Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sending a Hershey's Kiss: An Open Letter to Bill McKibben of 450.org

This post wrestles with the question, "What is hubris?" and may even display some of my own. 

Jeff Chiu/AP/Shutterstock; Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Before you read this, you should watch Michael Moore's Planet of the Humans and read Bill McKibben's response in Rolling Stone, ‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal.

I have personally known Bill McKibben since college, when, in 1996-97, I wrote part of my thesis about him and invited him to join the advisory board of a nascent Project Laundry List, to which he agreed. I participated in the 2007 and 2011 events of 450.org [sic] as a principal organizer in Concord, NH. I have supported him morally and loyally over the years, maintained a friendship, and believe he has great courage (death threats suck, I am sure) as well as leadership ability.

I watched his earlier days as a frequent attendee at his public remarks, replete with his practiced "I am humble" boilerplate, delivered consistently with an almost Biden-like stutter, "I am a writer, not a public speaker." I observed him with some mixture of skepticism and some measure of awe. Though, from a technical forensics point-of-view, I could never really understand why, he is nonetheless a force behind the podium. With his Mr. Rogers-like, sweater-wearing shtick (except Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, not a UCC parishioner) and his command of the zeitgeist, as well as the evolving "facts" of climate science, he draws us in. He does not have the outwardly powerful oratory skills of Dr. Helen Caldicott, his other Project Laundry List advisory board member and a closer friend of mine. But he does have a command of the logos, ethos, and pathos that are necessary to deliver a good talk. He also has a sort of John the Baptist prophetic thing going on, some of it born of his constant reminders that it was he, in 1989, a year after I did my 8th grade science project on the greenhouse effect, who really brought the climate change debate out of the laboratories and into the New Yorker-reading salons of America. He greets people like a Quaker, "How are you, Friend? Nice to see you again, Friend." He is just appealingly warm, like Mr. Rogers. And I don't say this to be dismissive. (What is it that Dorothy Day would say when people called her a saint? "I don't want to be dismissed so easily.")

With Machiavellian or Sun Tzu-esque determination and stratagems, McKibben has built 450.org [sic] into a force to be reckoned with and the battery of successes in recent months with Goldman Sachs, Oxford University, Chase Manhattan are a testament, in part to the fortitude he has shown, in the face of our daunting task: repairing humanities ways enough to avoid major disruption or even our own species decimation. As Bill would say, though, even before his daughter Sophie reminded him of it after that "overflow" Brown talk (mentioned in the Rolling Stone piece), these successes are really attributable to a small army of mostly volunteers, not all under the banner of 450.org [sic] and many of them not white men, like Bill (and me).

I respect Bill, admire and like him as a very human being. Therefore, I read his self-admittedly somewhat self-aggrandizing, albeit probably necessary, Rolling Stone piece, mentioned above as required prerequisite reading for this post, and came away feeling sad that he felt the need to write it. There is an aspect of, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." (Shakespeare, Hamlet) It is a convincing polemic, but sort of pathetic, too.

Michael Moore has always been a noisy, iconoclastic, sloppy grouch. It is his brand, his schtick. He seems to revel uncomfortably at times in his wiggly girth and shows off his Flinty proletariat sneakers as the quintessential Everyman from Middle America. Like Bill McKibben in his Boston Red Sox cap, some of Moore's trappings are campy and rehearsed, or, to give the benefit of the doubt to both successful men, authentic expressions of who they really are. (We are citizens, after all, of a country where the Senate Majority Leader thinks the return of baseball is a top priority. Meanwhile... no, I will not digress.)

Anyway, I was sort of sorry that McKibben took the bait, but maybe "all press is good press" and this is a fight worth having, because McKibben really believes, like my friend Chris from high school ("$&@&((;!!!! $&@$&($;@??)!!!!!!...I’m going to have this film thrown in my face by policy makers."), that this is going to divide the environmental movement or, worse, provide power to the fossil fuel power lobby. I am not convinced on these last two points, partly because I do not fancy that there really is a cohesive environmental movement and mostly because I think people are smart enough to see the problems with Moore's film. A small library of critiques has already been published.

A Story Out Of My School: Is the Kiss Story True?


Now I want to tell a tale out of school. A couple days after hearing Dr. Helen Caldicott speak powerfully about how we are likely to all die from nuclear weapons or nuclear power, I went to visit Bill McKibben in his office on the top of the hill in Middlebury, Vermont, at the college on the hill. He was a somewhat recently appointed Scholar-in-Residence at that point and his sparse bookshelves had a bag of Hershey's Kisses on them. He offered me one and I smirked, "Helen would not want me to eat that."

"Why?" he asked.

