibben-driven thing. He writes books and magazine articles, speaks at conferences, and Bill McKibben is sensitive. “Striking.” “Redeeming.” He is one of the heaviest hitters in environmental activism.

Sad truth: Bill McKibben doesn’t care about the environment that much. What he cares about is making everyone act like the cool sort of people that environmentalists are. He wouldn’t see it that way, of course, and you have to tread a long distance before you realize that he can mean nothing else. He is very earnest – that particular word is used to describe him often – about global warming, and he doesn’t use a rhetoric of force. I doubt you could uncover any statements where McKibben advocates that we should make people act right.

Of course not. You do it by first encouraging them to do the right thing, then by having the government reward them for doing it, then punishing them for not doing it, then making it illegal. You don’t target individuals so much as the places they work for, or their entertainments, or their purchases. But it’s not force. Not really.

I am at this point always suspicious of the individuals who make environmental advocacy their career. Advocates are in general not doers, but gatherers, getting all the faithful together in one place so that they can all…all be together. In one place. So that they can show people how much they care. I feel the same way about advocates for causes I like as well. Going to a conference is mostly just rallying the faithful, but at least there is usually a serious educational portion and some tolerance of controversy. When the primary goal turns out to be something like “show congress,” or “raise awareness,” or “let America know” then it’s just flock behavior.

I became suspicious of McKibben in particular watching the video debate I linked to earlier. He couldn’t stay focused on the environment, but had to keep bringing up the War in Iraq, the personalities of his opponents, and the dishonesty of corporation advocacy. He also would not even attempt Lomborg’s challenge that we should spend government money wisely, which to Lomborg meant not focusing on warming but on targeted fixes. The proper response to that if you “care about the planet” is to agree with the principle of using finite funds wisely, then show how working on warming gives the most bang for the buck. McKibben got there vaguely a few times, vaporizing about synergy.

It’s the booklist that really gives away the game on McKibben’s intentions.
The End of Nature, which highlights runaway population growth and global warming. That first part doesn’t get mentioned so much now, because it turned out to not be much of a problem. The premise is that we have almost eliminated nature because we look at it differently, regarding it as a thing. We are changing all of nature by our actions now, and that’s a bad thing. Apparently all the irrigation, livestock-domestication, cropland, dam-building, and intentionally burning vast areas that our ancestors did doesn’t count as real effect. “We have built a greenhouse, a human creation where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.” Bleah. A similarly revealing quote from the same book.
I am a reasonably orthodox Methodist, and I go to church on Sunday because fellowship matters. . . . But it is not in "God's house" that I feel his presence most—it is in his outdoors', on some sun-warmed slope of pine needles or by the surf.
Gee, what an original idea. No one’s ever thought of that before. But Lewis H. Lapham does the takedown much better: "The author, a young man of sensibility named Bill McKibben, strives for a sanctimonious effect that is earnest, doom-ridden, precious and tear-stained. In New York, a city not known for its farms or its morals, his essay was received as a work of rural piety". Ouchies.

Other books include The Age of Missing Information, which tells us that TV isn’t real, but McKibben countered that with a short camping trip in the Adirondacks, where he gained “deep knowledge.” Knowledge like
...Human beings--any one of us, and our species as a whole--are not all-important, not at the center of the world. That is the one essential piece of information, the one great secret, offered by any encounter with the woods or the mountains or the ocean or any wilderness or chunk of nature or patch of night sky.

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. Bill tells us how to be human, and lets us know that money doesn’t buy happiness. He is quite sure, despite all the leisure activities and early retirements, that Americans are obsessed with money, and need to be reminded. Actually, I think Bill McKibben and environmentalists are the ones obsessed with money, sermonizing that no one should be any richer than them, as in his most recent book Deep Economy. Along with his similarly-themed Hope, Human and Wild, McKibben thinks that building local economies is the way to go. Smaller. Homier. With fewer Wal-Marts. Bill assures us “The formula of human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy.” I’m trying to remember when it was, exactly, that people believed that. Still, it must be so if a Harvard journalism major says so.

If I am being extra-snippy at this point it is because such ideas have real consequences. Poor nations remain poor. Children go hungry. So that Vermont can continue to have dairy farms, which are so cool, because they hearken back to an earlier era when… you get the picture.

Hundred-Dollar Holiday. Christmas has become too materialistic. Wow, another original idea. If you haven’t gotten the idea yet that the point is that more people should live like Bill McKibben, you’re not paying attention.

Maybe One: A Case For Smaller Families. There’s too much population! We use too much energy! We waste! And only children are smarter, too! Sure, and when you have only one child you can decide at age 37 to indulge in the mid-life fantasy of dropping everything to become a competitive cross-country skier, so that you can experience what a life focused on the body is like. Which in turn gives you an interesting perspective on your father’s brain cancer, as in Long Distance.

McKibben’s essays are easy enough to find on the net. He has a regular column for Grist, writes for Harper’s, used to write for the New Yorker. You can even catch some of his religious maunderings as well, as in The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong. in which he speaks highly of Jim Wallis – not the way to my good side – and pretty much tells us that Jesus was a Green and a Liberal. Not that he would state it that baldly, but it’s hard to miss.

Bill McKibben is interested in preserving the subculture in which people like him are heroes, and wants to make it the dominant culture. But not by force, exactly…


Anonymous said...

Remember Alan Sherman? He did "Camp Granada". Trying to cash in on his fame, he did some forgettable follow ups. Of course, we of trivial brain tend to remember the forgettable. In any event, he had one release where he was talking about how his mother used to tell him to clean off his plate "because people are starving in Europe". So, Alan dutifully complied and "the people in Europe kept starting and I kept getting fatter." Something in this post reminded me of that.

Have a good trip.

Anonymous said...

That should have been "the people in Europe kept starving . . ." I should proof read better.

Anonymous said...

Great post, AVI. And enjoy the trip.

Anonymous said...

I remember first realizing that McKibben was an idiot that disliked ordinary people about 10 years ago. At that time I still read the NY Times and they had a big magazine spread on aerial photos of human impact on the land. There was one of Queens if I remember correctly with lots of small houses on small lots. McKibben made a snarky comment about ants or something unimaginative. I thought what a jerk. I saw nice neighborhoods where people had BBQ's and the kids played in the many backyard swimming pools you could see.

They didn't have a cabin in the woods like Bill, but were conserving energy and land by living close packed in the city!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Amen. The objection, as you suggest is to the sort of people that they are and how they choose to live. Your example is reminiscent of the sneering song "Ticky Tacky," which criticizes all those folks for being "just the same." It is entirely untrue, and in fact is more true that the people who sing the song are "just the same."