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Hope flickers in Bill McKibben’s latest book, ‘Falter’

MIDDLEBURY — It’s not until the last page of Bill McKibben’s new book, “Falter,” that the word “love” gets used in a higher-order, capital-L sort of way.
“Another name for human solidarity is love,” he writes, “and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me.”
McKibben follows this with a brief celebration of the human goodness capital-L love inspires.
Encountered in any of his previous 17 books, the passage might have read as encouragement to his fellow climate activists: Don’t give up — this is what we’re fighting for.
In “Falter,” however, it reads as a lament. It recalls nothing so much as an image the author presents in the second chapter of the book:
“In 2018, 80 people died in Attica, in the heart of classical Greece, when a firestorm took off amid record heat; those who survived did so only by diving into the Aegean Sea, even as ‘flames burned their backs.’ Two dozen people who couldn’t make it to the beach just formed a circle and embraced one another as they died.”
Such moments, both past and future, weigh heavily on McKibben’s work now. Thirty years after publishing “The End of Nature,” which first introduced the concept of climate change to a wide audience, he has written a book that might have been called “The End of Humanity.”
But the word “falter” connects McKibben’s first and latest books well enough.
“The certainty of nature — that God’s creation or Darwin’s or whoever’s will provide for us, bountifully, as it always has — is what frees us to be fully human, to be more than simply gatherers of food,” he wrote in “The End of Nature.” “But what will happen — this summer or next summer or some summer soon — as that certainty falters?”
Three decades later our certainty of nature isn’t the only thing that has faltered. At the dawn of the gene-editing age, we find ourselves asking, What does “free” or “fully human” mean?
McKibben provides plenty of disquieting science facts and sets off plenty of alarm bells in consideration of such questions, but this isn’t what makes “Falter” so compelling. The book succeeds because its author has managed, with his characteristic thoroughness and modesty, to clarify both the human present-tense and the contexts that produced it.
One context he traces back to Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand, whose ideas about the world were “simple-minded, one-dimensional and poisonous,” but who may turn out to have been the most important philosopher of all time.
“Rand called her theory ‘objectivism,’ and usually it’s grouped with ‘libertarianism,’” McKibben writes. Its “emotional core” is simple: “Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft. You’re not the boss of me.”
Rand’s ideas, because they held sway over Republican and libertarian leaders at a crucial time in American history, “may have decided the planet’s geological and technological future.”
They’ve also led to a class of economists spewing repugnant ideas.
Tyler Cowen, described by BusinessWeek as “America’s hottest economist” advises young people, in McKibben’s words, “to develop a skill that can’t be automated, and that can be sold to the remaining high earners: be a maid, a personal trainer, a private tutor, a classy sex worker.”
Rand’s work has also infected Silicon Valley, where the exponential growth in computing power has given rise to controversial genetic engineering and artificial intelligence projects. Leaders there are “deeply attached to the idea that they should be left alone to do their thing: create value, build apps, change the world,” McKibben says. For them, the key Rand quote isn’t about the immorality of community or the horror of taxes but: “Who will stop me?”
In response, McKibben suggests that “if we wanted to somehow engineer better humans, we’d start by engineering their neighborhoods and schools, not their genes. But, of course, that’s not politically plausible in the world we currently inhabit.”
Dark as it is, “Falter” does have moments of humor.
“The dramatic uncertainty that lies ahead may be the most frightening development of all; the physical world is going from backdrop to foreground. (It’s like the contrast between politics in the old days, when you could forget about Washington for weeks at a time, and politics in the Trump era, when the president is always jumping out from behind a tree to yell at you.)”
And a dim hope is held out in the book’s final section, “An Outside Chance.”
Two tools — solar power and nonviolent resistance — represent humanity’s best chance at continuing the “human game,” McKibben says. Two insidious ideas — the primacy of individual choice and powerlessness born of fatalism — represent the greatest obstacles.
The most curious lives of all are human ones, he says, “because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy.”
Will we choose the latter? After 30 years, McKibben does not know.
Perhaps capital-L love will save the day.
By the time it appears in “Falter,” however, it’s hard to feel like it was ever enough to affect the trajectory of the “human game” — or that it ever could be.
The Ripton author and Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College will read from his new book and discuss “What I Learned in the Last Three Decades” on Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m. at McCullough Student Center, Wilson Hall. “Falter” will be available for purchase at the event through the Vermont Book Shop.
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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