a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1
How Do We Respond When All Our Ways of Knowing
Converge on Subversive Truths?
An Interview with William McKibben
Benjamin Sewell Webb
Bill McKibben is a Harvard graduate, a former staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and regular contributor to Harpers, Christian Century, Sierra Magazine and others. He is the author of The End of Nature, The Age of Missing Information, The Comforting Whirlwind, Hope: Human and Wild for which he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously. What interests Bill about the present moment, he said at one point, is that we’re beginning to get the same advice, though for different reasons, from atmospheric chemists and soil scientists that we hear from our best religious thinkers. What scientists are learning from our assault on the natural world points away from "gross over-consumption and hyperindividualism…to humility, simplicity, community." They point on a global scale to the same things that Wendell Berry talks about on a landscape scale, that Buddha talks about in a psychological way, that Jesus talks about in a moral way.
BW: Several years ago you wrote a book titled The End of Nature. In it you presented the facts and effects of large scale environmental damage, including the now unimpeachable scientific evidence of global warming from greenhouse gases emitted by our cars, factories and burning forests. While there are important signs of hope in that book, there is an emotional tone of sadness and grief in facing up to the enormous losses involved in this global ecological tragedy. Such grieving is understandable and necessary. What has the experience been like for you, this coming to terms with the reality of our human condition?
WM: I was glad that I could write the book. It was cathartic in some way. I felt like I had done something to begin to deal with it. But it was also painful. Like falling in love with someone at the same time you realize they have a terminal illness, or something close to it. I am absolutely in love with the Adirondack woods where I live. At the same time I see in them the
signs of illness, the same kinds of problems the world faces, everywhere. That’s one of the reasons the book is so emotional, or so bizarrely divided between the scientific and the emotional. Global warming, in particular, operates on such a large scale and is so quantitatively different that it becomes qualitatively different from any kind of pollution or environmental degradation that went before. So your emotional response to it is different. It raises the deepest kinds of questions about who we are and what on earth we are doing, in much the same way that the holocaust raises deep and fundamental theological questions in a manner that a long chain of serial murders doesn’t. If someone does something bad to someone, you don’t ask, "Is God dead?" But you do when the holocaust happens, and then your relationship to the world around you begins to shift.
BW: Because we’re no longer talking about a few isolated events but rather social behaviors that are widespread and systemic.
WM: We’re talking about altering and affecting, in the course of our lifetimes, every terrestrial ecosystem in the most profound way, by changing the climate, by controlling things that once were beyond our reach, by changing the definition of who we are, and maybe who God is.
BW: Has it been important for you and your readers to express grief? To lament?
WM: Yes, I think so. I guess I like to get the bad news out of the way. It’s important to face the bad news and the extent of the problems. I think that’s unavoidable if you are then going to turn to useful work that might ameliorate things. So yes, it was hard and difficult, but finally important, for me and many reading the book to face the seriousness of our situation.
BW: If The End of Nature was more descriptive of our predicament and problems, your work since has focused on ways we can retool our society and economy. In a more recent book, Hope: Human and Wild you examine three local and regional economies around the world — in the Adirondacks, in Brazil and India — for their lessons about change and why it is still reasonable to possess hope when surrounded by daunting environmental problems. What are those lessons?
[Spring 2002 Issue Contents]