Bill McKibben on new book “Falter” and the human future

The climate leader asks: In the end, where are we starting to go?

Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, has recently published his latest book on the intersections of climate change, technology and human evolution. Photo (right) Nancie Battaglia
10 June 2019

Bill McKibben will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum New York 2019 on 28 September. Learn how to join the event here.

In 1989, people heard Bill McKibben’s voice calling out from the precipice of the times. It had been a solid decade since scientists had proved humans responsible for global warming, but terms like ‘the greenhouse effect’ were still far from reaching the lexicon of English-speaking masses. Climate change research was being obstructed by fossil fuel’s big money, safeguarding emissions from being a source of widespread fear – or even understanding.

From his house in the northeastern forests of the U.S., McKibben penned The End of Nature, a clarion call sounded in what is now considered the first book on global warming written for the average person, and a courageously prophetic one. Its point was not that nature was going to disappear into the black abyss, queue the credit roll, but rather than nature was going to cease to be able to operate independently of human influence, and this, ironically, would not be to human benefit. In fact, it would more likely be the short road to the species’ end.

Now, three decades later and with the creation of environmental movement 350.org and numerous other books to his name, McKibben has published Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, looking back at where the climate has gone since his first warning and peering out from an even more perilous edge toward a future run more by computers and genetically designed beings than by the natural human mind. Here, Landscape News discusses with McKibben what he sees and why.

Why did you feel like now was the right time to publish a follow-up to The End of Nature?

I think 30 years ago when I wrote The End of Nature, scientists had told us what was going to happen if we didn’t get our act together, and we didn’t, so now those things are happening. And I wanted to bring people fully up to date on that, because the work on climate change is critical.

And I also wanted to flag to people these issues around artificial intelligence [A.I.] and human genetic engineering, because they feel to me the way that climate change did 30 years ago – as clearly discernible threads that we should be taking seriously and having a conversation about. And boy would it be nice if, this time, we had the conversation before and not after they become full facts on the ground.

Do you feel like that conversation is starting at all?

No, not really. I fear that it’s very hard for us to have conversations about things before they’re emergencies. This one’s a little easier than climate change in one sense. The entire discussion about climate change was perverted, distorted by the expensive lies of the fossil fuel industry. And there’s not really the same kind of industry around genetic engineering at least – probably there is sort of around artificial intelligence – but you could still perhaps have this conversation.

But it’s really difficult right now because we’re in a state of emergency on so many other issues, climate perhaps most dramatically. And at least in the Western world, we’re convulsed around immigration, around inequality and around a lot of other things that are really important, and so it’s hard to have what feel like less immediately pressing conversations. We keep trying. That’s one of the reasons people write books, is to try and get people at least thinking along those lines.

This book is extraordinarily dense with research, interviews and personal experiences, and also your own insertions and voice. What was your process for synthesizing everything into writing this book?

I write less now, but I’m spending most of my time as a volunteer activist, with 350.org and elsewhere in the climate fight. And I miss writing, but maybe it’s best in that when I do write things, they tend to really bring together a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. This book really outlines the basic things that have concerned me the most over the last 30 years, especially issues around individualism versus community and the ways that I think we have gone off the rails with hyperindividualism that make it difficult to work together on anything. And that’s why I spend so much time talking about Ayn Rand and the rise of the various oligarchs in the West and so on and so forth.

You do spend a significant portion of the book discussing the influence of Ayn Rand. When did you first read her, and do you remember your reactions?

I think I must have been in high school, which is maybe the prime moment for reading Ayn Rand. But it didn’t appeal to me much right in the beginning. I’m not completely sure why, except that it’s utterly at odds with, among other things, my religious upbringing and faith. There’s literally no way to reconcile that appeal to selfishness with any faith that I can think of, but certainly not with the Christianity that I grew up with.

Which type of Christianity was that?

I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition, so I spent most of my life in the Methodist church. For me, when I was a young person, the really important books were things like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and those were the antithesis of Ayn Rand. They were about solidarity, which seems to be the thing that we need above all at this point.

Among the authors who have given rise to our current capitalist system – John Locke, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli even – do you think Ayn Rand stands out as the most influential?

Over the long scope of human history, no, but this philosophy of full-on greed is very different from Adam Smith. It just happened to come at the worst possible moment – a moment of extreme leverage in the U.S. in particular, and the moment when, because of climate change above all, we needed to be moving in the opposite direction.

Russian-American writer and thinker Ayn Rand. David Seaton, Flickr

Moving on to A.I., machine learning and genetic modification – when do you think they became major issues?

I wrote a book in 2003 called Enough that was sort of about these issues that were, at that point, still far enough off that it was hard for any of us to completely grapple with them. That’s not the case anymore. As you know, sometime in the last year, the Chinese designed the first designer babies on the planet. There are some very real questions now in a way that there hadn’t been before. The passage of time is the most important variable in all of this work, just as climate change is very different now than it was 30 years ago. These questions are different even from a decade ago and will probably be very different five years from now. So one does what one can to capture the moment as best one can.

Why do you think evolution should be kept to natural processes and human beings should survive as we are rather than through the evolution that we create?

Just because I think human beings are extremely interesting, much more interesting than whatever advanced robots are likely to follow us. I don’t understand and have never understood any of the reasons about why we need to acquire vast new powers and run the risks that go with them, both practical and existential. And as I say at the end of the book, I think precisely the most interesting quality of human beings is our ability to place limits and restraints on ourselves, and this could be precisely the moment to do that before we disappear into the bowels of some computer.

We’ve never been good at limiting ourselves, have we?

