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A force to be reckoned with
Bill McKibben's writing -- part art, part essay, part journalism with more than a smidgen of harangue -- has framed the thinking on environmental issues for more than a generation. Two new books out this spring, "The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces From an Active Life" (Henry Holt: 446 pp., $18 paper) and "American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau" (Library of America: 1,050 pp., $40), will impress on the reader how calmly, if not always quietly, he has illuminated paths to the future, thinking alongside us about what might be possible, even as information hurtles toward us, technology blinds us and being human seems to mean something entirely different than what any of us would consciously want.
Clocking in at an extremely fit 47, McKibben is happy to have lived most of his life, as he puts it, on the "cusp." Born when Ike was still president, he was too young to understand the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK -- but old enough to feel the shock and the dashed hopes of the adults in his liberal Democrat household in Lexington, Mass. A teenager in the 1970s, he was too young to put flowers in guns but old enough to accompany his parents on grape-boycotting protests and watch his father get arrested (a thrilling memory).
He was a young husband and journalist at the New Yorker in the 1980s, when the ravages of profiteering were changing the landscape noticeably and the sheer number of homeless and disenfranchised living on the streets was unavoidable. (No one with any conscience could look away -- or fail to notice it as an immediate effect of a greed-driven economy.) He became a father in the 1990s, when it was difficult for an informed writer to just be a writer and for any parent not to encourage his or her children to at least try to change the direction the world seemed to be going in. Now, in the first decade of the new millennium, McKibben is an unabashed activist, head of a grass-roots, student-led organization called Step It Up, which, in its first year (2007), generated more than 1,400 demonstrations in 50 states last April 14.
Now, on a crisp winter day in Ripton, Vt., where McKibben lives with his wife, writer Sue Halpern (one of the first American woman Rhodes Scholars, "the real brains of the family," he says, trying to sound modest), and their 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, he shows off their home, full of wood, stone and windows framing red pines that go for miles. It's a nice life -- McKibben and Halpern are scholars/writers-in-residence at nearby Middlebury College; Sophie is the kind of direct, informed teenager who makes you want to say, "Tell me, what is your secret?"
McKibben is a passionate cross-country skier -- he's the faculty advisor to Middlebury's team. His 2000 book, "Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously," was about his training for endurance events. This year, the snow has been excellent, and after talking awhile in his upstairs office, we are both eager for a quick ski to Robert Frost's cabin on Middlebury's Bread Loaf campus. Halpern and Sophie promise that McKibben will slow down for me, something he rarely does for them.
McKibben lives on the high wire between literature and activism and, given the quality and timelessness of the pieces he has included in the anthology "American Earth," he's in good company. He is modest, but he believes in the power of writing to change behavior, even the most deeply ingrained. "I'm a craftsman, not an artist," he insists. As for journalism: "I long ago recognized my inability to take sides. It took me a long time to shake off the notion that a journalist shouldn't get arrested."
McKibben went to Harvard in 1978 and became the editor of the Harvard Crimson, the university's student newspaper. After graduating, he went directly to the New Yorker, where he wrote for the Talk of the Town column from 1982 to 1987. He wrote about homelessness (these were the Mayor Ed Koch years, when so many of the old hotels were being converted to condos), but even then, his conscience made him wary of voyeurism, of institutionalizing homelessness by writing about it.
McKibben is adamant, like many writers, about the vital role the magazine has played in American letters. "Walking away from the New Yorker at the time seemed all principle. I am fully capable of working myself into a fit of righteous furor. Si Newhouse was the last vestige of anachronistic independence." When editor William Shawn was forced out, McKibben and Halpern moved upstate to the Adirondacks, where he first fell in love with the part of the country that, as much as he loves Vermont, he considers his true home.
"We weren't trying to go back to the land," he says, ever practical. "It was beautiful and it was cheap. We tried to figure out how to become part of that community. We lived by the rural rule: 'Don't try to tell everyone what to do, especially the people who have lived there for many generations. Better to just help out.' " He spent hours "falling in love with the outside world. This falling in love made me so emotional while I was writing 'The End of Nature.' It took me a little while to get comfortable there. There weren't many trails to hike on. I did a lot of bushwacking."
