Contrary to what the title of his first book, The End of Nature (Random House), might imply, Bill McKibben spends a good deal of time thinking and writing about the future of the natural world. Though he has devoted many pages to the frightening potential consequences of global warming and other environmental threats, he also consistently offers a more hopeful vision. Nature and humanity can coexist harmoniously, he believes, if we make wise, sustainable choices that cultivate the land rather than scar it.
Published in 1989, The End of Nature sounded one of the earliest alarms about global warming. It was a bestseller in the United States and has been translated into twenty languages. Since then McKibben has written nine books on topics ranging from overpopulation, in Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families (Penguin), to genetic engineering, in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Henry Holt).
McKibben’s father was a business journalist who served as ombudsman for the Boston Globe. The family lived in Lexington, Massachusetts, and through junior high and high school, McKibben worked as a reporter for the Lexington Minuteman. In summers he put on a tricorn hat and guided tourists around the Battle Green, site of the 1775 skirmish that marked the start of the American Revolution. The experience left a lasting impression on him, McKibben says. After having told the story, over and over again, of the eight men who died there defending the most basic ideals of democracy, he never confused dissent with a lack of patriotism.
McKibben went on to study at Harvard University, where he served as editor of the campus newspaper. After graduation, he became a whiz-kid staff writer for the New Yorker. At twenty-six he quit that job to move with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, to a rustic cabin in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where he wrote The End of Nature a year later. McKibben also taught Sunday school and worked on regional conservation issues, and he and his wife had their first — and, by choice, only — child.
The family has since moved to Vermont’s Champlain Valley, where McKibben is a scholar-in-residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College, but they still own the cabin. McKibben’s latest book, Wandering Home (Crown Journeys), chronicles a long walk he took from agrarian, community-oriented Vermont to that cabin in the sparsely populated Adirondacks: a journey from the pastoral to the wild. In the book McKibben visits with Vermont farmers growing crops for local biodiesel use; vintners making wine from grapes specially bred to thrive in the North; and foresters working to promote locally grown and milled wood. In the Adirondacks he crosses rivers and steep ravines and bushwhacks his way through thick stands of timber. At one point he encounters an abandoned farmstead, now dense with forest, a lone apple tree and a cellar the only signs of prior human habitation, and he asks himself, What does it mean for a place to be truly wild?
I first came across McKibben’s work when I was an English major and budding environmentalist at the University of Montana in Missoula. I got the chance to meet him a few years later when he spoke at the University of Minnesota. We exchanged stories about Earth First!, a controversial activist organization that I had been involved with in Montana, and that he had observed and researched over the years. When I asked him to sign my book, he wrote, “Earth First! Last! And always!”
I conducted this interview many years later, by telephone: he in his Vermont home in a meadow near the poet Robert Frost’s one-time cabin; I on the small Montana farm where I live with my husband and children. Many of the themes we discussed are ones McKibben takes on at length in his upcoming book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, due out in early winter from Times Books. When I called, McKibben and his daughter were assembling a pizza using tomatoes and basil from their garden, cheese from a local dairy, flour from a nearby farm, and a few imported Kalamata olives.
Adams: What inspired you to write The End of Nature?
McKibben: I had just quit my job at the New Yorker and moved to the Adirondacks. Land in upstate New York was still cheap then; even an unemployed writer could buy a house. I soon found out that my new home was in the middle of the largest intact wilderness in the eastern United States — a place remarkable not only for its size, but also for the ecological recovery that it had undergone: the entire area had been clear-cut a century before. In many ways it was an ideal place to start thinking and writing about the emerging phenomenon of global warming. My locale helped me understand not only the practical implications, but also the powerful metaphysical, philosophical, and emotional implications of the impending disaster. Most poignant for me was the idea that this wilderness that I was falling in love with wasn’t going to stay the same for much longer. The rise in global temperature has put at risk our cold, hard winter: this incredible season when everything becomes vast and graceful and magnificent.
There are more-important reasons to worry about global warming — such as the hundreds of millions of environmental refugees it will create, or the huge percentage of species it will make extinct — but for me, personally, there’s also this sense of how sad it will be when these woods are no longer covered in snow for several months out of the year. So the dominant emotion in The End of Nature is less fear than it is sadness and grief.
