How We Got Here – A Conversation with Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. He is a contributor to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and the New York Review of Books, and author of 20 books of his own. His latest, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, reflects on his life of activism.

ECM: You’ve been around now for six decades of American life. What’s changed?

BM: I think the biggest change has been our transition to a kind of hyper-individualized, political-religious consumer culture. The America that I was born into in 1960 was still the America that had come out of the Depression and World War II with a great deal of solidarity. The tensions of the 60s and 70s still arose from our collective effort to complete a sort of joint project—trying to build what Lyndon Johnson called a “Great Society” or what Dr. King called a “Beloved Community.” In my mind, the great turning point was the election of 1980. It was the moment when we rejected that powerful idea in favor of another powerful idea—that we were essentially individual actors, that markets solved problems instead of people working together, that our job was to go every man for himself and become as rich as we could. I think that notion has continued to dominate our life and politics and culture ever since, and I think it has a lot to do with the excruciating troubles that we have now landed ourselves in as a society.

ECM: How did growing up in Lexington shape your understanding of America?

BM: I gave tours of the battle green—that was my job in junior high. You know, wearing a tri-corner hat, walking through fields, telling busloads of visitors the story of the first battle of the Revolution. It was a story that I loved and love. I think what it taught me then was that there is no contradiction between dissent and patriotism. On the one hand, these guys were thought of as patriotic heroes from the beginning; on the other hand, they were underdogs standing up against global colonialism, empire, and imperialism. I have no doubt that one of the reasons I went on to spend my life fighting difficult fights from the underdog position is that I internalized that early lesson.

ECM: In what ways has your engagement with American history and identity become more complicated as an adult?

BM: We’ve all learned a lot more about American history in the last 50 years, and especially in the last five or ten. There’s no question that these disclosures have to color our understanding of our past. While doing research for this book, for example, I was rereading Paul Revere’s account of his famous ride to Lexington, which provided the material for Longfellow’s most iconic of poems. There’s this moment in Revere’s account when he says, just in passing, that he narrowly escaped capture near the Charlestown common, right by “the place where Mark hung in chains.” That’s all it said. So I went and did some digging, and I learned that, about 20 years before the Revolution, there was a slave in Charlestown by the name of Mark Codman. His master, Captain John Codman, was an especially brutal man, so Mark poisoned him. He was charged with and convicted of treason, hanged, tarred and feathered, and his decomposing body was displayed in an iron gibbet and left there for years afterward as a deterrent against insubordination. It was such a well-known landmark that Revere could refer to it casually and take for granted that everyone would know what he meant. That gives us a slightly different sense of who the sons of liberty were and what kind of a world the minutemen were fighting to defend. As we can now understand through crucial work like The 1619 Project, these sorts of threads run all throughout American history. They certainly run throughout the history of Lexington, which became an extremely white and relatively affluent place in which that affluence was not broadly shared.

ECM: How has your Christianity contributed to your thinking on these matters, and how has your thinking on these matters changed or complicated your view of Christianity?

BM: I grew up in several different flavors of what was then the dominant mainline tradition. I was baptized Presbyterian, confirmed a Congregationalist, and as an adult I’ve been a Methodist, but all are basically branches of the same shrinking institution. I’m very thankful for those churches and those experiences, as they’ve been important to me. It has always seemed to me that one of the virtues of the gospels is that they are not hard to understand. We are constantly reminded that our job is to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, and so on. I take all of that very seriously, and it has certainly informed my work on climate change.

If one accepts this idea that people everywhere are our neighbors, we need to confront the reality that our carbon-fueled economy has sickened our neighbors, has drowned our neighbors, has made it impossible for them to grow food in their fields, and has in many other ways revealed that we, as a nation or as developed nations, have done the exact opposite of what Christ instructs us to do. From an Old Testament perspective, we are running Genesis in reverse right now. We are steadily de-creating the planet. We are taking all the creatures that God created and declared to be good and we are driving them to extinction. It doesn’t seem hard to me to understand the Christian imperative to work on these issues, and my understanding of the fix that we’re in has probably darkened my view of American Christianity, or at least parts of it over the past several decades.

As my own tradition has dwindled, an evangelical Christianity has been on the rise, and that strain has been instrumental in driving these other trends in our political life post-Reagan. It’s a highly individualized form of the faith with a transactional orientation that always asks what’s in it for me. That doesn’t resonate with the Christian tradition that I recognize or, it seems to me, with any straightforward reading of the Bible. There are times when I wonder why anyone coming of age in this country decides to become a Christian anymore, because it no longer seems like a very attractive proposition. And I guess there must be something to that, because not many people coming of age these days are deciding to become Christians.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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