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The Prophet

Bill McKibben; drawing by James Ferguson

Four years ago, I gave a morning talk at Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It was the institute’s thirty-first Prairie Festival, a sparkling autumn weekend in the central Kansas hills. For years, the Land Institute has been one of the centers of positive thinking about agriculture. It is both farm and laboratory, a place where Jackson and his colleagues are trying to create, among other things, a way of farming with perennial plants instead of annual crops like corn and soybeans.

My subject was the dedemocratization of the rural landscape. Ruthless concentration—what the USDA likes to call “efficiency”—has depopulated America’s farmland since World War II, leaving fewer and fewer people behind to vote on its behalf. Dedemocratization isn’t merely an effect of industrial agriculture. It is one of its tactics. Track the spread of factory farming, and you’ll find it where there are no zoning laws or where zoning and local control over land use have been deliberately weakened. It’s like tracing the source of cholera back to a single contaminated well. Find a county or township where confinement hog barns crowd the landscape—where the air downwind is vile and the water downstream is polluted with antibiotic- resistant organisms—and you will surely have found a place where democracy has gone awry. No one who has the chance to resist will consent to live within the ichorous effluent of factory farms.

That afternoon in Kansas, there was a photo opportunity for everyone present. A National Geographic photographer climbed a tall stepladder and began waving people into the frame. They all huddled together in the sunshine against an old barn, and, on command, they raised their arms in the air. No one needed to tell them to smile. The date was October 1, and the photos would be uploaded to the website of the group called 350.org, which, on October 24, would hold its International Day of Climate Action, the first major public outcry against climate change. 350.org was founded by Bill McKibben and some of his students from Middlebury College. Its name is meant to remind us that the safe threshold for the amount of atmospheric carbon is 350 parts per million. Four years later, we have crested 400 parts per million, and there is barely a hope of even starting to slow down.

I admit that I stood at the periphery when those photos were taken. Something about crowds—even right-thinking crowds—has worried me ever since I joined a few of them, right-thinking I thought, at Berkeley in 1970. Like many of the people at the Prairie Festival, I knew that 350 ppm was an educational, motivational symbol and a real, measurable number—about 75 ppm more atmospheric carbon than there was in 1800. I remember thinking, too, that it was a historical marker, not as dramatic as September 11, 2001, perhaps, but one in whose lee we were living nonetheless. Still, what really bothered me was the good-natured jostling and the waving arms. It was cheerful, optimistic, and naive.

There’s probably no such thing as nonviolent protest without a measure of naiveté. (Not that there’s anything sophisticated about violent protest.) Chanting on Pennsylvania Avenue, waiting to be arrested, forming a human chain around the White House—these actions, all of them staged by 350.org, are overwhelmingly indirect. But when it comes to taking on the fossil fuel industry and slowing the rate at which we pour carbon into the atmosphere, what would direct action look like? This is the conundrum McKibben addresses in his new book, Oil and Honey.

McKibben is a man of many virtues. He’s a great guy, an inspiring speaker, an indefatigable writer, researcher, teacher, and organizer. But his most important virtue may be simply that he remembers what it is to be naive. From his own experience he’s able to show readers how it feels to discover the terrible things they themselves are discovering: the extent of climate change, the depth of its likely consequences, the scale of congressional corruption and inefficacy, the power and callousness of the fossil fuel industry. I would even say that McKibben has a certain tenderness for the moment when naiveté falls away in tatters. That moment resembles a conversion experience, which is one of the most powerful bonds a group of people can share, even when the conversion is reality-based, even when the conversion means a loss of faith and not its sudden coming.

Here’s an example of McKibben’s fundamental decency, all the more telling when you remember that almost no one has been writing about climate change longer or working to fight it harder than he has. In January 2012, he appeared on a panel with Lee Terry, the Republican congressman from Nebraska. The subject was the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, will carry diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands region, through Nebraska, to a refining and export hub on the Texas Gulf Coast. During the conversation, McKibben remarked that Big Oil “was using the congressmen it funded heavily to make [the pipeline] happen.” Terry, bristling, immediately asked whether McKibben was saying that Congress has been “bought off.” And McKibben blushed.

Here’s the point. We would, most of us, have blushed with him. Congressman Terry is one of the most outspoken advocates of the pipeline, and he had just written a truculent bill that would have forced President Obama to approve its construction. And of course, as McKibben soon discovered, Terry had taken more than $350,000 in campaign contributions from Big Oil since 1999. It’s one thing to know, within yourself, that Congress has been bought and sold. It’s something else to say it loud enough to hear yourself saying it in public and in front of a self-righteous congressman. Nothing in a good Methodist upbringing prepares you for that. Losing your faith isn’t hard. That happens to good Methodists like McKibben all the time. What’s hard is losing your residual faith, the desire to believe that the system is working—the desire to believe after belief itself has gone.

