Climate Debt and American Dreams
In Bill McKibben‘s new memoir, “The Flag, The Cross and the Station Wagon,” he connects the climate crisis to his suburban American boyhood and wonders “What the hell happened?”
Bill McKibben and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in Massachusetts—I in the 1950s in Wellesley, he in the 1970s in Lexington. He’s now graying; my hair is long since white. Both of us were deeply affected by the 1960s, he as a child witnessing the Vietnam protesters, I as one of them. Each of us has been committed to the struggle against climate change for decades.
McKibben’s new book, a personal memoir hitched to national history, is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened. Like McKibben, I too wonder what the hell happened—why, when we grew up with such worthy American dreams, are we now plagued with such haunting nightmares? It’s a question that badgers a lot of us of a certain age. The flag, the cross, and the station wagon of his title are symbols of the values of patriotism, religion, and community—but also of the forces that pulled White middle-class Americans away from our worthy dreams, even as we pursued them.
As a teenager, McKibben was a summer tour guide on the Lexington battlefield. The book’s first section, “The Flag,” reveals the tension between comforting, myth-based patriotism and the real history we don’t want to hear. I was visiting Concord when I read McKibben’s description of Paul Revere riding for freedom, past a spot well-known in 1775 as the place where an enslaved man and his sister, Mark and Phillis Codman, had been brutally executed. Yet, rigorously as he spotlights Lexington’s history of racism, McKibben acknowledges that along with our founding mythology, he also absorbed the aspiration to a more perfect freedom.
In “The Cross,” McKibben describes how profoundly he was shaped by his early experience in Lexington’s Congregational church. In Wellesley, my mother, her mother, and her grandmother had been pillars of the Unitarian church. But like Lexington, Wellesley was a White and wealthy town. Most of my friends went to either our church or the Congregational church across the square. Growing up, I had only one Catholic friend and never met a Jew or person of color, much less a Muslim. Like McKibben, I value the love, justice, and inclusion at the core of Christianity. Yet the challenge for all religious communities is how to hold an inspiring faith and a sense of belonging without tribalism, racism, and exclusionary personalization.
What McKibben calls a “station wagon” in the third section of his memoir, I first knew as a “beach wagon.” It was a Ford “Woody,” and in the summer we would pile into it and head for the shore. Check out the old ads for those big cars that could carry half a football team, with happy White faces celebrating family and social togetherness. But the growth of highways and car ownership enabled the post-war explosion of White suburbia, which in turn opened a yawning gap between rich and poor. McKibben shows how our very prosperity, enabled by the development of suburbs, shattered the village commons that had centered our New England villages around the common good.
So, what underlying national flaw drew us so sadly off course? McKibben has been working on this question for a long time. Back in 1992, he devoured a brain-busting 1,700 hours of cable TV, concluding that the media’s overwhelming message to the viewer was “You are the most important thing on Earth.” Underscoring this now, he writes, this obsession with ourselves “turns out to be the key to our political evolution (and to the fact that the Arctic ice cap is mostly melted).”
“For me,” he goes on, “the scariest thing about the last forty years, even more than the rising temperature, was the ascension of the libertarian idea that the individual matters far more than the society an individual inhabits.”
I was born in 1940, a year before the U.S. entered World War II. I remember standing outside as a child, looking up at the evening sky and wondering if that ominous rumble I heard was an enemy plane, as my parents pulled down the blackout shades. No one then thought those mandated shades threatened their individual freedom.
Americans came together, won the war, and (we thought) saved the world. My uncle brought back tales of Navy life on a Pacific carrier, but he also told us about our great-great-grandfather from Concord who was wounded in the Civil War. The stories I grew up with, whether about fighting Confederates or Nazis, told of a victorious American struggle against oppression. But by the early 1960s, war stories had lost their glow, and our country was torn apart over Vietnam. I joined the Peace Corps.
McKibben’s generation and mine were mentored by a new cast of heroes: Kennedy, King, Coffin, and also Friedan, Dylan, and Baez. They urged us to break with an ethos steeped in injustice. Paradoxically invoking “do-your-own-thing” individualism, we became the counterculture. As the ’60s flamed out, like many going “back to the land,” I moved to Vermont. McKibben is living here now, too. The longing for balance between individual agency and communal responsibility led me to co-create alternative institutions, like a new kind of community college in Vermont, and years later, the Whidbey Institute near Seattle—where McKibben, prolific writer, founder of 350.org, and his generation’s leading advocate for climate action, once taught.
Yet the pursuit of the common good is still stymied by what McKibben calls “hyper-individualism.” I sharply recall seeing Ronald Reagan snap, “I am paying for this microphone!” at the 1980 Republican debate. It spoke volumes about who gets to be heard in our capitalistic society. As we uncover the founding injustices of our nation—of land theft from Native Americans, of slavery’s ugly scrawl on the very Constitution—it’s clear how the shrill claim of “It’s mine!” has drowned out the claims of justice.
In the 1990s, I joined three colleagues to study how people form a commitment to the common good. When asked why they lived such commitments, those who did would often reply, “Because I can’t not.” That double negative reflected their deep sense of connection, of embeddedness in a larger whole. We cannot not try to make a difference. For those of us who live such commitment, real freedom is found in understanding our radical interdependence—the individual is fulfilled within community, not without it.
McKibben sometimes describes himself, with a grin, as “just a Sunday School teacher.” He is also a prophet, and his final chapter is essentially a sermon. He invokes the heartbreaking carbon debt people his age and mine are leaving to our grandchildren and recognizes that our good fortune came at an intolerable cost to future generations. Redemption, he reminds us, “rests not on suppressing the truth of our past, but on engaging and overcoming it.”
We can’t not act. At the end of his book, McKibben points older Americans to activism, like his Third Act project that organizes people over 60 for progressive change. It offers a chance for redemption, mobilizing elders to reawaken the dreams of their youth through action. It is not too late for those of us in our sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth decades to march in solidarity with our children and grandchildren—this time not for the American dream, but for the dream of a world that works for all.