Environmentalist reflects on America’s evolution, today’s progressives

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Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben grew up in idyllic Lexington, Mass., birthplace of the American Revolution. He lived in a modest suburban home with a maple tree on the lawn, was a member of a church group that did service projects and sang “Kumbaya” around a campfire, and believed America had potential. unlimited in size.

“When I was in high school I even had a summer job giving tours on the Battle Green in Lexington, wearing my tricorn hat and telling the story of the brave minutemen who fought the first great battle against the imperialism and here we are some 50 years later and our nation is mired in racial and financial inequality and the future of our planet is in jeopardy,” he said.

There were problems in the 1970s when McKibben was growing up with the Watergate scandal and the oil crisis, but he recalls there was a feeling the nation could overcome those struggles. “We had many turbulent days in the 1960s, but it seemed like the momentum was going in the right direction. The system had worked at Watergate, women were getting more rights and not having their rights taken away. The first Earth Day had spawned the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, and it would have been hard to visualize the dystopia our country seems to find itself in right now, plagued by disasters that we seem unable to respond to.

In his latest book, “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened” (Henry Holt Co.), McKibben explores the history of our country and the his. life to try to figure out where we went wrong.

“I think everything started to change in the 1970s. It was the decade that America went from a society that had worked together to survive the Great Depression and through World War II to a nation that elected Ronald Reagan who saw government as the problem. We began to adapt an individualistic view of the world of every man for himself. It didn’t seem so catastrophic at the time, but suddenly we can’t react when there’s a crisis like climate change or even something as obvious as preventing the massacres of our school children,” he said. said McKibben.

The book is divided into three sections: A look at American history and patriotism; a discussion of the church and how it is no longer an essential part of American life; and an in-depth look at suburbia and how America became a society based on the importance of the automobile.

“The hyper-privatization of our world has been the story of our past 40 years. When you have that big house with a big backyard and you’re forced to spend a lot of money fixing it, well, the prospect of spending more money to support the public library or public parks doesn’t seem so important. Investments in shared things in our world have been steadily declining.

McKibben — who lives most of the year in Vermont where he teaches at Middlebury College and part of the year in the Warren County area of ​​the Adirondacks — has spent his adult life working to alleviate the devastating effects of climate change. He founded the global climate campaign 350.org, which helped shut down major gas pipelines and forced banks to change some of their policies. He gave many speeches internationally and went to jail with other protesters. He admits that there are days when he feels very discouraged.

“I know more about climate science than I should. I also know a lot about political science, and that can get me down. There are a few things that keep me going. One is the scientists and engineers who have done their part of this work. They have lowered the price of solar energy and wind energy to make it the cheapest energy in the world. It is no longer a financial or technical obstacle to doing what needs to be done.

McKibben is also encouraged to observe and help build some of the global environmental movements. “Fifteen years ago, there was no climate movement. Today there are many organizations working to improve the climate like Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future and many were started by young people in middle school, high school and college. I was also impressed with all the wonderful progressive work done by Black Lives Matter.

His new project is an organization for people over 60, called Third Act, to encourage people his age who may have some financial security to get involved politically for progressive change. ” I am realistic. I understand the difficult situation we find ourselves in, but I believe we are capable of resolving it. I have lived much of my life in the Adirondacks. I really like it here. It’s a second chance in Alaska and the greatest redeemed landscape on Earth. It’s only so because people made it happen and they did it against powerful vested interests who wanted to try to make money out of it.

Sometimes McKibben imagines living in a place like Norway, a place that has problems and a place that takes care of ways to solve their problems. “It’s exhausting living in a country that doesn’t seem able to do that, but I still can’t give up on America. This is where a lot of the leverage is, where most of the money in the world is. Part of me still believes in our country’s history, the story I once told tourists wearing my tricorn hat when I was a high school student all those years ago in Lexington.

McKibben thinks the American experiment in democracy is too good to die.

“Progressives erred in handing over the flag and the Bible to the Conservatives. Both are rooted in radical ideas. They made our world work, and I have criticized our country and our church at length in this book, but I refuse to give them up.

“The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Grizzled American Reflects on His Suburban Childhood and Wonders What Happened” by Bill McKibben

Henry Holt Company, $27.99 (hardcover)


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