"Because Hershey's Kisses are made next to Three Mile Island." [the site of a nuclear accident near Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania]

McKibben's next words surprised me. He has always been avidly anti-nuclear, because he recognizes the hubris inherent in that bargain, but he said, "That's ridiculous. Black carbon is going to get us first..." He launched into a long description of what he meant and I ate the Kiss. A couple days later, Professor Michael Dorsey, then at Dartmouth College, had invited me down to Cambridge, MA, to hear Dr. Theo Epstein, an aged, now deceased expert on endocrine disruption. In her speech she said something to the effect of, "It is not climate change or nuclear weapons, but dangerous chemicals in the environment that are going to get us first." This inspired me--as much an expert on laundry as Helen on nukes or Bill on climate or Theo on endocrine disruption, to write ironically, in a book about laundry that I never got published, "Laundry is the only thing that matters."

In looking for a publisher, I shared the manuscript with Bill. Though I will go to my grave knowing what was uttered, because I could not make-up the details of the Hershey's Kiss story if I tried, McKibben told me that we had never had that conversation. I decided not to pursue it, because I thought what Bill was doing was worthy and I did not need a rift with him over some silly throw-away line in an allegory for my book. It wounded me, though, because he questioned my veracity and it scared me a little, because I saw that he knew then how important control of the message about who he is had become. There were so many lessons to glean from the day of the Kiss and the day he rejected the Kiss story.

Nobody Likes (Or Should Like) A Javier

Jon Krakauer's nasty Three Cups of Deceipt turned me off to his writings permanently. Well-researched and correct on many accounts, it was a tremendous amount of effort on Krakauker's part to show (er, expose) that someone who was basically well-meaning, if ethically a bit loose, was not a knight in shining armor. Michael Moore, niggardly and with all of the flare of Ai Wei-wei but less of the gravitas, has advertently or inadvertently stepped into that Victor Hugo role with the release of this film. I hope that McKibben's Lady Macbethian protestations do not force him and Gibbs to dig in their heels. That is, indeed, the risk of McKibben's response. Since Bill has sought to demonize them and make them into irresponsible trolls, bent on breaking a movement (that does not really exist) or providing cover for the dishonest corporations, such as Exxon, and their eleemosynary handmaidens at Heartwood or such, the natural response of Moore and Gibbs might be to say, "We made this movie because we think we are right."

I am no moral relativist, but there is no right here. We are all feeling our way in the dark. I have some John the Baptist qualities, too. I remember having another conversation with McKibben, both of us non-scientists, where I said that I did not understand why "natural gas" was being promoted as a transition fuel, because methane was 87 times more potent as a climate warming gas over a 20 year period than carbon dioxide. At that time, natural gas was seen as better than dirty coal and he did his best to explain. Now we know that it might not be (but let''s not get lost in that red herring argument right now) and, as Bill notes in Rolling Stone for the zillionth time, we know that we have to get off all fossil fuels and wood chips today. Whether we should also get off solar and wind is an interesting question. (Maybe we should stop doing laundry, too, and just wear our Levi's for months without washing. Not a novel suggestion!)

The real truth is that we, as a sentient species with higher-consciousness, are desperate in the face of a likely existential challenge. We are faced with the question, in America (as America goes, so goes the planet?) of whether we want to die quickly with Trump, a dangerous anti-science ignoramus, or slowly with Biden, who has never been a leader on climate change. Those of us who have been thinking about climate change since 1988 or 1989 or longer know that we are, as a species, fucked and that a lot of other species are fucked because of us. I knew it about ten years ago, which is why I did the cowardly but sane thing, and moved to China to teach English and American history, leaving the environmental movement behind. It was clear. Enough people were not going to cold-water wash or line dry their clothes, properly inflate their car tires, adopt LED bulbs, etc. Corporations and governments were not going to do the right thing in time for us to avoid catastrophic warming. We did not know enough about the impact of thawing permafrost and methane clathrates, leaking pipelines or much of anything to be sure that we could keep the Earth's air and water currents flowing in their current patterns. But people like McKibben and my high school friend Chris, who, when we met again in our thirties, was an eager beaver bureaucrat (with the over-confidence inculcated into us at the Academy, he thought he could change the world), have soldiered on for this past decade. Why? Hope. Hope, faith, and love. The greatest of these may, in the end, not be love (heretical as that may be), but hope. Hope, Human and Wild.

So what is so enraging about the Moore and Gibbs' project is that it is hopelessly devoid of solutions, but that does not then make it a worthless endeavor. Michael Moore works on worthwhile topics; credit where credit is due. As I said before, it asks some good questions, which, as I tell my students, is the most important skill. The big question for all of us is: where do we need to go and how fast? The Hopers (like Chris and Bill) think that the world we must create assembles a bearable existence (no Utopia, for sure) with fields of solar panels and pasture-fed livestock. The Cynics like Leonardo DiCaprio's Cowspiracy directors, Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, and Michael Moore's Planet of the Humans director, Jeff Gibbs, believe that the world, if it is to be joyous and inhabitable, may not look like that Sierra Club and Greenpeace-approved version. These are not two camps. I, for one, do not belong to either one. I hope, nay I faithfully believe that most of us know we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic until we figure out together what that world has to look like, still knowing that when we do "know" we may still be wrong. Nobody can be sure. If they tell you that they are, cry, "Hubris" and move to China...or Australia.