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An Explosion of Green

An Online Conference with Bill McKibben

April 11, 1995

The following is the transcript of a live online conference with Bill McKibben as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly Online on the America Online network.

Hosted, with an introduction, by Scott Stossel

"One of the great dreams of man," the naturalist Barry Lopez has written, "must be to find some place between the extremes of nature and civilization where it is possible to live without regret." But in a time when the claims of industry and development compete not only with each other but--more importantly--with the claims of environmentalism, is Lopez's dream an attainable one? Must one side always win at the expense of the other? Or can a state of relative harmony be achieved?

Nature writer Bill McKibben offers cause for optimism, albeit a cautious one. McKibben's April Atlantic Monthly cover story, "An Explosion of Green," describes the renewal of the eastern forest, a renewal which is, in McKibben's words, "THE great environmental story of the United States, and in some ways of the whole world." While the eastern forest has yet to recover its original grandeur and ecological diversity, the degree to which it has recaptured its pre-1800 abundance makes it a model for the world's forests.

The reappearance of the eastern forest is undoubtedly cause for celebration. But problems remain. Though the trend in the East may be toward restoration, development and clear-cutting pose new and potent threats. Industrial forestry rapidly cuts wide swathes through the woods. In many cases, a robust economy ironically leads to swifter destruction at the hands of real-estate developers. Among the key questions that must be answered are these: Can we continue to foster recovery? Can human industry and development modestly co-exist with the natural world?

Tonight's guest clearly has thought hard about these questions. Bill McKibben is one of America's pre-eminent nature writers. A former staff writer at The New Yorker, McKibben has published three books, among them the highly acclaimed *The End of Nature* and *The Age of Missing Information*. His next book, *Hope, Human and Wild*, will be published in the fall.

Can human society live in harmony with its surroundings? Is nature resilient enough to recover successfully from the intrusions of farming and development? Or are society's destructive impulses of such strength that any recovery from their effects can only be superficial and temporary? Join us tonight for a discussion of these and other environmental issues.

StosselAtl: Welcome, Bill McKibben! And welcome, audience!

McKibatl: Thanks--glad to be here

StosselAtl: Let me start by asking you this, Bill. How did you come to write An Explosion of Green?

McKibatl: It came about largely because of where I live--in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. as I looked around me, I realized that I lived in a place very different from most of the world--a place where nature was recovering, not being undermined. I wanted to see how far that recovery extended, and to understand its causes.

StosselAtl: The first audience question is from MNZOO who asks:

Question: What are your concerns about the current Congress' move against regulations?

McKibatl: The current congress is, beyond any doubt, the most anti-environmental since the word "environment" was coined. The so-called "property rights" bills are thinly veiled attempts to gum up the works for any and all environmental legislation. And they may well pass, and be signed into law, because people at the moment seem tired of "environmentalism." This fatigue seems to include environmentalists.

StosselAtl: What got you started writing about environmental matters? Is it something you came to, er, naturally?

Question: How did you become interested in environmentalism and how long have you been writing about environmental issues?

McKibatl: When I lived in New York and wrote for the New Yorker, I concerned myself mostly with people stories. But at some point I began to understand that Manhattan was an island of puffery and hype in many ways. I began to investigate its physical existence--to trace sewer lines and electric .supplies and so on, in an attempt to show people that their lives were indeed physically grounded that led more or less directly to my interest in larger environmental issues. Also, I started reading Edward Abbey's work. And Wendell Berry's.

StosselAtl: GredH asks a question that gets at the heart what you talk about in An Explosion of Green:

Question: Your article gives much to celebrate but also warns of the dangers to the new forest posed by development and logging. Can the forest ever live in real harmony with commerce?

McKibatl: Sure--and there are many examples. But it requires that logging be small-scale, and done by people who really care about the piece of land--ideally its owners. To make this economically feasible we need much more value-added production in and near the forest--and we need to stop thinking of trees as a crop, as fiber.

StosselAtl: You say that Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry's writings inspired you. Who are your favorite nature writers?

McKibatl: Abbey, especially Desert Solitaire; Wendell Berry, any of his essays, Gary Snyder--"The Practice of the Wild", Terry Tempest Williams, and looking a bit further back John Muir, John Burroughs (esp. for his eastern orientation), and of course Mr. Thoreau. I'm also a great fan of the book of Job

StosselAtl: Overpopulation is one of our most intractable worldwide problems. This audience member asks:

Question: Given the demands of our growing population, do you think suburban sprawl will eliminate the beneficial impact of reforestation?