Adams: Winter here in Montana has certainly changed a lot since my childhood.
McKibben: At our latitude, winter is on average about two to three weeks shorter now than it was in 1970.
Adams: You have said that any attempt to deal with climate change will require more than environmentalism as we’ve known it. What do you mean?
McKibben: We’ve been building this movement for the last 150 years, and it has accomplished marvelous things: the conservation of wilderness; the reduction of pollution in the air and the water. But the movement isn’t nearly big enough and strong enough to handle global warming, because climate change arises from the use of fossil fuels, which are at the heart of pretty much every part of modern life. A problem of this size can be tackled only with enormous changes in technology, in the economy, in our behavior, and in our very idea of who we are. That challenge is too big for the Sierra Club to handle. Any effort to solve the problem will have to involve every aspect of human society: churches, businesses, education. Whatever movement emerges to deal with global warming — and hopefully one will soon — is going to owe a debt to environmentalism, but it won’t be just an outgrowth of the environmental movement.
Adams: It sounds as if you’re suggesting it will take a global shift in consciousness.
McKibben: Yes, many shifts in consciousness. And the most important one will be in this country: whether we’re going to continue to be a hyperindividualist society, or return to a stronger sense of community. Unless we figure out how to do the latter, the task of reducing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, among other things, will be mathematically impossible.
Adams: You travel abroad quite often. What do you hear from people in other countries about our nation’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change?
McKibben: The rest of the world is far more concerned about global warming than our government is. Even the Chinese government at least purports to take the matter seriously. It’s shameful. We used to lead the world in environmental concern. We wrote the Clean Air Act, and then everyone else wrote their own Clean Air Act. We developed the catalytic converter, and then everyone else put them on cars, too. We created national parks, and everyone else followed our lead. Now we’re not even the caboose on the train of environmental progress. We’re trying to bring the whole thing skidding to a halt.
The mistake that history will hold the current Bush administration most responsible for is not the war in Iraq, which is terrible. No, the biggest mistake is that the White House made no effort to affect China’s and India’s energy policies during those countries’ industrial expansion over the last six or seven years. It would have taken a real commitment of money and resources and time to nudge them in a different direction, but if we had, it would have brought huge benefits fifty years from now. Instead we’ve just served as their enablers, and they as ours.
The real struggle is to get past the notion of growth as our reason for being, which has dominated our culture since World War II. It’s the organizing principle for government policy and most other institutions in our society, including higher education. This is not a tenable model anymore. When you consider global warming, peak oil, and the diverging fortunes of rich and poor nations, it gets harder and harder to maintain this fervent, Alan Greenspan belief that if we continue to increase the size of the system, all will be well. We know now that in terms of human rights, environmental damage, and almost any measure you can name, the endless-growth model has turned out to be a lousy idea. It’s remarkably unclear what will replace it. I think the most appealing model — and the one that people are increasingly beginning to converge on, whether they know it or not — is more-durable, smaller-scale, localized economies.
Adams: I notice you’ve replaced the word sustainable in your lexicon with durable.
McKibben: Yes, sustainability isn’t a particularly compelling word to contrast with growth, which is something we all understand. A logical alternative would be maturity, because our growth phase is over, and now is the time for the bittersweet work of adulthood. Unfortunately, maturity has been co-opted by the AARP as a synonym for retirement. Durable implies something that is going to be around for a long time; it goes against a growth economy in which everything must constantly be replaced.
Adams: In your latest book, Wandering Home, you discuss to what degree humans should meddle in nature — for example, whether we should assist native species against transplanted invaders, or just decide that nature is whatever it is; that the world is in constant flux, and no real damage can be done to it.
McKibben: I think there is no simple answer to that. It’s true that there’s no such thing as perfect wilderness anymore, and there isn’t ever going to be. But to me that makes relatively wild places all the more important, partly for their own sake, and partly to prove that we can actually leave some locales alone. There should also be places that we don’t leave alone but take good care of and respect just as highly. The dichotomy between “virgin land” and “raped land” is altogether too apt, I’m afraid, in our culture. We need a category in between the two: a healthy, loving relationship with the land.
Adams: Here in Montana there is a rift between activists who are defending the wild and those working to protect family farms and family ranches.
