McKibben, Bill 1960-
McKIBBEN, Bill 1960-
(William Ernest McKibben)
PERSONAL: Born December 8, 1960, in Palo Alto, CA; son of Gordon C. (a journalist) and Margaret (Hayes) McKibben; married Sue M. Halpern (a writer), 1988; children: Sophie. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1982.
CAREER: New Yorker, New York, NY, staff writer, 1982–87; freelance editor, 1983–87, and writer, 1987–. Treasurer of Garnet Lake Fire Department; lay leader of Johnsburg United Methodist Church; superintendent of Sunday school, Johnsburg United Methodist Church.
The End of Nature, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
The Age of Missing Information, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
(Editor and author of introduction) Birch Browsings: A John Burroughs Readers, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Look at the Land: Aerial Reflections of America, photographs and captions by Alex MacLean, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Terry Tempest Williams and William Least Heat-Moon) Three Essays, Nature Conservancy (Arlington, VA), 1993.
The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, Eerdman's (Grand Rapids, MI), 1994.
Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Twenty-Five Bicycle Tours in the Adirondacks: Road Adventures in the East's Largest Wilderness, Backcountry Publications (Woodstock, VT), 1995.
Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
(With others) John Elder, editor, The Return of the Wolf: Reflections on the Future of Wolves in the Northeast, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2000.
(With Gary Randorf) The Adirondacks: Wild Island of Hope, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2002.
(With Matthew Albright) Profits Pending, Common Courage Press (Monroe, ME), 2002.
Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Times Books/Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of introduction to Walden: Lessons for the New Millennium, by Henry David Thoreau, Beacon Press, 1997; Adirondacks: Views of an American Wilderness, by photographer Carl E. Heilman, Rizzoli, 1999; and The Mountains of California, by John Muir, Modern Library, 2001; author of epilogue for Wilderness Comes Home: Rewilding the Northeast, edited by Christopher McGrory Klyza, University Press of New England, 2001. Contributor to books, including Radiant Days: Writings by Enos Mills, edited by John Dotson, University of Utah Press, 1994; Wild Earth: Wild Ideas for a World Out of Balance, edited by Tom Butler, Milkweed Editions, 2002; Life's Philosophy: Reason and Feeling in a Deeper World, by Arne Nss and Per Ingvar Haukeland, translated by Roland Huntford, University of Georgia Press, 2002; and Backwoods Ethics: A Guide to Low-Impact Camping and Hiking, second edition, by Laura Waterman and Guy Waterman, Countryman Press, 2003. Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Review of Books, Outside, and the New York Times.
SIDELIGHTS: Bill McKibben is a writer whose chief concern is the effects of rampant consumerism on the future of the global ecosystem. From his well-known book The End of Nature to his more recent works, he has called for a sober consideration of how humans impact the environment and how nature can be altered by human encroachment. Himself a resident of the Adirondack Mountains, McKibben is one of only a few prominent environmental writers who has expressed some hope for the future of the natural world. According to Publishers Weekly correspondent Michael Coffey, "There is something Emersonian to McKibben's cast of mind—like Emerson, he focuses on what is natural to Man and what is false in Nature. Both men write prose that rings like oratory."
In The End of Nature McKibben warns of the ecological disaster that will occur if the industrialized world does not change its habits. McKibben bases his argument in part on the theorized warming of the earth caused by the proliferation of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Because these gases would prevent heat from escaping the planet, the earth's temperature would rise and cause polar ice caps to melt, oceans to rise, and droughts to occur. McKibben calls for a radical solution to the problem—an end to the use of machines that burn oil and coal—declaring that such practices "will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature," as quoted by Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post Book World. Herbert Mitgang, writing in the New York Times, characterized The End of Nature as "pensive and alarming" and commented that "McKibben makes an eloquent contribution to our understanding of an earthly peril." In Audubon, Verlyn Klinkenborg noted that the book, "which appeared with the éclat of a doomsday trumpet," drew a wide readership despite—or perhaps due to—its "depressing vision of the global annihilation of wilderness by man."
In his second book, The Age of Missing Information, McKibben addressed the causes of human—especially American—indifference to the environment, as well as the American penchant for conspicuous consumption. According to Noel Perrin in the New York Times Book Review, McKibben's theory "was that most of us don't know [about environmental problems], and that we don't know because our main information source is television." To test his theory, McKibben and his friends simultaneously taped 103 cable television channels over a single twenty-four-hour period. Then McKibben watched every hour of every channel. As counterpoint to his television viewing, he spent a week in the mountains, including one twenty-four hour period where all he did was contemplate nature. Perrin declared that, in The Age of Missing Information, McKibben "does grasp the nature of television, and does so brilliantly…. He makes his case that a person who lets television be his eyes and ears is probably not going to be a convinced environmentalist any time soon." Television Quarterly contributor Mary Ann Watson observed that "the peevish academics who take potshots at his lack of methodology miss the forest for the trees. This is not a research study to be replicated; it's a creative device that allowed an insightful man to write from the heart."