McKibatl: Eventually, growing populations will make it nearly impossible to re-wild the surrounding areas. We tend to think of population as a problem somewhere else, but in fact our own pop. may well top 500 million in the next century--try imagining America with twice as many folk, esp. if they continue to insist on living in suburban splendor. Half the battle is population, the other half is consumption, and consumption-efficiency.

StosselAtl: Can you see your Sierra Club calendar from where you type, Bill? SteveUnc asks:

Question: In your Atlantic cover story you say that American heads turn to the west when the subject of nature is raised, and that the popular images of sunset-tinted western vistas in the Sierra Club calendar amount to a kind of "Eco-porn." But is there perhaps a need for "eco-porn" as a kind of "eco-propaganda" in the war for the environment?

McKibatl: Yes--the only problem is when it clouds our eyes to the real, more quotidian, beauty all around us. It's sort of like the way that nature films make nature seem so glamorous--after a night of watching wild kingdom, it's kind of disappointing to open the door and see that there aren't dozens of animals wildly mating all around you.

StosselAtl: Human nature may be the most insurmountable obstacle to harmony with the environment. MNZOO asks:

Question: What hope do you have of humans reigning themselves in their wants rather than expecting the environment to respond to our desires?

McKibatl: In my new book, which will come out in the fall, I explore a few areas where humans have more limited desires. There are other human possibilities, but so far we've barely begun to consider them.

StosselAtl: You've talked a little about this already, but can you elaborate in responding to GrouHarp?

Question: You have quite a bit to say about clear-cutting and other "management" techniques. Assuming the logging industry doesn't just voluntarily go away, what are the most reasonable ways to minimize the damage done by these techniques?

McKibatl: First, we need to take some of the pressure off the forests by getting much better about recycling and I don't just mean newspapers. Something like 50% of the hardwoods cut in the east are used for one-time-use pallets to go under loads being shipped by truck. Next, we need to make timber ownership more local, so people can actually take care of their land. A million acres of Maine was just sold to the South African paper company Sappi--its hard to imagine that the folks back in Johannesburg will really worry that much about the Maine woods, at least in the long run. Then we need to get back to smaller-scale local economies that can regard decent logging. I have neighbors who work in the woods with horses, for instance--they get out less wood, but what they get is theirs. It doesn't go straight to the bank for their skidder payment. None of these problems can be solved in a vacuum. They require real changes in the ways we set up this society.

StosselAtl: Earth Day is coming up. This audience member wants to know:

Question: April 22nd is Earth Day. What are you doing to observe the day this year? Does it serve any valuable purpose?

McKibatl: I think I'm fairly down on Earth Day at the moment, not only because it seems hard to break its corporate ties, but also because it absorbs a lot of energy that might be better spent elsewhere and it also leaves participants with the warm and fuzzy feeling that they've accomplished something that said, there's obviously lots of wonderful very local celebrations, and that's where I'll be.

StosselAtl: We've heard a lot in recent years about the importance of trees in preventing global warming and other such things. How would you respond to this question?

Question: How does the reforestation of the Eastern U.S. fit into the global picture, especially the picture that includes the developing countries of the Southern Hemisphere?

McKibatl: If you're counting on the reforestation of the East, or anywhere else, to alleviate global warming I'm afraid you'd better come up with another plan. Soaking up the CO2 generated by humans would require reforestation on scales far vaster than land that is available on the planet. There is no easy way to fight global warming, only the slow and painful battle to change a fossil-fuel based civilization into something saner.

StosselAtl: It appears we've got some activists in the audience. SuzRichar asks:

Question: What's the best thing a new college grad can do to help the environment?

McKibatl: There's no one best thing. I think that we need committed environmentalists with all kinds of expertise, not just scientists. We need theologians and musicians, and whatever. I do think it's vital to pick an area--a particular problem--and concentrate. I think the most pressing problem is greenhouse warming, and that we spend comparatively little effort there compared with relatively less important tasks such as solid waste reduction, etc.

StosselAtl: SuzRichar follows up with another question that gets at the notion of "balance":

Question: It's inevitable that we need both, but how do we balance the "comforts" of modern technology and the "wonders" of the forest?

