Climate change prophet Bill McKibben, from an address given at Wellesley this spring (coinciding, I think, with launch of activism project 350.org), about three-quarters into the talk — my transcription. This is available from iTunes U (where I’m checking out a lot of sustainability-issues and related lecture material lately). Some of what McKibben says I’m quite sympathetic with, right off the bat — and some of it I’m rather more skeptical about. The segment warrants thoughtful dissection. I’d love to know, among other things, more about the “Are you happy?” poll structures and collected data. In any case, the idea linkages are done beautifully here, fascinating for brevity & interwovenness, and the whole address is well worth a critical listen.
I want to end by talking just a tad more philosophically than I’ve been talking so far. I want to talk about the real underlying change that I think needs to accompany what we’re doing. People ask me sometimes, “Are you hopeful about how this will come out?” . . . I’ve allowed myself to be a little more hopeful in the year just past, when I’ve seen, you know, religious communities start to take up this cause in real ways, when I’ve seen college — we have — 750 or 800 college presidents, now, have signed on to this commitment to make their campuses carbon neutral — um, you know, place after place we’re beginning to see that kind of real willingness to step up to the big dimensions of this challenge, to take risks, to move forward in that kind of way, and these are good things. But if we’re going to get through this small and closing window that we face, it’s only partly going to be because of the technological change, and only partly because of the new laws that we pass and the new economics that they promote. Those will be very important — nothing more important than putting a price on carbon so that markets can go to work on it in some useful way. But, but, it’s also going to require real change in how we understand who we are. That sounds grandiose. Look, fossil fuel, the abundance of cheap fossil fuel, did several things. One was to make us wealthy, one was to wreck our climate. The last was to make us, in this country, the first human beings in history who have essentially no need of our neighbors at all. Who live lives largely isolated from those around us. This is the work, the kind of intellectual work that I’ve been engaged in in the last few years, and it was sort of in this book, most recent book, Deep Economy. There’s an attempt to understand sort of how we got in the fix that we did. One of the great ironies of the last fifty years, this period of runaway consumption that now endangers the very fabric for geological time of our planet, is that it hasn’t made us as happy as one would think. In fact, to the contrary. Every year — since the end of World War II — one of the big national polling firms has asked Americans, “Are you happy with your life?” The number of Americans who say, “Yes, I’m very happy with my life,” peaks in 1956, and goes slowly but steadily down hill since. That’s very odd, because that downward curve coincides with a trebling in our material standard of living, over that same fifty years. If the world, if the economy worked kind of the way that we thought it did intuitively, those two curves should go in someplace the same direction; that they diverge like that is proof that something else is at work here. And that something else is linked, as it turns out, to that rise in affluence. What makes Americans depressed and sad is a growing sense of remarkable isolation and lack of connection to the communities around them. And that is no accident: how did we define the American Dream for the last fifty years? It was building bigger houses, farther apart from each other! That’s what our economy has more than anything else been about, in that fifty year period! That’s what the American Dream has been. How big a house can you build and how far away is it from the next house? You know? That had obvious environmental consequences. Takes a lot of energy to heat and light and cool, you know, a four thousand [square] foot structure or a two thousand [square] foot structure. But it also had real social consequences. When you were further apart from each other, you ran into each other less often. The average American has meals with friends and family half as often as they did fifty years ago. The average American has half as many close friends as they did fifty years ago. Because we’ve preoccupied ourselves with other stuff (and much of it’s been stuff). And it hasn’t been enough to compensate for that loss. That’s why it’s a really good thing that we start to see a little change coming. Maybe we’ve hit, kind of, bottom — and this new energy world that we’re moving into will help us move off that bottom. You know the fastest growing part of our food economy in this country for the last four or five years has been sales at local farmers’ markets. Growing twelve, fifteen percent a year, growing way faster than WalMart, you know? That’s good news environmentally, because, you know, our normal way of eating, which is to travel each bite of food fifteen hundred miles before it reaches our lips, is pretty energy-intensive. Uh, you know, um, it pretty much means that everything we eat arrives loving marinated in crude oil before it reaches our plates. But the real advantage, maybe, to those farmers’ markets is that it’s a different social experience to go to them. Couple years ago a pair of sociologists followed shoppers, first around the supermarket, then around a farmers’ market. You all’ve been to the supermarket, you know how it works, you walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance, you visit the stations of the cross around the supermarket, you emerge somehow with the same basket of items you had the week before. [audience laughter] When they followed people around the farmers’ market, they had ten times more conversations per visit than at the supermarket. Order of magnitude more conversations. It’s not a different way of getting calories, it’s a different way of being. Much closer to the way of being that humans have practiced to get their food since agriculture was invented — you know, in connection with the people who were growing your food and the other people around you. And it’s out of those kind of conversations and communities that grow the possibility for much further change, you know — that’s the kind of community that then can begin to maybe envision some mass transit, and some clustered housing, and all the other things that we’re going to need if we’re going to have any hope of dealing with this onslaught and in fact surviving, or coping with, those parts of that onslaught we cannot, at this point, derail. Strong communities are incredibly important. And one of those things those strong communities have to do is build a strong collective politics that moves us where we need to go.