Yes and no. I think most people actually are, to one degree or another, fairly good at limiting themselves, putting some restraints on their behavior. That’s what makes societies possible. But I’m afraid that in the world in which we live, a very few great and powerful people are able to override that. That’s clearly the case with climate change. Human beings, I think, would be completely happy to live in a world run on solar power and wind power, but people who wouldn’t are people who own coal mines and oil wells and have deployed their power to make sure we don’t make that transition.

In your book, you raise the idea that machine learning and A.I. will never learn to adopt values and develop creativity as well as we can. As a prolific writer, do you think machines will ever be able to replace great writers?

I don’t know. I think probably the right way to think about the question is: will they be able to replace reading and thinking as key human activities? And I fear they might. Sometimes you run across people in the A.I. world who believe that soon computers will be writing better symphonies, novels and poems, and that algorithms will produce the most congenial piece of music of all time.

But even if that were true, which I doubt, it’s all beside the point. The point of art is to reflect on the human condition, and if there isn’t a kind of human condition to reflect on, then the whole enterprise won’t make much sense. Perhaps what’s left of human beings will sit and happily be entertained by some perfect algorithmically-designed piece of pop music or whatever it is. That’s not the same as the art that people have created since they started scratching on the walls of caves.

The Dakota Access Pipeline in the U.S. has prompted a wave of protests against its environmental and social impacts. Tony Webster, Flickr

You met with many of the leaders of this new wave of technology, some of whom even believe they’ll defeat their own death. How do you respond when someone is telling you things that you find terrifying or against humanity?

I try to listen politely and journalistically, but I also make clear to people like Ray Kurzweil that I disagree in the end. And I think sometimes people like that are grateful for the disagreements. They live in a bubble in Silicon Valley, where almost everyone is thinking along the same lines. It’s very much a groupthink kind of place. I think sometimes they’re interested in – and relieved, even – to have certain people pushing back.

You also distinguish between politicians and influential businessmen on the one hand, and the tech industry on the other hand. What differentiates these two groups of power-holders?

They’re different culturally – one set is much younger than the other – but the things that make them alike are probably more important. They all adopted some strain of libertarianism or another and believe fervently that they should not be regulated, that no one should stand in their way, that they should be able to do what they want to do. And in that way, they seem to be very much alike.

You’re trained as a journalist, writing for The New Yorker and others, and objectivity is a traditional part of journalism. But your writing takes on a lot of activism. Do you draw a line between writing and activism, or do you think there is no line anymore, and there is a correct side to take on issues like climate change?

I wrote the first book about climate change, and in the process of writing it, I knew that I took sides. That is, I didn’t like the world of ‘dry up and blow away.’ So I knew that if I was doing that, that meant that there were journalistic roles I shouldn’t and couldn’t fulfill. I couldn’t go be the kind of beat reporter going and covering climate change for The New York Times. Someone else would need to do that with a different set of instincts and guidelines.

On the other hand, I continued to write constantly, and when I write, I make clear what my stance is. And partly out of deference to my journalistic background, I’ve never gotten paid by environmental groups, including 350.org, even though I’ve worked for them full-time for over a decade, because it’s always very important to know that my views are my own.

I think everybody should be dealing with great questions like climate change in the courts of their work, whether they’re journalists or theologians or economists or whatever. And then I think when the work day is done, people should be dealing with them in their role as citizens – and that’s joining the movements, slowing down climate change. And I don’t see any problem there.

Solar energy, such as here in Morocco, is one of the key solutions McKibben says could save a more natural future. Dana Smillie, World Bank

You once mentioned that you’ve faced threats before for your activism. What did it feel like, and what advice do you have for fellow activists facing similar issues?

It didn’t feel good. I didn’t like being singled out and surveilled and followed constantly by people hired by the oil industry. I don’t like death threats. No one does. They’re designed to distract and abuse and intimidate, and they definitely do some of that.

But I’m lucky. I live in a relatively safe place. I have the right skin color for standing up to threats more than others. I think people need to be really careful. Too many of our environmental colleagues around the world are getting killed every year now – hundreds of activists, journalists, you name it – who are working on these issues. They need to be much more careful than I am. And that increases the necessity for those of us who have relative freedom of action to use it. In a world where privilege is clearly distributed unequally, one job is to make sure it’s distributed more equally, and the other job is to use what privilege one has to try and make change.

Climate change can often feel abstract. For people who want to take action on it, how can we make sure they’re given concrete ways to do so?

That’s the job of organizers – to figure out how to give people a chance to weigh in. I’m really pleased right now, for instance, that everybody’s organizing hard through these all-ages climate strikes that will happen beginning on 20 September. I think it’s a real opportunity for everyone to follow the lead that young people have opened up in the last year or so.

We’ve been building movements for a decade now, and we look for opportunities all over the place to let people get engaged. Some of them have been around fossil fuel destruction, like with the Dakota Access Pipeline, and that has been very effective. But not everybody has a pipeline in their backyard, so we’ve also had these mass fossil fuel divestment campaigns. There are plenty of ways people can join in and make a difference.

Falter looks almost exclusively at the U.S. Did you mainly target a U.S. audience, or are there lessons you hope people elsewhere can take away from it?

It’s getting published all over the world, which I’m happy about, and clearly large parts of it are about the whole world: the first chapter about climate change obviously, and the last section on resistance, solar panels and all of that. The middle is more about the U.S., or at least the English-speaking world, and I think that’s important and useful for everyone because the world [is subject to its] drive and decision-making. That’s the history one should at least try and understand. The history of Exxon is not confined to the U.S. because the carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere is not confined to the U.S.

I hope what people take away is that we still have a little bit of room to fight. Not much, but we have the tools that we need: cheap solar panels, non-violence.


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