Over the years, Bill McKibben has become one of the most influential activists in the climate movement. His new book is “as much memoir as I’m likely to write”, looking back on changes in America over his lifetime. It’s thoughtful, curious, and as that subtitle suggests – ‘A graying American looks back at his suburban boyhood and wonders what the hell happened’ – there’s a wry sense of humour at work here too.
The book comes with three central chapters, covering the topics promised in the title. First up is the flag, reflecting on American patriotism and the country’s sense of itself. This is very much based in Lexington, where McKibben grew up, and a place that features prominently in America’s founding stories. McKibben is well versed in these local stories, having served as a guide to tourists in his youth, and sees himself as a patriot. It’s a shame to cede the flag to the right, he argues – though America needs an honest reckoning with its history.
The book probes those founding stories, sifting truth and myth, pointing out bits of the story that are usually left out. It moves forward into Lexington’s history, using it as a case study for how the country’s wealthiest areas have resisted affordable housing and maintained a privileged – and white – exclusivity. (Lexington is 1.3% black and has got less diverse over recent decades.) The founding stories of farmers standing up to empire ring a little hollow in a country that has gone on to be so unequal, he argues – but those stories should still inspire. It is something to live up to. “The affluent American suburb may be the greatest wealth accumulation engine of all time”, McKibben writes. “But you had to be able to buy a ticket at the start.”
“I’m going to try something in this chapter that I’m not sure I can pull off,” writes the typically modest McKibben at the start of chapter two, “which is to come to grips with what happened to American Christianity in my lifetime.” Again using Lexington as a starting point, he goes on to detail the decline of ‘mainline’ protestantism and the rise of evangelicalism, it’s co-opting by the Republic party, a turn from the common good towards individualism. He points out that when religion gets instutionalised, it loses its radical edge. It becomes about continuity rather than transformation, and Christianity has always operated most powerfully as part of the counterculture.
As with patriotism, McKibben writes about his disappointment with the failings of the church without giving up on it, something that resonates for me and my own faith. “Those of us raised in this tradition might consider recommitting,” he concludes, “but to a creed more radical than we once imagined, in the hope that it could help with all the other fights that face us.”
Third, the book turns to the suburbs. In the second half of the last century, suburbs came to define American life – with ever larger homes, cars and household possessions. Along the way, public goods eroded in favour of private wealth. A sense of community dwindled too, as people lived further apart and drove everywhere. “Extraordinary wealth accumulated in those places and in that generation, but it wasn’t used to build a better country.”
The other thing that accumulated was carbon emissions in the atmosphere. By 1970 Americans used a third of the world’s energy, and when the energy crisis of the 1970s offered a moment to change direction, it was buried by the Reagan administration. The genuine possibility of a solar future and a postgrowth economy were snuffed out. McKibben writes about his own despair at this missed turning point as a young journalist, and how it shaped his own choices, running to catch up as the climate changed and the American way of life grew stubbornly more destructive. “It’s been a long four decades,” he practically sighs onto the page.
After surveying the injustice and missed opportunities of all of this, what now? “We piled up an almost unimaginable carbon debt”, while failing to redress the inequalities of American society. Who should pay these debts, the book asks, before offering a concluding chapter with a simple title: ‘people of a certain age’.
I mentioned McKibben’s new(ish) charity, Third Act, last week, and the book ends with the possibility that the generation that lived through this story might want to write a different ending. “If you’re sixty”, he points out, “82 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions have occurred in your lifetime.” People can pretend climate change and injustice don’t exist, or work to take care of their immediate family and neighbours. Or they can “rise to the political moment” and play a role in fixing the future. Gently letting go of a destructive way of life, ushering in something new. “This kind of redemption rests not on suppressing the truth of our past, but on engaging and overcoming it.”
- The Flag, The Cross and the Station Wagon is available from Earthbound Books UK or US. Buying from my bookshop supports this blog – thanks!