Roundtable
We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Bill McKibben
Round Two - September 15, 2000

Since I seem to be the sole voice of extremist alarum in the company of three gentle and moderate folk, let me look for a minute to a couple of this month's headlines for what they might tell us about an emerging environmental politics.

To wit: the North Pole is now, beyond doubt, beginning to melt. In fact, "beginning" is the wrong word: the ice pack is 40 percent thinner than it was when I was born in 1960. You can see the evidence in shrinking glaciers on

From Post & Riposte:

"For the environmental debate to move forward it needs to embrace missionary politics -- to stop preaching to the choir and go out to convert the 'heathen' whose current 'religion' is not hugging trees, but hugging their kids, hunting the land, engaging in sports, finding economic security, and making a lasting difference. Any good idea can be sold to those on the political right and the political left ... can be sold to the urban as well as the rural, the young as well as the old, men as well as women. Good ideas are generally pragmatic, and rarely ideological. They rest on a foundation of core American values."
--Patrick Burns - 09:58pm EST, Sep 13, 2000.

What do you think? Join the conversation.

Baffin Island, in shrinking hunting seasons, in shrinking waistlines of polar bears unable to find their prey. This change should not really surprise anyone. The average temperature in parts of the Arctic is 10° Fahrenheit hotter than it was four or five decades ago. And it is not confined to the Arctic. Research published in the last week shows that ice on ponds and rivers across the hemisphere now forms ten days later and melts ten days earlier than it did a century or two ago.

These are extremely big numbers. They demonstrate that when you perform an experiment as massive as we have been performing with our all-out burning of fossil fuel, you can get massive results, results that in themselves may well trigger more massive surprises. And we've only experienced about one quarter of the warming that scientists tell us we can confidently expect in the next hundred years, even if we act with some vigor to control our emissions. Physical changes of such magnitude could change everything else: economies, settlement patterns, not to mention the extinction rate.

Meanwhile, headlines show that faced with an increase in the price of oil, all of Europe seems to be outraged, militating to shut down refineries and block roads until the government makes fossil fuel cheaper. This is bigger than what happened in Seattle, and I bet politicians everywhere in the industrialized world are taking notice. I bet, in fact, that they are saying they will not let the price of oil rise on their watch. (Or the price of electricity, given the discontent this summer in San Diego at price spikes in the wake of the first widespread market deregulation.) All of this is going to make the negotiations over even the minimalist Kyoto treaty endlessly tougher -- remember, until now it's been the Europeans putting what little pressure exists on us.

What I'm trying to say is, I have my doubts about how easily or inevitably we're going to solve the problems we face -- especially when there's so much rhetoric about the need for Third World countries to "develop" in the ways America has been developing. I've spent much of the past summer in Bangladesh; in my time in the countryside, the best-off (not the richest, but the best-off) peasants were off the grid, but had solar panels for lights and cooked off biomass ovens (rule of thumb: one cow generates enough manure to run one oven, and after the manure's been run through the processor it makes great fertilizer). I guess I think we need to stop, examine all premises in the rich and poor worlds in light of what we now know about the physical nature of the world, and figure out some kind of all-out effort that gets us out of what I think is a very tight box indeed.

Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round Two -- September 15, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round One -- September 13, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

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What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Bill McKibbenBill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a general audience about global warming, which has appeared in twenty foreign-language editions and was republished last fall in a special tenth-anniversary edition. His next book, Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, will be published by Simon and Schuster in December.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.