McKibben: That rift between pastoral and wild occurs in many places. Here in the Adirondacks we’re in the middle of a fight over whether or not to put wind turbines on the edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. There are those who say the turbines would damage the aesthetic of the place, which I understand. But to preserve the beauty of the place in the long run, I think we need to produce local power as part of combating global warming.
Adams: Your awareness of global warming came from your experience living in the Adirondacks. Do we all need to move to the woods in order to fully understand the implications of this problem?
McKibben: Contact with the natural world is important, but I don’t think it’s necessary. All that’s necessary is contact with reality of some kind, and that can come from being a member of a community, rural or urban. Reading the essays of Wendell Berry has taught me the beauty and meaning and significance of human community. I have had to learn this lesson intellectually rather than from experience, because the suburbs in which I grew up didn’t teach it.
There are also opportunities for contact with the natural world in cities. When I lived in New York City, I wrote an “urban naturalist” column. I found that Central Park is one of the best bird-watching spots in the world. Birds migrating along the eastern flyway settle down there for the night. New York City is also home to one of the most underutilized national parks in the country: the seashore of Brooklyn. This time of year, there are millions of horseshoe crabs coming out of the water to mate on the beaches — representatives of ancient phyla that have remained unchanged for a hundred million years. There’s just as much nature to be found in a small park in the center of the city as in a large wilderness in the middle of nowhere. It just takes the eyes to see it.
The Achilles’ heel of consumer society is that it hasn’t made us as happy as it promised it would. Although Americans have tripled their prosperity since the mid-1950s, the percentage who say they’re “very satisfied” with their lives has declined. . . . We’ve pursued the American Dream to no real apparent end.
Adams: You’ve said that the central notion of consumer society is that “each of us is useful precisely to the degree that we consider ourselves the center of everything.” Do you think it’s possible for Americans to break this habit of putting ourselves at the center?
McKibben: I don’t think it’ll be easy, but I do think it’s possible. The Achilles’ heel of consumer society is that it hasn’t made us as happy as it promised it would. Although Americans have tripled their prosperity since the mid-1950s, the percentage who say they’re “very satisfied” with their lives has declined. In fact, only about a quarter of Americans now say that they’re “very satisfied.” When you think about it, this is pretty sad, considering the unbelievable amount of resources and energy that we have consumed — and waste we have produced — in the last fifty years. We’ve pursued the American Dream to no real apparent end.
There are signs that we are beginning to wake up to this, however. The number of farmers markets in this country has doubled and then doubled again in the last decade. It’s now the fastest-growing part of our food system. Some people shop at them because they understand that you can use ten times less energy by buying local food, but many people shop there because they want food that actually tastes like something, or because they want a connection with the world around them. Sociologists last year studied both supermarkets and farmers markets and found that people had ten times as many conversations at farmers markets. These are not subtle differences: ten times less energy and ten times more community — and better food to boot.
Adams: You’ve said, “If there is a pertinent modern question, it is ‘How much is enough?’ ” What answer would you give to that question?
McKibben: Less than we have now, for starters. Our addiction to “more” is a psychological relic of our pioneer past.
I’ve read my daughter all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels about American prairie settlers, people who lived lives rich in connection to family, community, and the natural world, but who were impoverished in many other ways.
Adams: The children in the books were thrilled to find an orange or a stick of candy in their Christmas stockings.
McKibben: Yes, there are incredibly poignant descriptions of them trying to decide whether to eat it all at once or stretch it out for months. In that kind of world, it’s easy to see why people wanted more.
I was in China last summer and spent a day in a factory where young people were making shower curtains. It was not Dickensian; most of the workers I talked to thought of the job as a step up. I toured the female workers’ dormitories and noticed that a lot of them had stuffed animals on their beds.
Adams: How old were the women?
McKibben: Eighteen to twenty-two. I remember making small talk with one woman and asking whether she had a stuffed animal. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she told me no; she really liked stuffed animals, but she sent every penny she earned back home to put her brother through engineering school. Needless to say, I went out and bought her the largest stuffed animal I could find in that corner of China. This made her incredibly happy.
My daughter likes stuffed animals, too, and must have seventy-five little Beanie Babies in her room. Though she’s perfectly happy to get one more, it has what economists would call “low marginal utility.” One more, in her case, is a remarkably small gift.
