by Libby Cherry
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
Bill McKibben, Wildfire, 2019
The rapid alterations to our environment caused by climate change may have left scientists reaching for neologism – 'feedback loop’, ‘global dimming’, ‘the greenhouse effect’. Yet for all the disastrous consequences these terms embody, they still appear domestic, mundane: as environmental activist Bill McKibben puts in it, the language of climate change is simply part of our ‘mental furniture’. We allow them to sit in news reports and scientific studies, but we fail to recognise that their very familiarity is an indictment of how we are all implicated in the continuing crisis of climate change.
When journalist for Politics.co.uk and fervent Remainer Ian Dunt tweeted during the Extinction Rebellion protests that 'disrupting the Tube to protest climate change is quite impressively fucking stupid', he failed to recognise that it isn’t just oil giants who are culpable. We have all grown comfortable living with climate change. In a 2012 interview, American poet Jorie Graham cited McKibben as one of the only challengers to this ‘failure of imagination’. Her poem ‘Sea Change’ is an attempt to counter the paralysing effects of climate change’s familiarity, her verse ripping apart ordinary words to evoke climate destruction: ‘e / vaporation’, ‘in / dispensable’, ‘un / natural’. These split prefixes remind us that a single, seemingly insignificant change – such as ‘1 degree’ – is enough to permanently alter not just our language, but our world.
McKibben has witnessed these changes first hand. As creator of the international environmental activist network, 350.org, he has been on the frontlines of the war against climate change, currently focusing on blocking the construction of the US/Canada Keystone XL pipeline. A seasoned protestor, and so perhaps accustomed to writing with the semantic density required for a banner, McKibben’s own texts hinge on the ethical debates latent in a particularly choice word. His seminal 1989 book, The End of Nature, used our changing relationship with the environment to invoke not only the literal changes we are making to our planet – melting ice caps, areas of deforestation, tropical storms – but also the end of the concept of ‘nature’ to signify the wild and the untameable. In a world where a standard school run in a car can detrimentally affect the standard of living for future generations, ‘nature’, McKibben explains, is no longer the impervious, unpredictable force it once was. It is in the closing chapters of this text that the locus term for his new book Falter first appears:
we can worry about our human affairs secure in our knowledge of the eternal inhuman ... but what will happen – this summer or next summer or some summer soon – as that certainty falters?
30 years later, McKibben extends this new ‘uncertainty’ in human belief systems beyond simply our immediate attitude to the environment. Falter encompasses not just the terrifying vulnerability and destruction of our planet, essentially an update on what was already described in The End of Nature, but moves on to include what he believes is the root cause of our failure to address climate change: an individualist and solipsistic mindset that is not only endemic on all sides of the political spectrum, but permeates our business, philosophy and even science.
The majority of our information about climate change comes from news reports: a global crisis desiccated into headlines from individual research groups. Yet this does little justice to how its effects unfold. While the impacts of climate change may manifest in seemingly disparate plots, climaxes and conflicts, to regard them as separate events undermines the significance of their common origin in rising temperatures. Facts and figures also cannot adequately mimic the way it is experienced: McKibben writes that
science and economics have no real way to value the fact that people have lived for millennia in a certain rhythm, have eaten the food and sung the songs of certain places that are now disappearing.
In contrast, he suggests:
artists can register scale ... they can transpose the fact of melting ice to inundated homes and bewildered lives, gauge it against long history and lost future.
McKibben quotes in full an anguished poem written by two soon-to-be climate refugees from the Marshall Islands, whose condemnation of ‘oil- slicked dreams’ is couched in a description of their day-to-day anxiety about rising sea levels. He also cites as a key influence Rachel Carson’s 1962 work Silent Spring, which uncovered environmental destruction being wrought by pesticide DDT. Silent Spring began with a fable asking the reader to imagine a dystopian world muted by the poisoning of natural life. While debates over minutely precise scientific predictions are cannon fodder to climate change deniers, no one can argue with a vanished home, an empty nest. As the Islanders’ poem notes grimly, ‘try to breathe underwater...’
McKibben’s own recourse to poetic description can feel a bit laboured at times:
To walk the roads through even a corner of Alberta’s vast tar sands complex is to visit a kind of hell ... where sludge from the mines combines with water and toxic chemicals in a black soup ... if you listen to the crack of the guns, and to the stories of the area’s original inhabitants, whose forest was ripped up for the mines, you understand that you are in a war zone.
His prose often chafes with mixed metaphors, and his attempt to inject ‘relatability’ into climate science sometimes verges on the bizarre:
you can move a person from Hanoi to Edmonton, and she might decide to open a Vietnamese restaurant ... but if you move a rice plant, it will die.