McKibben told Publishers Weekly that his 1995 book, Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth was inspired by an attempt "to convince myself and others that it is not completely pie-in-the-sky to imagine there could be other ways to conduct ourselves." He added, "The point of the … book, is to counter despair. Environmentalists have become too enmeshed in what is politically possible right now." Hope, Human and Wild offers three case studies—one in India, one in Brazil, and one in Northeastern America—where people have begun to solve their social problems with a healthy environment as an objective. According to William K. Stevens in the New York Times Book Review, McKibben "argues that technology is not up to the job of reducing emissions of the heat-trapping gases…. Only a big change in our profligate way of life … will do the trick."
In his Audubon review of Hope, Human and Wild, Klinkenborg maintained that the book "offers an environmental optimism so thoroughly tempered and chastened, so cautiously advanced, that it just does deserve the name of hope." The reviewer concluded, "Hope, Human and Wild is a challenging book that will anger readers whose assumptions it threatens." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Michael Pollan wrote, "Environmental despair is easy, McKibben suggests; he should know. Environmental hope is much harder to nurture, and it hinges on exactly the kind of nuts-and-bolts specifics that McKibben has thrown himself into with such winning enthusiasm."
"All of McKibben's books, in a sense," Coffey noted, "pursue the same theme … what do we consume, why do we consume it, and what are the consequences?" Responding to that question, the author observed: "What I've learned so far is that what is sound and elegant and civilized and respectful of community is also environmentally benign." McKibben applies that belief to an institution that has become almost synonymous with materialistic excess, the annual orgy of spending known as the Christmas season. In Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas McKibben proposes reining in the spending and the consumption at holiday time, and substituting more thoughtful, preferably homemade gifts. While concerned once again for the environmental impact of all this conspicuous consumption, as well as the extravagance in a world where so much poverty still exists, here he focuses on the toll this spending takes on Christmas shoppers themselves. "McKibben argues that we, unburdened of stuff and stuff to do, will find the energy to be festive. And if Christmas were not so crazy-making, we might not feel so let down the minute the packages are open," explained Albany Times-Union reporter Susan Reimer. While the hundred dollar figure is somewhat arbitrary, it "seems to work well as a check, a way of saying that your commitment to a better Christmas goes beyond merely complaining or telling yourself that this year will be different," as McKibben told Michelle Singletary in an interview for the Stamford Advocate.
While McKibben's modest proposal for Christmas challenged families to rethink an annual holiday, his next book challenged them to rethink themselves, in a deeply personal, and inevitably controversial, way. Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families is an impassioned call to parents to at least consider the option of restricting themselves to only one child. McKibben himself had a vasectomy after the birth of his daughter, and part of the book chronicles his own struggle to reach that decision. As with his previous book, the argument extends beyond the purely environmental concern—in this case, the great strain that overpopulation, particularly in developed countries, can place on the world's finite resources. While this concern was a major motivation, he also draws on research that shows only children to have more self-esteem and slightly higher IQs, as well as greater interest in school subjects and a greater willingness to challenge assumptions about gender roles. He speculated that parents with only one child might have more time to focus on their communities.
Not everyone was convinced by this argument. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead pointed out in Commonweal that "there is no evidence to support the idea that parents with one child are more altruistic than parents with two or more," and the critic found his central argument "ultimately unconvincing." Writing in the New Republic, Margaret Talbot expressed a deeper dissatisfaction with the book's premise. She particularly questioned McKibben's idea that "'It's easier to change fertility than lifestyle': a purer expression of the yuppie view of the world was never uttered. And if so, if it is really true that we would sooner interfere with our commitment to children than with our taste in cars, then this is for the worse—so much worse, in fact that we ought not to resign ourselves to it." A reviewer for Whole Earth, on the other hand, found that McKibben "scrupulously avoids polemics or sermonizing in recommending [his] choice to others…. This approach is complemented by a dry, self-deprecating wit. The resulting blend of autobiography, argument and anecdote is a welcome relief from most of the doomsayers and airy dismissers who write about population."
McKibben explores one of the more hopeful possibilities for the future in The Return of the Wolf: Reflections on the Future of Wolves in the Northeast, which he wrote with three other prominent environmentalists. "In an elegant opening essay, Bill McKibben lays out the reasons wolves could thrive in the Northeast: ample prey, recovering habitat, and growing public support," reported Paul Larmer in the Christian Science Monitor. While the Northeast is densely populated, large sections of New England and upstate New York remain forested, and some farmland has actually been reclaimed by nature in recent years. All the same, political, cultural, and even biological obstacles stand in the way, including the question of whether wolves would interbreed with the local coyote population or drove them out, into more populated areas. McKibben and his fellow authors explore these aspects, while making the case for reintroduction.
