David Moats: McKibben’s latest book deals with the politics of the white advantage

Bernie Sanders, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben has a new book: “The Flag, the Cross and the Break.” File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

What happened? How has the United States evolved so dramatically over the past 50 years toward ever-increasing levels of economic inequality and climate catastrophe?

Bill McKibben’s latest book joins a growing list of works attempting to answer this question. In doing so, he tells his own story: an exemplary young student in a prosperous white suburb where the economic and educational advantages he enjoyed propelled him to a career as an author and one of the world’s leading climate activists.

He recognizes that what benefited him then is destroying the world now. From his home in the mountains of Ripton and his post on the faculty of Middlebury College, he counted the debt that the baby boom generation owes to the rest of the world; his latest project, an organization called Third Act, is mobilizing the energies of the over-60s in the fight against climate change and in defense of democracy.

His new book is called “The flag, the cross and the station wagon”. The three elements of the title give rise to a careful examination of the meaning of patriotism, the role of religion, and the full impact of suburban America on America’s climate, economy, politics, and culture.

McKibben acknowledges that as a middle-class white American, he never thought his own life was exemplary in any meaningful way, but it was precisely this demographic, which exploded in numbers with the turn of the generation. of the baby boom, which makes his life a telltale indicator of what has happened to America.

His family moved to Lexington, Massachusetts in 1970 when he was 10 years old. As a teenager, he was such a paragon of American patriotism that he became a tour guide on Lexington Green, telling tourists about the Revolutionary War battle fought there in 1775. He was a member of the Methodist congregation there Bas, one of the denominations of mainstream Protestantism that predominated in America at the time.

But what happened in Lexington became emblematic of what was happening across the country. Millions of Americans moved to the suburbs that surrounded every major city, establishing the familiar pattern: single-family homes each with its own yard and garage, connected by highways to workplaces, where millions of people traveled by automobile every day, causing a historic and catastrophic explosion of carbon in the atmosphere.

McKibben describes two events that happened in Lexington when he was a boy. Her father, a business journalist, was arrested at an anti-war rally on Lexington Green, an event signaling the educated class liberal leanings that occupied the prosperous town. Soon after, Lexington voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have opened up the city to housing that could have attracted low-income black residents.

Exclusionary policies protecting the suburbs allowed those who owned suburban homes to amass enormous wealth over the decades, leaving behind all those who had been kept out. His family’s house cost $30,000 when his family bought it; the property was later valued at over $1 million.

White advantage politics spread across the country with tax cut policies favoring landowners and impoverishing public services such as education, libraries, parks, and health care. California’s school system has gone from top to bottom due to policies designed to enrich homeowners and deprive low-income people of services that could help them advance.

McKibben, like others before him, points to a notorious memo written by attorney Lewis Powell for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calling for an aggressive long-term policy strategy to align government policy with corporate interests. . Powell later became a Supreme Court justice, appointed by President Richard Nixon, and was the deciding vote in a San Antonio case that could have demanded equality in education, as the decision did. Brigham in Vermont. Instead, the suburbs have been able to afford good schools because wealth breeds wealth, exponentially. Thus, inequalities have increased exponentially.

Then came the Reagan presidency, which proceeded to enact much of the pro-business agenda advocated by Lewis Powell, cutting taxes and public services and undoing the first steps taken by President Jimmy Carter to address the problem of climate change.

So, as economic inequality has grown, so has the damage to the climate. Each year becomes the hottest on record. It was only recently that a study found that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the globe rather than two or three times.

The effects are everywhere – McKibben points to the damage wrought in Honduras by two recent hurricanes. Honduras’ balance sheet amounted to 40% of the country’s GDP. “If you want to know what destroyed the bridges in San Pedro Sula,” McKibben writes, “look at suburban SUVs.” That thousands of dispossessed and impoverished Hondurans seek opportunity in the United States should come as no surprise, and an immigration policy that recognizes how the world is bound by the shared climate crisis should open doors here rather than them. close.

The influx of outsiders who came to Vermont in the 1970s and 1980s included many seeking a life where community still existed and where the isolating, self-centered and culturally impoverished life of the suburbs could be left for account. That McKibben ended up here is fitting. From his perch in Ripton, he continues to look to the future.

In a recent New Yorker magazine (at one point Vermont had the highest per capita New Yorker subscription rate of any state) he cited the record high temperature set last month in Britain , saying it was “a sign of a world coming unstuck.” But he also hailed the passage of President Joe Biden’s climate bill.”Taken as a whole, the bill is a triumph,” he wrote.

He also noted Congo’s announcement that it would open its rainforests and peatlands to oil exploration. “Opening up the area to drilling would not just add fuel to the fire, it would put out a hose that is fighting the flames,” he wrote.

And yet, Canada and the United States have their own plans to expand oil exploration. It’s a race between those who want to fill the atmosphere with disastrous new levels of carbon and those who recognize the dangers that already lurk the globe. Third Act and other activist organizations have a decades-long battle ahead of them.

None of us who grew up in the suburbs and followed the usual path to middle-class life can be blamed as individuals for what happened to the world. A carbon-spewing individual SUV may be an irresponsible choice, but it alone hasn’t destroyed the climate. A water molecule is not the wave of which it is a part. McKibben’s contribution is to have shown how each of us fits into a broader and collective whole, and his work obliges us to take our responsibility into account. Our grandchildren will look at us one day and wonder what we did in response.

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Angela C. Hale