We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Bill McKibben
Round Three: Concluding Remarks - September 20, 2000

Hello, everybody -- a final note from the planet in the alternate universe on which I reside, where everything is not getting better thanks to the glorious synergistic efforts of enlightened corporate leaders.

From Post & Riposte:

"I thought Mary Gade's call for more education and information [was] encouraging. Survey after survey shows the American people support environmental protection and generally believe environmental protection and economic development can go hand in hand. However, surveys also have shown a discouraging lack of knowledge about the environment on the part of the general public.... The implications of such an ill informed public are real problems for our politicians and decision-makers. It also allows us to blame someone else -- factories, the other guy -- instead of realizing that we all are creating the problems by our individual decisions as consumers, voters, and citizens."
--John Strickler - 05:44pm EST, Sep 18, 2000.

"To put environmental issues on the agenda, we need to create not only awareness of the issues, but also willingness to sacrifice on their behalf. That will only happen when the majority realizes that repairing our environment is a matter of survival.... Increasing taxes on cars and gas seems like a reasonable incentive, but that will only become politically feasible when people realize what is at stake."
--David d'Ancona - 02:01pm EST, Sep 17, 2000.

What do you think? Join the conversation.

Like some doomed salmon, I rise to the bait strewn in the water before me. I hold no brief for Al Gore, but I find it extremely unlikely that George W. Bush is the prophet anointed by God to lead us into the environmental age. Here we have a man who presides over the dirtiest cities in America; who has watched as his state bakes under record heat and drought exceeding even the Dust Bowl years and yet cannot bring himself to say forthrightly that he believes in global warming; whose party platform calls for "more research" on the greenhouse effect instead of action; who has taunted Al Gore whenever Gore has sounded good on the environment; and who picked another oil man to be his veep. Every business lobby in D.C. is pumping money into his campaign faster than a Ford Exploiter owner spends money at the self-service pump. I can't wait to see what a term or two of his "flexible, market-based initiatives" will do for us. On the other hand, George W. would be a lot easier to organize against than Al Gore or Bill Clinton ever was.

The basic point is this -- and no one in this discussion has really responded to it in any way. As long as you believe that all that matters in our politics is ensuring more economic growth, then you're stuck in a box. It becomes simply too painful to imagine the policies that might get something done -- for instance, raising the price of fossil fuel. Gregg Easterbrook imagines that there may still be a painless magic fix (mending leaks in natural-gas pipelines, etc.) to global warming, but even Jim Hansen has explained he published his new report as much in desperation as anything else. Since we're not getting anything done on carbon dioxide, he reckoned, we might as well try something. But why aren't we getting anything done on carbon dioxide? Because it is politically painful, and because there have been enough journalists willing to downplay the scientific consensus and promote the remaining handful of greenhouse skeptics.

Which is where we meet the semi-tragedy of Al Gore. Look, the man knows exactly how dangerous our predicament is. Only a handful of European leaders are as well-versed in the science of global climate change. And yet he can't bring himself to really do anything -- he's frittered away eight years on his "new vehicle initiative," looking for a painless magic fix of his own. Because he knows the political calculus: if the price of gas goes up, he's going to get shot down.

How is political change going to come? It's going to come the old-fashioned way, I think. Enough folks are going to look around them and say -- holy cow, something bad is going down. They are going to organize, they are going to protest, they are going to make the political system bend. It will not be easy: the corporate interests everyone is busy extolling (and that Eileen Claussen, bless her heart, is doing her best to co-opt) will make it extremely difficult to get anything done. But Seattle was a wake-up call.

The question is whether the wake-up call will come in time. There are environmentalists who contend it will take a whopper of a natural disaster to really cause change: "Hurricane levels Miami," something on that scale. In my darker moments, I wonder if they might not be right.

New! 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

Return to Introduction

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.