Like her, we’re long past the point where more is doing us any good. A number of years ago I ran a project through the local Methodist church called “Hundred Dollar Holiday.” (I eventually wrote a book by that title [Simon & Schuster].) We tried to get people to change the way they celebrated Christmas by spending only a hundred dollars per family — about one-tenth the American average — and giving gifts of service instead. It was a remarkable success. We were doing it because we wanted to save the environment — less wrapping paper and batteries and so on — but we also discovered that most of us are desperately sick of the way Christmas is celebrated. People were grateful for permission to use Christmas instead as a time for family, for community, for being out in the natural world, and for reflection.
Polls show that as the holidays approach, almost three-quarters of Americans regard them with more dread than anticipation. The reason seems to be that people already feel overwhelmed, and the holidays are just some sort of extra busyness: a month at the mall spending money you probably don’t have. When you get a Christmas present, you’re thankful for it, but part of you is also thinking, Where am I going to put this? Storage facilities have become a fast-growing industry.
Before Christmas became consumerized around the middle of the nineteenth century, it was a fairly subversive holiday. It had a kind of topsy-turvy quality. In Europe it was the day when serfs would arrive at their masters’ houses and demand good food and strong drink. If you think about it, the Christmas story itself is radically subversive: that this incredibly important person was born, in effect, in someone’s garage.
The story of what happened to American agriculture is probably the single most important news story of the last century. We went from 50 percent of the population living on farms to less than 1 percent. There are far more prisoners in the U.S. than there are farmers.
Adams: In Wandering Home you describe seeing a house “large enough to be a junior high school” plunked down on a hilltop in the middle of the countryside.
McKibben: Community is as endangered by surplus as it is by deficit. When there’s too much money floating around, it enables people to have no need of each other. In rural New England, most people still require their neighbors’ assistance to get through the winter. But real estate is being bought up by vacationers from the suburbs of New York and Boston who have plenty of money and don’t need their neighbors’ help. They drive housing prices sky-high, then come to these homes only a few weeks every summer. The irony is, one thing that attracts them to rural New England is the sense of community here.
Adams: The first President Bush said, on his way to the 1992 Earth Summit, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Nearly fifteen years later, is this still true?
McKibben: Well, George W. Bush has done his best to defend our habits of consumption. Think about September 11. What if the president had gone on television the next day and said, “Job one: get Osama bin Laden. Job two: let’s make sure we’re never in this situation again. Tomorrow I’m raising the gas tax two bucks a gallon to pay for research into alternative energy sources, and we’re going to put solar panels on the roofs of one-tenth of all the houses in America before I leave office.” In the shock and sadness following that event, the country would have said, “Yes, sir. We’re on it.” Instead, of course, he told us to go shopping. And we did. We bought more SUVs in the three months following 9/11 than ever before. Each one should have come equipped with a Saudi flag on the bumper.
When the elder President Bush talked about the American way of life not being up for negotiation, what I think he meant was the American ideal of hyperindividualism: the idea that we don’t have to think about our neighbors, and certainly not anyone in a foreign country. We do as we please. It’s precisely that philosophy that’s created both the rising temperatures in the atmosphere and the dissatisfaction and malaise that mark much of our lives. Until we figure out how to overcome that ideal, making progress is going to be hard.
But there are signs that people want a way out, and it doesn’t require any magic technology or changes that will make our way of life unrecognizable. Western Europeans, on average, use half as much energy as Americans. They do it by forgoing some personal consumption in exchange for communities that work and cities that are attractive enough to draw people in instead of sending them fleeing to the suburbs. They use mass transit, which is difficult for us, because we live in spread-out suburbs and want to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and listen to whatever we want on the radio while we’re getting there.
Adams: We also have as many children as we want. Your book Maybe One calls for Americans to have smaller families.
McKibben: The real population crisis is not in the Third World but right here in America, because of our high consumption rates. The idea that we’re going to go from 300 million Americans to 500 million Americans by midcentury is daunting, particularly with regard to climate change. One of the reasons I wrote that book is because my wife and I had one child, and I wanted to debunk the myth about only children being spoiled and crazy. It was interesting figuring out where those myths had come from and doing my part to knock them down.
