Three decades after bringing news of climate change to a broad audience with the book The End of Nature, environmental scholar Bill McKibben's new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? offers an honest, if unsettling look at the prospects for human survival. In a starred review, PW noted that readers "open to inconvenient and sobering truths will find much to digest in McKibben’s eloquently unsparing treatise."
PW caught up with McKibben ahead of the 2019 London Book Fair to talk about his new book, and why there's still a ray of hope for our future.
Why this book, now?
This is the 30th anniversary of the publication of The End of Nature, and I wanted to step back, and really see where we were, what had happened over these past 30 years. And I found myself overwhelmed by something that I already knew, but hadn’t really let myself fully understand—which was that we’d gone from a world in which climate change was a very, very dangerous but abstract future threat, to a world where it was the overwhelming physical reality of our time. A reality we cannot escape on any continent, at any hour of any day. And it struck me, hard, that I’d spent my adult life working on this question, and that it had gone from being a possibility to a hideous fact.
How different is 2019 from what you thought it would be?
The reality now is very difficult, far more difficult, even than we thought it would be 30 years ago. Things have happened much faster. But this book is written very much out of a sense of engagement, not despair. It’s depressing as hell, but there’s no use just lingering in that emotion because it can be paralyzing. And we still have immense amounts of work to do. I don’t feel like I owe readers anything other than honesty. But the honest truth is I’m still working hard on these things and will be to the end of my life.
Do you think other writers been have using the tools of their trade—words, thoughts, and the power of logical argument—to do what you do, which is to provide a kind of honesty to readers on climate issues?
Yes. In that sense, I’m very, very heartened. When I wrote The End of Nature, it was the first book about climate change, and it wasn’t like there were many more for awhile. Now, there are all kinds of good writers at work. A lot of them are journalists. There are good people who are covering climate on Twitter on a daily basis. It’s like almost like as the planet’s fever spikes, these antibodies are emerging to try and fight the infection. Some are activists, some are engineers building solar panels, and some are thinkers and writers. And between all these groups, there’s a chance. And, writers are as important as engineers in some ways, because a new sort of metaphor is as important to us as a new kind of wind turbine. Because so much of the problem has been getting across to people the peril that we’re in.
Has all that writing really made a difference?
Yes. We’re at a kind of inflection point in the general public’s understanding of climate change. Over the last year, the combination of lots of new scientific reports, the images of flooding, and in particular these horrific wildfires on the West Coast, and all the writing that’s gone with them, I think, has taken our concern to a new level. When you look at the polling, climate change is no longer fourth, or fifth, or sixth, or seventh on people’s list of critical issues, it’s first or second, which is where it needs to be.
Should people should view the possible reelection of President Trump as furthering the likelihood that we’ll continue down the path towards ecological disaster?
Well, that’s definitely true. But I don’t think, and I take some pains in the book to say this, that while Trump is the most obvious sort of symbol of our plight, I don’t think really most of it can be blamed on him. And I do my best historical detective work to try and figure out sort of where the blame really does lay. That’s why I spend a fair amount of time talking about Ayn Rand and the world that she and her followers built, because I think that's really where things went seriously astray to begin with. We’re now paying a very deep price, and Trump is one of those prices.
You mentioned climate change activists on Twitter, but does social media also make it harder to get people to read nonfiction that’s more than a couple of paragraphs, and to really engage with complex issues like climate science?
I think it does. I spend a lot of time as an activist, and I’ve probably written a book’s worth of tweets in the last five years, because the need to engage in ways that reach people is really crucial. But, we haven’t yet come up with anything that replaces a book for serious, deep thought about the most important questions. So, at some point or another, it has to be in a book, and the book better be a good one. I’m under no illusion that everyone’s going to read Falter, but I’ve had good luck in the past with having enough people read things to go out and to be useful in helping move us on to the next stage of this work.
Is the inertia about climate change somehow different than with other issues we face? And how do we combat that—does civics education play a part in getting people to act?
Inertia’s always a problem, right? Newton figured that out. But in this case, the unique part of this story is that you’ve had the biggest, richest industry on Earth—the fossil fuel industry—working around the clock with endless resources to try and make that inertia just as powerful as it could possibly be.
The real literary campaign around climate change has been a campaign of lying and deception by the fossil fuel industry. And so I try to trace that in the book, and try to understand its roots. But part of overcoming that is recognizing it. Part of overcoming it is people getting angry about the fact that they’ve been misled, and lied to. Given 50 or a 100 years, we’d be okay. We’d make the changes we’d need to make. We’re starting to do it. But the ability of the fossil fuel industry to delay that change in an effort to preserve their business model for another generation, that’s the story of our time in a lot of ways.
For many parents, it’s really a challenge not to be paralyzed by guilt and the overwhelming breadth of the problem. That’s part of this, isn’t it?
I completely agree. And that paralysis is a difficulty in and of itself. One of the things that’s so hard about climate change is that it seems so large, and we seem so small in comparison to it, that it’s difficult for us to imagine that anything we could do as individuals might matter. And to a certain degree that analysis is actually correct. My roof is covered in solar panels, but I do not fool myself that that’s how we’re going to solve climate change.
But what we’ve tried to do over the last 12 or 15 years is build movements large enough that people can look at them and think, yeah, there’s actually a plausible way of working together. Together we can put enough pressure on the system to cause widespread enough change that perhaps we can catch up with physics.
It’s such a serious, important, complex subject—I have to ask, how do you plan to market Falter?
You know, at some level it can’t help but be a story about me, which I’m not exactly 100% comfortable with. But there are not very many people who have gotten to watch this whole story unfold, and I have. And so I think I’m going to spend a lot of time talking with people about that, trying to help them situate themselves in what is the greatest drama underway on our planet. And it is the greatest drama there ever was, and it really is a drama. We don’t know how it’s going to come out, which means it’s not a melodrama where we can pretty well predict what’s going to happen. It’s a real drama.
Still, you do write about times when people have acted together to do wonderful things...
Yes. The fact that human beings have come together before to make real change is the most hopeful thing that there is. And when I get to despairing, I think about the history of the 20th Century, and the emergence of movement building and nonviolent direct action. And then I think about the revolution we think we’ve organized, about 20,000 demonstrations around the world over the last decade. I think about that, and I think about all those people, especially those people in places that did nothing to cause this problem. And I don’t know whether the hope I feel is irrational or not, but I do have hope. In the end, the reason that I wrote the book is because I really do believe in our species. I hope to hell I’m right about that. I look forward to writing a sequel to Falter in 30 years, about how we managed to turn things around.