Oil and Honey charts the progress of McKibben as a polite pilgrim, a man burdened and graced by his politeness. It’s a middle-aged bildungsroman—but all bildung and no roman. And if it reads like a campaign diary, that is only one of the many burdens this book carries. No real writer wants to become an explainer, but McKibben has forced himself to become one. Again and again, he has to explain to audiences the patterns that lie behind climate change. Worse, he has to explain to them that they’re living with lost illusions. This is where the lingering memory of his own education comes in. I’ve seen the earnestness with which audiences question McKibben. There’s often a striking imbalance between the passion they feel and the solutions they propose. Will driving a Prius help? What about more bike lanes? LED bulbs? Going vegan? We’d all like to believe that personal sacrifice of some sort will make the difference, if only because we want to take direct action against the problem. McKibben’s woeful task is to say, simply: do what you can to make yourself feel better about it all, but it will make no difference in the long run. The problem is so much larger than that.

Only a person capable of communicating a little tenderness to his audience—something richer than sadness or regret—can begin to make that message palatable. A touch of impatience, a hint of cynicism, and it would be unbearably harsh. In the past couple of years, the questions themselves have grown more urgent as the weather has grown stranger and McKibben’s audiences have grown more knowing, thanks in part to the efforts of 350.org. People are now asking what they can do to prepare themselves for the world that climate change will bring. McKibben’s answer? Live “anyplace with a strong community.” Where do we find those communities? McKibben: You make them.

The implication is easy to miss. The warming atmosphere carries a heavier and heavier load of moisture just waiting to be loosed on, say, Boulder, Colorado, where seventeen of its thirty annual inches of rainfall fell in mid-September, nine inches in a single day (September 12, 2013). It’s going to take strong communities to survive the forces of nature and repair the damage. But it’s also going to take strong communities to survive social fracturing under that kind of stress.

For many reasons, our culture is obsessed with a postapocalyptic world. Yet the problem before us isn’t the postapocalypse. It’s a rolling apocalypse, working its way unequally, differentially, from place to place as the years pass, erasing assumptions, testing and almost certainly unraveling social bonds. There are really no analogies for what we face. The September floods in Colorado weren’t “biblical,” though in that born-again neck of the woods the word seemed to fly with the wings of a bat. The floods were human. No wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.

Like most professional dispellers of illusion, McKibben routinely faces the extraordinary human capacity to normalize the abnormal. Our hopes and fears may live in the future, but we live appallingly in the present. The hard part is getting us to act as if in fact there will ever be such a thing as the future. As a species, we may be unbelievably adaptable psychologically—we’re descendants of the twentieth century, after all—but we are not unbelievably adaptable physiologically. Neither is any other species. The short message is this: we’re going to have to remake how we live before we’re forcibly remade in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. The long message is however long it takes to get the short message across.

The problem—call it McKibben’s conundrum—is that human nature changes infinitely more slowly than we are changing nature. We like to believe that, ultimately, culture is our nature, that we live within an edifice of our own construction. And we do, except in ways, again, that we’re only beginning to imagine. The carbon load we’re dumping into the atmosphere—and into the oceans, which all too readily absorb atmospheric carbon—is almost entirely anthropogenic. It’s a cultural product. But the forces it unleashes are natural forces. Suddenly, the weather has new raw materials to work with—a lower albedo, or capacity to reflect light, on the Greenland ice sheets, an open-water Arctic, a higher load of moisture. Everywhere you look, you can see the squeeze we’re putting on nature—the accelerating extinction of species, the relentless destruction of natural habitats. And now everywhere you look, you can see the squeeze that nature is putting on us. An Old Testament kind of mind might even think we deserve it.

Bill McKibben has been living with these facts—and the endless array of facts behind them—for longer than almost anyone, ever since he published The End of Nature, in 1989. It’s worth asking, then, how he finds it possible still to be surprised by the story, where he finds those valuable, hidden reserves of naiveté—the uncompressed coal that will be turned, eventually, into a diamond-like candor. One answer is that McKibben keeps trying to discover ways to tell the story of climate change more effectively. His Do the Math campaign—an offshoot of an article he wrote in 2012, for Rolling Stone, called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”—is a good example. The other answer is that the story keeps getting worse.

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