It turns out that most of our prejudices about only children stem from a single, widely circulated study, conducted in the earliest days of social-science research. It wasn’t even a very good study: the sample included only children from works of fiction, and the researchers looked for traits like “ugliness.” They found that only children (and the children of immigrants, incidentally) were “mentally peculiar.” When, thirty years later, more-serious researchers took up the topic, they found — and continue to find to this day — that only children are indistinguishable from their peers with siblings. But by then the damage had been done, the myth created.
Adams: As the mother of two small children, I find myself constantly trying to shield them from the day’s bad news. Do you agree we should shelter our children — at least for a little while — from learning about the world’s conflicts and tumult?
McKibben: I think responsible parenting now has a lot to do with shielding small children, but less from bad news about the world — although there is some reason to do that — and more from toxic forms of entertainment and consumer culture. My wife and I have never had a TV, and one of the few moments in my life when I felt that we’d done a reasonable parenting job was when our daughter was about five years old and we were out at a restaurant. There was a television above the bar, and our daughter was watching it intently. So I asked her, “Sophie, what are you doing?” And she said, “I’m watching that radio.”
Adams: In 1992 you wrote The Age of Missing Information (Random House), which proposes that television has actually made us less informed about the world, because it keeps us indoors and out of the natural environment. It occurs to me that in 2006 we might replace the word television with the word Internet. Do you agree?
McKibben: I don’t think it’s that easy. It’s certainly true there’s one more screen in our lives, with some of the same effects, but the Internet allows us to generate content as well as just receive it, and I think there are some interesting possibilities there. I just wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on the political uses of the Web by the Democratic Left, particularly the website Daily Kos. So, yes, I think there are grave dangers inherent in the medium, and there are many times — especially when I’ve spent half the day answering e-mail instead of participating in life — that I feel the urge to rip the computer from the wall, just as I did the television. But so far I haven’t.
Adams: You write that we need more people who “know what they’re doing out in the physical world.” This seems against the grain in a culture — indeed, a world — where technology increasingly frees us from having to do things in the “physical world.”
McKibben: It is against the grain, but I think it’s going to come back. I know college students at Middlebury who are not just taken with the romantic idea of being small farmers, but are involved in the down-and-dirty work of growing food. A surprising number of people in my area are either still hanging on as small farmers or starting up small-farming endeavors.
Adams: How did we arrive at our “bigger is better” approach to agriculture?
McKibben: The story of what happened to American agriculture is probably the single most important news story of the last century. We went from 50 percent of the population living on farms to less than 1 percent. There are far more prisoners in the U.S. than there are farmers.
It was mostly the substitution of oil for human labor that did it: the invention first of nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas, and then of mechanical traction. Together they allowed the forced consolidation of our farms. At this point agriculture is a system designed to benefit a handful of companies, paid for by outlandish subsidies from our tax dollars. We’ve destroyed rural America, and now we’re spreading that destruction to all the other rural places in the world. It’s a sad story.
The good news is I think it’s reached its zenith. From here on out, the situation’s going to get better instead of worse. The number of farms in Oregon has doubled in the last decade. Here in Vermont we still have dairies going out of business because they can’t compete with ten-thousand-cow operations in California, but the total number of farms is increasing. The city of Burlington gets about 8 percent of its fresh food from fourteen small farms located on the site of the old city dump on the edge of town.
We’ve spent the last hundred years growing the scale of our enterprise. Now we’re beginning to reach the limitations of that growth. I think we’re going to spend the next hundred years learning how to make enterprise smaller.
Adams: Is there room for global trade in a smaller-scale vision for the future? Can we have our locally grown tomatoes and our Guatemalan-grown coffee, too?
McKibben: Absolutely, but it’s important to figure out what it makes sense to import. It makes great sense to trade recipes, and somewhat less sense to trade ingredients.
I did an experiment last year in which I ate nothing for the winter but food grown here in the Champlain Valley, with one exception: I allowed myself to eat anything globe-trotting travelers might have carried home in their saddlebags from the Far East a century or two ago. So I had some curry powder and ginger, things like that. But the wheat that I made bread with every few days came from fifteen miles away.
