How Writers Created the Environmental Movement

Q&A with environmentalist Bill MicKibben, author of a new anthology.

''The confluence of food, energy, and climate is going to be the economic issue of our lifetimes.''

''The confluence of food, energy, and climate is going to be the economic issue of our lifetimes.''

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Environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, after two decades forging the connection between words and action in his own life, has now traced the powerful bond between literature and natural protection through the nation's history. The roots of the movement to create national parks, to curb pesticides, to question consumerism—all can be found in the passages he has gathered in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. It's touted as the first definitive anthology of American environmental writing, which McKibben takes pains to distinguish from mere nature writing. There's plenty of love of nature in the writings of Marjory Stoneman Douglas on the Everglades or John McPhee on Utah canyons, to be sure, but McKibben says these and the other works cited are "pieces of writing by people who took sides." He recently talked with U.S. News. Excerpts:

Why has writing been so key to each advance in American environmentalism?

In the post-Enlightenment West, the environmental idea didn't come easily. The other idea came easily—that we should just take over everything in front of us and subdue it as best we could and make some money off it. The idea that we might sort of leave some of it aside, and there might be a dark edge to modernity—it took John Muir and Rachel Carson to sit down, clear their throats, and say at some length what was what. Even the global warming movement broke out from Al Gore giving a slide show. Some would date the first popular writing on global warming to your own book The End of Nature in 1989. But you see concern for climate emerge even earlier.

George Perkins Marsh, in the late 19th century. He didn't have any sense of global climate; how could he have? But he really was the first environmental writer who understood that as we started to change small things, big things would follow. He looked at deforestation in New England and said, "Huh. We have floods every spring now, and all the streams are dried up by August. What can I conclude from this?" It was his insight that led directly to the formation of the Adirondack Park, and that is the father of the national park and forest movement. And yet you say that for all of its achievements, American environmentalism has made change only at the margins and that the challenge of reducing carbon dioxide requires something more profound.

As wonderful as the Sierra Club is—and the Wilderness Society and whatever—if we have to wait for them to solve climate change, it won't happen. They're not scaled to do it. They're scaled to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's too much to ask them to convert the entire world economy off fossil fuel onto something else. The manifestations of climate change are environmental, but the causes are so deep that to deal with it, it is pretty clear to me that the confluence of food, energy, and climate is going to be the economic issue of our lifetimes and the foreign- policy issue of our lifetimes. So who are the writers addressing climate in those terms?

There are writers who represent some of the technical change that needs to happen, like [Rocky Mountain Institute cofounder] Amory Lovins. Those technical changes I trust will happen. The more difficult changes are the cultural ones, taking a society that's allowed itself, under the intoxicating influence of cheap oil, to become hyperindividualized in a way that no other culture has—and trying to rebuild some community. Oddly enough, I think, for me, the most practical writer in the whole book is Wendell Berry [the Kentucky farmer who is seen as father of the farmers' market]. He may seem as far removed from these questions as you can get, but I think he's right there. We need to have a working community again if we're going to solve this problem. Tell me about the new group you're spearheading,

Nobody's ever tried to do a global grass-roots movement, because until recently, the tools weren't there to do it. Our analysis is that this new set of climate negotiations that will conclude in Copenhagen is the last real bite at the apple. If we don't get it right this time and we punt it 10 years further down the road, in 10 years all we're going to be doing is figuring out how to adapt to change. And it doesn't look at the moment that it's going anywhere near far enough. So thanks to [nasa scientist] Jim Hansen, now we have this number finally, 350 parts per million [carbon dioxide]—that's the upper boundary of what's safe. Our only real goal is to take this number and tattoo it into every human brain, so that everyone in the world, even if they know nothing else about climate, knows that 350 represents a certain level of safety. And we hope that will shove these negotiations in the direction of science.