"The End of Nature" (1989) was McKibben's first book and the first to take on global warming in a way that engaged nonscientists. "Now we have [Elizabeth] Kolbert and [Ross] Gelbspan, and at least 70% of all Americans agree this is a big deal," he says. "Now you could fill the Superdome three times over with books on global warming. Not then." The response to the book -- denials that global warming was an important issue and accusations of hyperbole and exaggeration -- left him exhausted: "It was a difficult book emotionally to write. . . . I feel I have been living for the past 20 years in a nightmare, the kind where you can't convince anyone else that something really bad is about to happen. There is something great about finally feeling that we are making progress."
McKibben is hopeful because of Step It Up and a new group, 350.org, named for the number of parts per million carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere that scientists claim is the upper end of what is safe (we're already past 385 ppm in most of the country). "It's not about light bulbs," he says. "Once we've screwed in all the energy-efficient light bulbs, we need to stop worrying about our own personal virtue and create the kinds of communities that foster change," as he wrote in "Deep Economy" (2007). "We need to take strong political action and change federal policies." He's a strong believer in grass-roots activism to achieve this goal. "A farmers market, with 10 times more conversations per transaction than ordinary shopping, is a subversive thing."
"One of the best things that ever happened to me," McKibben adds, pulling periodically on bands to build his upper arm strength for skiing, "was that Sue insisted we have no TV." This inspired his 1992 book, "The Age of Missing Information," for which he spent a year watching 2,400 hours of videotape, all recorded in a single day on more than 100 cable channels in Fairfax, Va. He compared that year to a day spent on a mountaintop near his home. "In some ways, this is my favorite of all the books," he says.
While working on the book, McKibben realized that, as he wrote at the time, "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."
McKibben is a practicing Christian. "I grew up," he says "with an overdeveloped moral sense." It was important, he remembers, "to take sides." His favorite books growing up were "The Chronicles of Narnia," which helped him to recognize the importance of our choices. "Much of my sense of divinity," he admits, "comes from Aslan." In his new book, "The Bill McKibben Reader," he includes a 1996 essay, "Job and Matthew," describing the evolution in his thinking about Christianity and the bBible. "Being white, male, straight, and of impeccably middle-class background, I could not realistically claim to be a victim of anything."
His connection to Christianity was forged the year after he left college. Reading the Bible he came across "Matthew 19," in which Christ admonishes a follower to sell his considerable earthly possessions and give them to the poor. In McKibben's quest for some kind of moral heroism, this translated into rejecting the armor that being middle class gave him: to not do things for money; to do only the things he believed in wholeheartedly, to make a pure effort to change the world. These became his guidelines.
Falling in love with nature gave him a cause he could believe in. It grew from a local concern (his backyard in the Adirondacks) to a global one (climate change). Reading the book of Job from the Hebrew Bible later impressed on McKibben the limits of "human-centered logic," which allows the believer to act as though everything on Earth is for our consumption. It led him to think more about community and simplicity, to the work of E.F. Schumacher ("Small Is Beautiful") and pretty much everything written by his hero, Wendell Berry.
Their work is included in "American Earth," for which McKibben he chose "literature with measurable effects," rather than what we call nature writing, though he admires that too. which McKibben also admires. The collection begins with excerpts from Thoreau, "who will be blowing minds for hundreds of years to come," he says, and ends with Rebecca Solnit's gorgeous 2007 essay on Thoreau.
"Our great gift to the world of letters," McKibben tells me of his and other pieces in the book, "is our important countercultural strain of writing." They describe a hopeful trajectory away from the divisive, reductionist thinking in science and philosophy of the last several decades. McKibben, who has been devoting much of his time to helping Sen. Barack Obama's presidential bid, doesn't say this, but editing the anthology seems to have reminded him of his roots. "I am a writer," he says, "and I will go back to what I do best."
Of the issues he writes about, McKibben says almost ruefully, "I have an inability not to care." (Who wouldn't want to stay here or in the Adirondacks, write some fiction, maybe a little poetry?) On skis, he is driven and intensely conscious of the beauty around him. He feels, as much as he might like to be rid of it, an urgency. As I rest on the stone wall at Frost's weathered gray cabin, he heads back to the snowy field. The sound of his smooth strides, the writer's steady, efficient exertion of effort, floats back in the midday stillness. *
Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.