I discovered we’ve forgotten an awful lot about how to get by. Until seventy-five years ago, everyone in Vermont knew how to keep food for winter. Every house had a root cellar. The fact that I don’t have one made the project more difficult for me. There were other technologies that made it simpler, like freezing, but I didn’t do a lot of that. I was much more interested in meeting local farmers and seeing what they were doing. Some used methods that were high-tech, in their way. For example, Vermont is apple country, but ten months out of the year most of the apples in our supermarkets come from China and New Zealand. In response to this, our local orchardists have built a series of chambers from which they can pump most of the oxygen, thus keeping the apples from decaying over the winter. Every few weeks they open another chamber and pull out another roomful of fresh apples for eating or making cider. After drinking local cider for a winter, I’m never going back to orange juice. I loved the different flavors as the mix of apples in the cider changed.
I met one couple not far from here who run a CSA [community-supported agriculture] farm. You pay them a couple of thousand dollars a year, and every Friday they have not only vegetables for you to pick up, but also raw milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter from their small milking herd. They have a beef herd, too, so there are steaks and hamburger for you to take. They have eggs and chicken and bacon and lard. They have their own bees and grow their own wheat and bake bread for customers. You’d hardly have to buy any food at the grocery store anymore.
I found that it really didn’t cost much more to eat this way. Eliminating the middlemen allows farmers to earn a living wage and still sell food at a reasonable price. Eating within my “foodshed” did, of course, take more time. You have to decide whether that extra time is a cost or a benefit. I choose to look at it as the latter. I was making friends and pursuing an interesting hobby.
As we speak I’m opening a bottle of beer made by our local brewery, with wheat grown by another farmer in the Champlain Valley. It’s about $1.30 a bottle. You have to decide whether the extra cost is worth it. Personally, I think it is.
Tonight I’m sitting here making pizza with flour from my neighbor Ben Gleason, who farms seventy-five acres of wheat. I’m using cheese from Vermont and tomatoes from last year’s garden and a few olives that came from a long way away — which is fine, I think. There is no reason to be dogmatic about the issue.
Adams: You’ve proposed that “local” is about to replace “organic” as the key term in the battle to save small-scale American farming.
McKibben: I’ve become convinced that the central element is scale. We’ve spent the last hundred years growing the scale of our enterprise. Now we’re beginning to reach the limitations of that growth. I think we’re going to spend the next hundred years learning how to make enterprise smaller. Local and regional systems operate on a scale one can comprehend. The national scale of 300 million people is difficult to grasp. It’s easier to comprehend a watershed, a valley, or a city.
Now, the smallest possible scale won’t always be the most sensible. The trick is to choose a scale just large enough that you have a certain amount of efficiency and can give people a decent living. That’s a difficult balancing act, but we’ve got to get into the business of limiting ourselves.
Adams: You and I live in places where it’s possible to imagine a future centered on local goods. My husband and I buy a lamb every year from the rancher up the road; we get eggs from our own chickens and honey from our own bees. But what about the suburbs, which make up so much of America? How can suburban residents create local economies?
McKibben: On the one hand, the American suburb is just about the most difficult environment in which to promote localism. On the other hand, most of the ten thousand farmers markets in America — up from four hundred a decade ago — aren’t out in the boonies, where you and I live. They’re in the suburbs and the cities. Another promising thing about the suburbs is that there is sometimes as much as an acre of land surrounding each house. I think the suburbs may become a place where you show off your quarter-acre vegetable garden rather than your green lawn. New Jersey is called the “Garden State” for a reason: it has some of the best garden soil in the world. Those famous truck gardens of New Jersey serve a huge metropolitan area. The same thing is happening — or could happen — in other places.
Even if you don’t have room for a garden, you have three opportunities a day to support local farmers: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In most places in America you can find locally grown food without an immense amount of searching.
We’re also beginning to see the suburbanization of solar power. Most states will give you a tax break for having solar panels if you tie them into the electric grid. Solar is no longer just for guys with ponytails fussing with batteries in their basement.
People will make these changes in part because they want to, and in part because, increasingly, it is what the planet is asking of us. At seventy dollars a barrel for oil, we can’t eat forever on the basis that it’s always summer someplace else. It’s as if we order takeout 365 days a year.
We also don’t have much real variety in our food supply, only the illusion of variety. If you could walk into a supermarket, wave a magic wand, and break everything down to its constituent parts, roughly half the store would be filled with a big pool of high-fructose corn syrup. That and wheat and a few other ingredients constitute 90 percent of what’s there. People are starting to reject this and seek out flavor and connection.
