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 …

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