McKibatl: We balance them the hard way--by reducing the amount of comforts we demand. If the entire world is determined to live like middle-class Americans, then there is no chance of preserving biodiversity, or of keeping the temperature from soaring. And of course the whole world will want to live like middle-class Americans as long as we keep living the ways we do. Here's a neat stat: the most watched program on earth is Baywatch--more than a billion earthlings each week tune in, more than take communion each week or bow to Mecca. And what they see of course, is our idea of what constitutes the good life. Until that changes, little else will.

StosselAtl: Do YOU live like a middle class American? How would we have to live to preserve biodiversity?

McKibatl: yes, more or less--I try to make it slowly less. We live much more simply than we used to, but by no means unpleasantly. the most significant change we've made was to ten years ago toss out the TV and with it went a lot of the enticement to live in ways that don't make sense.

StosselAtl: BJWR asks:

Question: Isn't it time to downplay command and control and begin working collaboratively with individuals and local communities on environmental issues?

McKibatl: Yep--and time to listen to local wisdom about things, which environmentalists have not necessarily been great about but that doesn't mean abdicating national and international leadership because unfortunately these problems are global. It also means we need to share solutions. Perhaps if the East is recovering, it can give some hope to people in, say, Rondonia that if they can get some control back over their land it too may eventually return to forest.

StosselAtl: What's a Cornucopian? KHolmes13 asks:

Question: Bill, do you think that arguments by Cornucopians like Herbert Simon have any validity to them?

McKibatl: No--I think that we are living in an unprecedented situation--6 billion humans--and that most of the physical signals we are getting from the planet indicate that we are stressing out the globe. I wish that it were otherwise, but it seems to me

that this is our generation's cross to bear.

StosselAtl: Interesting question from RpejEO:

Question: Mr. McK, your great-grandchildren are heading off to colonize Mars, what do want them to have learned about man's place on this planet to help them start from scratch.

McKibatl: First of all, don't plan on so degrading your planet that your grand-kids have to go look for another one. I think the question is a profound one, and the answer goes like this--we have to begin using the one human capacity no other animal has, the ability to restrain ourselves until we develop that skill, no amount of technical fix will catch up with the cascading problems here or on Mars.

StosselAtl: Is the recovery occurring in developed countries like the US outweighed by damage in 3rd world ones. Tom F678 asks:

Question: Its in developing countries that reforestation is occurring. what about 3rd world where all the damage is now occurring at the moment, there is tremendous damage underway across the forests of the third world (and for that matter the American West, the Southeast, and Maine, not to mention Canada)...

McKibatl: It's horrific to look at the planet from satellite pictures--the spread of brown in every direction and a lot of it, of course, is caused by first-world appetites--although a lot, too, is caused by third world poverty.

StosselAtl: We've only got time for a couple more questions. Lardutma asks:

Question: What do you think is the environmental issue we should be most concerned about now?

McKibatl: Global warming is the specific problem, because it's so firmly rooted in our ways of life other things--water pollution, ozone layer damage--are easier to fix because their causes are not as integral to our economies as fossil fuel use. And if the scientists are correct about the scale of global warming, than it will cause new problems throughout the ecosystem.

StosselAtl: Second-to-last question, a follow-up to one of your earlier responses:

Question: You mention that people--even environmentalists--are tired of environmentalism. What do you think is necessary to revitalize the movement and to reawaken in people a concern for nature?

McKibatl: God, I don't know. I interviewed Al Gore not long ago, and he said essentially that it would probably require physical traumas large enough to galvanize the public. I guess I think that my job in the meantime, and the job of many others, is to have ideas out on that table for when that trauma occurs, so that we don't go back to the same old tired set of responses; 'more research,' etc.

StosselAtl: RpeJEo asks (one last question to follow after your response):

Question: Do you have comment on our National Parks being "loved" to death. What do you see as the future of the park system?

McKibatl: I think the park system should be expanded--clearly people want more park land, and there are obvious places. the northwoods of Maine for one and much of the West that is already publicly owned and now is grazed to the bare dirt by herds of federally-financed bovines.

StosselAtl: Last question. Overall, Bill, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the environment?

McKibatl: Hey--I wrote a book called the end of nature, so what does that tell you. But my new book and here I end with a commercial--will be called "hope, human and wild." It's not easy hope. but I am convinced that if we are willing to change the ways in which we live there is a chance to limit our damage and watch the natural world begin to recover some of its glory. Many thanks for an enjoyable evening.

StosselAtl: Many thanks to Bill McKibben for joining us. And thank you, audience. Feel free to continue this discussion on The Atlantic Monthly's message boards.

Copyright © 1995 The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
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