I think this issue could bridge cultural and political divides. I was in Wyoming last summer — the reddest state in the Union — in a county that voted four to one for President Bush. But when faced with the possibility of a Wal-Mart coming to their town, the people chipped in five hundred dollars apiece and started their own community dry-goods store. There are a dozen or so of these community-owned stores scattered around the conservative-leaning West. So it’s not at all clear whether localized economies are liberal or conservative. In certain ways they’re both.
Adams: It seems that part of what is driving corporate agribusiness and Wal-Mart and the rest is our national obsession with getting the lowest price. Do you think it will be possible for us to change the way we think about the price of things?
McKibben: It’s going to be difficult, because all of us are pretty well schooled in shopping for bargains. Food is a good place to start rethinking price, because you can quickly see the differences in quality and nutrition, and you can see the kind of community that you’re building — or destroying. And most Americans are still affluent enough that we can choose to pay more for food.
Even if you don’t have room for a garden, you have three opportunities a day to support local farmers: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. . . . At seventy dollars a barrel for oil, we can’t eat forever on the basis that it’s always summer someplace else. It’s as if we order takeout 365 days a year.
Adams: What about the poor? Can you ask a single mother who is struggling to feed her children to consider paying more?
McKibben: Probably not, although it’s worth remembering that local food isn’t always more expensive. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. In many places you can join a CSA farm with food stamps. The real cost for most people, as I said, is time. It is so much quicker to go to the supermarket, collect your weekly assortment of processed food, bring it home, and microwave it.
I once ran a homeless shelter in the basement of my church, so I am aware that there are people in this country for whom survival must come first. I’m not addressing them when I write. For the most part, my writing is aimed at people like me, who have enough money and resources to make at least a few choices about what they buy. If we make the correct choices, we’re going to build a world that’s far more hospitable to poor people and has fewer poor people than the world has at the moment. One result of a localized agricultural system will be an increase in the number of reasonably well-paying jobs in agriculture. We’ll go back to people power instead of oil.
There is real resistance to corporate domination of the world’s farm fields, led by people like Vandana Shiva in India, French farmer-activist José Bové, and institutions like Slow Food. It was a pleasure for me to be in Seattle in 1999 for the protests outside the World Trade Organization meeting and to meet people like them — although the pleasure was somewhat muted by the rubber bullets and tear gas. The demonstrations showed just how much opposition there was around the world to our current consumer model, and just how many people would like for decisions to be based on a different bottom line.
I remember lying on my back, having been maced or gassed, and looking up at the sky and seeing a miniature blimp on a string with a big sign that said, Wake up, Muggles! I had just been reading my daughter the Harry Potter books [in which “muggles” are people who don’t realize that magic exists], and it occurred to me that this is the perfect slogan for our era. It’s time to remember what a magical and amazing place the world can be and to stop considering it only in terms of accounting.
Adams: How do you avoid despair?
McKibben: For me it’s been extremely helpful to live out in the country and to be able to get outside and wander through the woods. In the Adirondacks there’s a kind of constant reminder that all isn’t lost. I live in a forest that a hundred years ago was clear-cut and now is vibrant again, because people were willing to take a large step back. That’s been restorative for me. It’s also been great to teach at Middlebury College and meet young people who are bent on solving environmental problems and haven’t yet learned what can’t be done. Of course, I’ve never really learned what can’t be done either.
Adams: Do you really think it’s possible for us to go back to being a nation of localized food systems?
McKibben: The possibility of it happening rests on a number of factors that we’ve discussed here: The ever-increasing price of energy is one. Every time the price of oil goes up ten dollars a barrel, it gets costlier to continue to have huge, industrialized agriculture and comparatively cheaper to grow food close to home. Another factor is desire: partly for good-tasting food, and partly for community.
Now, I don’t think those factors are going to be enough to do the trick everywhere all at once. I’m not that much of an optimist; I wrote a book called The End of Nature, after all. But, having looked the situation as squarely in the eye as it’s possible to do, I don’t see any point in simply despairing. There are things out there we can do to help avert disaster, and I’m going to try to do them, and write about them, and blow on as many embers as I can in the hopes that they’ll start a fire. Looked at one way, this is a depressing moment in history. But looked at another way, this is a moment pregnant with possibility.