Bill McKibben is a living legend in environmental activism. A journalist and educator, he is the founder of the global climate organization 350.org, a longtime opponent of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and a leader in the divestment movement, which today claims to have withdrawn more than $40 trillion from fossil fuel funds. He is also an outspoken Christian who was raised in mainline congregations and who, as an adult, became a Sunday School teacher at his rural Methodist church.
McKibben was born in 1960 and grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, walking over the same ground as one set of American revolutionaries. His childhood and adolescence in the 60s and 70s spanned a different sort of revolution, and his adulthood arrived during a pronounced shift from activism and rebellion to individualism and consumption in American life. For 40 years, McKibben has worked hard to mitigate the more destructive effects of these trends. 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, reflects on his life of activism. It is also a companion to his latest project, Third Act, which invites older Americans to join the movement against climate change.
McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. He is a contributor to The New Yorker, as well as a writer for periodicals such as Rolling Stone and the New York Review of Books, and the author of 20 books of his own. Eric C. Miller spoke with McKibben about the book in July over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: You’ve been around now for six decades of American life. What’s changed?
Bill McKibben: 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.
R&P: 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.
R&P: 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 was 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.
R&P: 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.
R&P: Since the Reagan years, as you note, that evangelical strain of Christianity has been among the most vibrant and successful religious movements in America and beyond. On balance, has it been a force for good in the world?
BM: I’m not good at adding everything up, and I’m sure there are things that are useful about it. But I’m afraid that it has found itself the partner of the saddest political and cultural trends of our time, and increasingly willing to be hateful toward other people. I remember looking at those Barna group surveys of young people assessing their attitudes toward Christianity, and some astonishing percentage—maybe 80 percent—when asked to identify the main feature of Christianity said that it was opposition to gay people. What can I tell you? You’d have to read the gospels for a very long time before you could conclude that opposition to gay people constituted even a tiny part of that message. I think that the evangelical churches have a lot to answer for. Their political connections, of course, but also the damage they’ve done to the plain, straightforward, red-letter message of the gospel.
R&P: As you tell it, American patriotism and religiosity converge in the suburbs, which have also pushed people further apart and required that they drive cars, among other outcomes. What role has suburbia played in the story of your lifetime?
BM: Suburbia has played an enormous role in all of our lifetimes. In the decades since World War II, it has been by far our largest American project, the thing to which we committed the great wealth that came our way during the postwar period. It was the project of building bigger houses farther apart from each other. This generated a lot of effects, including, as you note, the tremendous expenditure of energy that it takes to heat and cool, drive between, and fill with possessions all of those little palaces that we built. It also moved us further from each other in both literal and figurative terms. The average American today has half as many close friends as the average American had a few decades ago, which is a very drastic change for a socially evolved primate in a very short period of time. I think this goes a long way toward explaining survey results indicating that people are not as happy now as they were back then, as well as the troubling direction of our politics. Neighborliness is a skill, and it can be lost over time if it is not practiced.
R&P: We are speaking today at the height of another sweltering summer, amid the certainty that the summers to come will be more sweltering still. Politically, socially, economically, it feels like the nation is heating up and coming to a boil. How have the forces you describe collaborated to bring us to this point?
BM: I think that, when historians look back, they’ll be struck by the powerful influence of the fossil fuel industry in putting us in the position that we’re in. Back in 1971, before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell wrote a memo—known now simply as the “Powell Memo”—that laid out a long-term strategy for corporations to take control of American democracy, and it’s the very strategy that the American Right has implemented ever since. Everything from developing right-wing think tanks to founding the Federalist Society to establishing a sympathetic judiciary and on and on. What’s interesting to me is the date of its provenance. One of the reasons that Powell wrote this memo and that it was so quickly embraced by the Right was the passage of the Clean Air Act in the aftermath of the first Earth Day. This was the most extensive regulation of business yet undertaken, and business didn’t like it. Over time, it was players like our biggest oil and gas barons—like the Koch brothers—who provided the funding that built so much of this juggernaut. They integrated, of course, with a new and aggressive iteration of the Republican Party, which had formerly been an ally on environmental causes, but now became the most dogged opponent. This skillful collaboration between big business interests and culture war interests represented by evangelical Christianity allowed the Kochs and Jerry Falwells of the world to craft a political dynamic that has governed America since the 1980s. Without question, the overreach of the Supreme Court in the last few months has marked the culmination of all that Powell, the Kochs, and the Falwells hoped to achieve, from reining in the Environmental Protection Agency to overturning Roe v. Wade to limiting states’ ability to restrict the concealed carry of firearms to curtailing the Voting Rights Act at every turn. These things are all quite unpopular with the general public, but they are core priorities of a right-wing elite that resents being checked by the institutions of democracy.
R&P: Your latest project is Third Act, which encourages “experienced Americans” to leverage their economic and political influence to create a more just and sustainable world for their kids and grandkids. At points, the book reads like promotional material for that effort. In the final analysis, what’s your message to members of your generation?
BM: I’ve done most of my organizing work over the years with young people, because they’ve been at the forefront of the climate movement. But I got a little worried when I heard people my age saying, essentially, that this up to the next generation to solve. That seems ignoble. It’s not okay to say to 17-year-olds that, between hockey practice and homework, they also need to save the planet. It’s also impractical. Young people have idealism, energy, and intelligence, but they lack structural power. There are 70 million of us in this country over the age of 60. That’s a population larger than France. We punch above our weight politically, because all of us vote all of the time, and we ended up with almost all of the money. We hold 70 percent of the nation’s financial resources, while the millennial generation holds about 5 percent. That’s not particularly fair, but it’s quite real. So if you want to pressure Washington or Wall Street for progressive change, then you should try to have some older people there for the fight.
The conventional wisdom has it that people get more conservative as they age, perhaps because they have more stuff to protect. There may be some truth in that, but I think that this generation has a particular historical DNA that may make it possible for them to think very differently. If you’re in your 60s, 70s, or 80s right now, your first act arrived at this moment of intense political, social, and cultural transformation. You either participated in or bore witness to incredible advances in gender roles, environmentalism, civil rights, gay rights, opposition to war, and the extension of democracy to all citizens. You can tell the power of this period by the fact that all of the recent Supreme Court decisions I referred to earlier have rolled back rights that were achieved during this time. Our second act, with notable exceptions but taken as a whole, was defined more by consumerism than by citizenship, in a consumer culture powered by fossil fuels. But now that water has flowed beneath the bridge and we arrive at this third act with time, resources, skills acquired over a lifetime, and children and grandchildren who make this abstract concept of legacy quite concrete. Your legacy is the world you leave behind for the people you love the most. And the world that we’re leaving behind, for the first time in history, is far shabbier than the world we were born into. So my message for members of my generation is that it’s time to get back in this fight and see what we can do to redeem some of that early history. It’s been fun to watch it happen. We’ll see if it’s still possible, at this late date, to change our politics in ways that matter.