Parsing McKibben: If There Be Sorrow

On last Thursdays Earth Day Bill Mckibben had a stark message for the world “Forty years in, we’re losing.” , while PBS’s American Experience gave us “Earth Days: The inspiring story of the modern environmental movement.“

Huh? Are we talking about the same planet? Yes we are, there is no contradiction. PBS is talking about the past and what has been achieved, McKibben is talking about where we are and what we need to achieve. They are referring to different things, and hence have a completely different perspective.

Mckibben is perfectly correct; we are losing, badly. The consequences of our collective failure are already severe and will soon be catastrophic. PBS is also correct. When we choose to act, we succeed.

Of course it is perfectly fair to ask whether we can succeed given the challenges we currently face. A celebration of past successes is certainly legitimate, but it is hardly any guarantee of future success. Depending on how one understands the problem it may not even be relevant.

In Mckibben’s analysis: “ … at least part of the problem lies within environmentalism, which no longer does enough real organizing to build the pressure that could result in real change. Many of our largest environmental groups are still running on the momentum they built up in the early 1970s.

Here again some may see a contradiction. Surely much has changed in 40 yrs; just look at the range of environmental products on the market, the environmental regulations that now exist, the media stories … surely there is no comparison at all.

McKibben refers to “real change”, and he is certainly correct in that while our society has all of the things I mention with respect to the environment, it is still fundamentally the same consumer driven juggernaut that it was in the 1970s. Increasing consumer products means environmental destruction, pure and simple.

The environmental movement is much different from what it was then, but it is not fundamentally different in either it’s goals or approaches. Since we still face the same core problems it is not surprising that the movement has not changed all that much either.

Or is it? If you have been trying the same solutions for 40 years and they aren’t working, shouldn’t you try something different? Except as PBS notes, to an extent they have worked. As I like to remind people, if the solution was easy or straightforward we would have done it decades ago.

Returning to McKibben “ … which no longer does enough real organizing to build the pressure that could result in real change …” Was there ever enough “real organizing”? What is it anyway? Pressure who? Governments? Corporations? Society at large? What is “real change”?

This short statement of his contains enough to fill many volumes exploring just what is meant. In this format we can do little more than note that those are important issues to understand and move on.

McKibben correctly cites “environmentalism” rather than environmentalists or environmental groups. We are not talking about a failure by Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. We are talking about our collective failure, the failure is to appreciate what we are called to do; “the movement” as such is and always was us.

It is significant that when we look back on our successes all of them relate to things that do not in any meaningful way interfere with our lifestyle. We drive “green” vehicles as our public transit systems erode even further. We purchase, and sometimes even use reusable shopping bags when the real problem has always been what was in them.

Most tellingly, when anyone mentions any of this we immediately jump to why it must be so, why we have to live as we do, rather than ponder how we could individually and collectively solve the problem.

At the heart of it is our tendency to regard any such suggestion as “sacrifice.” We immediately focus on what we think we must do without and understand what we gain as only some abstract “better future” without considering what we might gain right now. We diminish ourselves by only understanding the self as requiring indulgence rather than nourishment.

We live our whole lives giving up one thing to take on another. Squeaky toys are abandoned for playgrounds, childhood friends for romantic partners, going out for the evening for starting families. This evolution can be seen as one long, sorry tale of losses, things given up, sacrifices. Of course most of us understand that it is actually the progress of maturing, of growing up and taking our role in society.

If there be sorrow
let it be
for things undone
to these add one:
love withheld

Mari Evans

Environmentalism has never been about saving the “other.” It has always been about where we fit within the natural world and our own society. It is about taking our proper role as a species on the Earth, and our individual role within the political collective. The “losses” are actually the setting aside our squeaky toys of infantile demands for indulgence in favour of the more abstract rewards of maturity. It is about growing up.

Our failures is not that we tried and failed, but that we failed to try. History shows us that when we choose to act we succeed. How could it be otherwise? Corporations and governments have no existence separate from us. We talk as though they were “the other”, yet they are just subsets of the collective “we”.

If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavour to live the life which you have imagined, you will meet with success unexpected in common hours… If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.


Missing from the narrative of political success and failure is the story if individual achievement. Not of this or that legislation or woodlot preserved, but of becoming whole as individuals. Our collective political journey is necessarily also the story of our individual odyssey.

So far we have clung to our squeaky toys in the misapprehension that life without Mr Bunny would not be worth living.  More than anything our failure has been to ourselves individually. For however much we may love the whales or rainforests, the fact is that we have not loved ourselves enough to trust that we can manage the role of being an adult in the full sense.

Terrifying as that prospect may be for many, the compensation is that it is a struggle wholly within our individual power. Our personal growth is related to and takes place within the broader context of the social politics, but it is independent of it. “They” may win a particular political battle, but they can do nothing about our individual triumph in taking our proper role within that battle.

That is up to us as individuals.


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