Energy & Environment

David Moats: McKibben’s latest book discusses the politics of white advantage

Bernie Sanders, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben has a new book: “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon." File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

What happened? How has the United States over the last 50 years veered so dramatically toward ever-growing levels of economic inequality and climate catastrophe?

Bill McKibben’s latest book joins a growing list of works trying to answer that question. In doing so, he tells his own story: an exemplary young student in a prosperous white suburb where the economic and educational advantages he enjoyed propelled him toward a career as an author and one of the world’s leading climate activists. 

He acknowledges that what benefited him then is wrecking the world now. From his home in the mountains of Ripton, and his position on the faculty of Middlebury College, he has tallied the debt the baby boom generation owes to the rest of the world; his latest project, an organization called Third Act, is enlisting the energies of those over 60 years old in the battle against climate change and for the defense of democracy.

His new book is called “The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon.” The three elements of the title occasion a searching examination of the meaning of patriotism, the role of religion and the full impact of the American suburb on the climate, economy, politics and culture of America.  

McKibben acknowledges that, as a middle-class white American, he never thought his own life was exemplary in any meaningful way, but it is precisely that demographic, which ballooned in numbers with the onset of the baby boom generation, that makes his life a telling indicator of what has happened to America.

His family moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1970, when he was 10 years old. As a teenager, he was such a paragon of American patriotism that he became a tour guide on the Lexington Green, telling tourists all about the Revolutionary War battle that was fought there in 1775. He was a member of the Methodist congregation there, one of the denominations of mainline Protestantism that were predominant in America at the time.

But what happened in Lexington became emblematic of what was happening throughout the nation. Millions of Americans were moving to suburbs that ringed all the major cities, establishing the familiar model: Single-family homes each with its own yard and garage, linked by highways to places of work, where millions traveled by automobile each day, causing a historic and catastrophic explosion of carbon into the atmosphere.

McKibben describes two events that occurred in Lexington when he was a boy. His father, a business reporter, was arrested in an anti-war rally on the Lexington Green, an event signaling the liberal tendency of the educated class that occupied the prosperous town. Shortly thereafter, the voters of Lexington defeated a ballot initiative that would have opened up the town for housing that might have brought in low-income Black residents. 

Exclusionary policies protecting the suburbs allowed those who owned suburban houses to amass huge wealth over the decades, leaving behind all those who had been kept out. His family’s home cost $30,000 when his family bought it; the property was later valued at more than $1 million.

The politics of white advantage spread across the nation with tax-cutting policies favoring property owners and impoverishing public services such as education, libraries, parks and health care. California’s school system went from the top ranks to the bottom because of policies designed to enrich property owners and rob low-income people of the services that might help them advance.

McKibben, like others before him, points to an infamous memo written by lawyer Lewis Powell for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging an aggressive, long-term political strategy to tailor government policy to the interests of business. Powell later became a Supreme Court justice, appointed by President Richard Nixon, and was the swing vote in a case from San Antonio that might have demanded equality in education, as the Brigham decision has done in Vermont. Instead, the suburbs have been able to afford good schools because wealth generates wealth, exponentially. Thus, inequality has grown exponentially. 

Then came the Reagan presidency, which proceeded to enact much of the pro-business agenda urged by Lewis Powell, slashing taxes and public services and gutting early steps by President Jimmy Carter to address the problem of climate change.

Thus, as economic inequality has grown, so has damage to the climate. Every year is becoming the hottest on record. Only recently, a study found that the arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the globe rather than two or three times. 

The effects are everywhere — McKibben points to the damage to Honduras from two recent hurricanes. The toll to Honduras amounted to 40 percent of the nation’s GDP. “If you want to know what wrecked the bridges of San Pedro Sula,” McKibben writes, “look to the SUVs of suburbia.” That thousands of dispossessed and impoverished Hondurans are seeking opportunity in the United States should be no surprise, and an immigration policy recognizing the ways the world is bound together by the shared climate crisis ought to open doors here rather than close them.

The influx of out-of-staters who came to Vermont in the 1970s and 1980s included many seeking a life where community still existed and the isolating, self-centered, culturally depleted life of the suburbs could be left behind. That McKibben ended up here is fitting. From his perch in Ripton, he continues to look forward. 

In a recent New Yorker magazine (at one time Vermont had the highest per-capita New Yorker subscription rate of any state), he cited the high-temperature record set last month in Britain, saying it was “a sign of a world coming unstuck.” But he also hailed the passage of President Joe Biden’s climate bill. “Taken as a whole, the bill is a triumph,” he wrote.

He also noted the announcement by Congo that it would open its rainforests and peatlands to oil exploration. “Opening the region up to drilling wouldn’t just add fuel to the fire — it would shut off a hose that fights the flames,” he wrote. 

And yet Canada and the United States have their own plans for expanded oil exploration. It’s a race between those who want to fill the atmosphere with disastrous new levels of carbon and those who recognize the dangers already besetting the globe. Third Act and other activist organizations have a decadeslong battle ahead of them.

None of us who grew up in suburbs and followed the customary path to a middle-class life can be blamed as individuals for what has happened to the globe. An individual carbon-spewing SUV may be an irresponsible choice, but it alone has not wrecked the climate. One molecule of water does not make up the wave of which it is a part. McKibben’s contribution is to have shown how each of us fits into the larger, collective picture, and his work forces us to reckon with our responsibility. Our grandchildren will look toward us one day and wonder what we did in response.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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