If his penchant for Miltonic panoramas is a little cliché, the mini-narratives that he creates – a condensation of years of individual reports and witness accounts – are moving. He tracks climate disaster in California from 2017 to the present, charting its pendulum swing between seven-year drought to deluge to drought again to wildfire. His reference to how the aptly named town Paradise ‘burst into flames’ subtly links the effects of this Golden State disaster with Alberta sands, transcending geographical differences in an overwhelming hellish conformity.
However, McKibben’s twenty-first-century epic doesn’t end in mere description, and his narrative expands to the cause of our failure to achieve effective climate action: reckless individualism and political inhumanity. He points to rampant inequality and a collective irresponsibility on both the right and the left for the casualties that will occur, and have already, from our lurch towards consumerism. He writes dryly, ‘Conservatives, oddly, tend not to worry about conservation; progressives tend to think all progress is good.’
Our society, in short, needs to stop thinking of fridges as the number one indicator of a good standard of living. A tweet from journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer during the Extinction Rebellion protests perhaps encapsulates this blinkered vision:
Fact. There are plenty of insects. Pollenation is happenng [sic]. There are plenty of crops. There is more food on this planet than ever before. Fewer people are going hungry than ever before. Act now. And carry on as we are because it’s working REALLY well. Fact.
Hartley-Brewer undoubtedly sits on the right of the political spectrum, but regardless of party allegiance, politicians still universally value economic ‘growth’ as the primary indicator of a society’s success, despite the fact that such ‘growth’ is predicated on expending resources and destroying our planet. Hartley-Brewer’s supremely ironic failure to register that the ‘insects’ whom she so casually dismisses were the very creatures that triggered Carson’s Silent Spring and, by extension, the modern environmental movement, only demonstrates the level of delusion and ignorance of those in power.
For it isn’t just environmentalists that can spin a yarn. ‘I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,’ boasts the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s colossal Atlas Shrugged. With Rand’s fans including the Federal Reserve’s Alan Greenspan (‘the avatar of neoliberalism and chief architect of the world’s economy’), Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump himself, McKibben explicitly roots society’s doctrine of self-interest in her novels.
The Koch brothers form McKibben’s particular focus, whose investment in the oil industry and commitment to Randian libertarian ideals manifests the link between individualist politics and climate change denial. McKibben sketches their oil-funded ‘Koch-topus’ which extends from bankrolling climate change denying thinktanks to sponsoring sympathetic Congressmen to erecting ‘centers’ of libertarian thought in America’s most prestigious universities. Even Oxford isn’t immune to the Kochs’ influence. According to Greenpeace’s Polluterwatch, in 2017 the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation donated $278,000 to the Oxford University North American Office.
Outside of the oligarchs and libertarian economists, McKibben follows the strain of this individualism to Silicon Valley techies and idealistic transhumanists (who are also, unsurprisingly, at Oxford). There is something nebulous about McKibben’s claim that international governments, which aren’t all even conservatively minded, could be so influenced by a very small and extreme sect of ideological individualists. McKibben argues that while this numerically small group is hardly the mainstream, they have ‘leverage’. The Kochs are an example of ‘particular people in particular places at particular moments in time following a particular philosophic bent: that’s leverage piled on top of leverage.’ This leverage makes itself felt not only in political influence, with Koch employees literally teaching their libertarian philosophy worldwide and lobbyists determining what is inscribed in our laws, but in the fact that a single day of one capitalist’s business transactions can lock the entire world into further untold environmental misery.
McKibben’s answer for stopping climate change should immediately involve us all. Not only because we are all inhabitants of this planet, but because his named perpetrators of global destruction are the same people targeted by campaigners against austerity, powerful lobbyists and misogyny. For McKibben, the war on climate change is as much built on dispelling these harmful ways of thinking as it is about pointing to the realities of environmental destruction. While views of growth rather than ‘maturation’ still hold precedent, the switch to a zero-carbon society will remain politically impossible. Yet the reality of climate change won’t allow these narratives of self-interest to hold credence for much longer, as the Randian climax to financial success dwindles to fairytale.
Graham, a poet, gives a far more realistic depiction of disjunct epiphany:
looking up, the sky makes you hear it, you know why we have come it / blues, you know the trouble at heart, blue, blue, what pandemonium, blur of spears roots cries leaves master & slave, the crop destroyed, / water everywhere not / drinkable & radioactive was in it.
We are still mortal (for now, at least). No one is impervious to drought, flood, tsunami, earthquake, wildfire. At its most basic level, McKibben’s plea for dramatic social change now is one that speaks to the most egocentric and universal of principles: self-preservation.
LIBBY CHERRY reads English at Corpus Christi. She is a sucker for conspiracy theories and Granny Smiths.
Art by Anna Covell