The major issue of genetic engineering is explored in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. With gene therapy and biotechnology becoming ever more sophisticated, the possibility of "designer babies" is beginning to present itself, and here "McKibben makes a passionate case that inheritable alteration would rob future generations of the chance to determine their own identities," observed Sierra contributor Jennifer Hattam. McKibben is not talking about gene therapies that can cure embryos of incipient diseases or correct birth defects, or in-vitro fertilization. Rather, he is concerned about "techno-utopian" efforts to reprogram embryos in order to make smarter, more attractive, or more optimistic children. As he told Hattam in an interview, "I believe that human beings are not in need of radical overhaul, improvement, or augmentation. As we are now constituted, we are plenty good enough." He fears a future in which parents must continually seek better biotechnologies to genetically alter their offspring just to keep them competitive, a sort of biological arms race that will ultimately rob humanity of its freedom and its very meaning. "That claim is not only complete nonsense, it is exactly backward," maintained Ronald Bailey, a science correspondent for Reason magazine. For Bailey, "human freedom—the capacity to make choices based on reason—expands with knowledge," including knowledge about genetic alterations. National Review contributor Dean Clancy was more sympathetic to McKibben's views, concluding, "This important book shows us that we face a dilemma: we can have either human dignity or unfettered liberty, but not both." OnEarth contributor Sarah Scarlet also commended McKibben, concluding that he "explores the subject with the rigor of a scientist, the scope of a philosopher, and the sensitivity of a father. Most important, though, he gives the lay reader the knowledge and context to participate in this crucial debate."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate (Stamford, CT), November 16, 2003, Michelle Singletary, review of Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, p. F1.
American Scholar, summer, 2003, Chris Mooney, "Everything to Lose," pp. 145-148.
Amicus Journal, fall, 1998, Penny Pennybacker, review of Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, p. 38.
Audubon, November-December, 1995, Verlyn Klinkenborg, review of Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth, p. 104.
Catholic New Times, October 19, 2003, Gerry McCarthy, "Genetic Engineering: A Post-Human Age?," p. 18.
Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2000, Paul Larmer, "The Better to See You with, My Dear," p. 17.
Commentary, July-August, 2003, Kevin Shapiro, "Nanobits, Etc.," pp. 74-76.
Commonweal, May 8, 1998, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, review of Maybe One, pp. 20-21.
E, November, 1998, Tracey Rembert, "Bill McKibben: Three's Company—Four's a Crowd," p. 10.
First Things, April, 1999, review of Maybe One, p. 69.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, p. 366.
Kliatt, November, 2003, Sunni Grant, review of Enough, p. 55.
Library Journal, June 1, 1994, Carolyn Craft, review of The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, pp. 112-113; November 1, 2000, review of The Return of the Wolf: Reflections on the Future of Wolves in the Northeast, p. 128.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 22, 1989, David M. Graber, review of The End of Nature, p. 1; May 3, 1992, Tom Huth, "Being There," pp. 2, 7; November 26, 1995, Michael Pollen, "It's Not the End After All," pp. 2, 12.
Nation, April 7, 2003, Ralph Brave, "Germline Warfare," p. 25.
National Review, July 14, 2003, Dean Clancy, "Against the Gene Genies."
New Republic, July 20, 1998, Margaret Talbot, review of Maybe One, p. 32-38.
New York Times, September 20, 1989, Herbert Mitgang, "When Winter Will Neither Chill nor Charm," p. C25.
New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1989, Nicholas Wade, review of The End of Nature, p. 9; April 26, 1992, Noel Perrin, "Who Needs the World When You Can Have Cable?," p. 7; November 19, 1995, William K. Stevens, "The Case for Using Less," p. 35.
OnEarth, summer, 2003, Sarah Scarlet, review of Enough, p. 39.
Population and Development Review, September, 1998, Lincoln H. Day, review of Maybe One, p. 642.
Publishers Weekly, May 9, 1994, review of The Comforting Whirlwind, p. 40; November 13, 1995, Michael Coffey, "Bill McKibben: Environmental Hope in Conservative Times," p. 43.
Reason, October, 2003, Ronald Bailey, "Enough Already: A Leading Environmentalist Makes a Foolish Case against Technological Innovation," pp. 52-57.
Sierra, November/December, 2003, Jennifer Hattam, "'We Are Plenty Good Enough': Bill McKibben on Brash Plans to Tinker with Our Genes," p. 34.
Television Quarterly, Volume 26, number 2, 1992, Mary Ann Watson, review of The Age of Missing Information, pp. 91-93.
Time, July 20, 1998, John Skow, review of Maybe One, p. 47.
Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 1998, Susan Reimer, "Authors Says Love, Attention, and Time the Best Gifts to Give," p. J5.
Times Union (Albany, NY), March 9, 1990, Timothy O'Riordan, review of The End of Nature, p. 250.
Washington Monthly, December, 2000, Scott Thompson, review of Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, p. 56.
Washington Post Book World, October 8, 1989, Dennis Drabelle, "Fooling with Mother Nature," p. 6.
Whole Earth, summer, 1999, review of Maybe One, p. 47.