This month, renowned writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben will be delivering a lecture through the auspices of the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and UI Lecture Committee (Oct. 13, 7 p.m., Englert Theater). McKibben’s new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, which I have not read yet, is predominantly environmental, focusing on how we can maintain a planet that we now have irrevocably altered. His previous book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, which I am very familiar with having taught it often, takes a bit wider perspective. Climate change is certainly prominent in that book, but McKibben cuts a broader swath through the challenges we face today, including the loss of personal happiness, local economies and communities, in addition to the environmental damage we have wrought.
As I have worked with Deep Economy over the years, two words keep bubbling up for me. These are not necessarily words that McKibben uses, but they are the essence of his message, and they are the essence of a healthy, inspiring, abundant human relationship with place: connection and consequence.
One of the problems we have in modern, globalized, industrialized society is that we often fail to understand, acknowledge or care about the consequences of what we do. If we really, truly cared about the environment, we would calculate the damage we inflict upon the Earth every time we start up a car or airplane, turn on a computer, throw away Styrofoam, etc. Then we would either not do that, or we would do something to prevent or mitigate the damage we are perpetrating.
Wendell Berry put this idea into dramatic, stark terms in a poem from his latest collection, Leavings, called “Questionnaire,” which has gotten a lot of play recently. The poem asks questions like, “5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes, / the energy sources, the kinds of security, / for which you would kill a child. / Name, please, the children whom / you would be willing to kill.” That question is obviously disturbing and provocative, but truly, literally, that is a question we should be willing to ask whenever we do something like, for example, buy a diamond or put on tennis shoes, which may very well have cost an exploited child laborer his or her life.
In Deep Economy, McKibben asks us to think about what we have wrought as a consequence of our drive for unending economic expansion and hyper-individualistic, rapacious wants: the environmental, community and personal losses due to centralization and consolidation of industrial production, whether it’s in low-quality and chemical-laden food, Clear Channel or the oil industry’s stranglehold on our energy needs and the attendant environmental harm. As we keep driving toward these cliffs, our planet becomes more damaged, and our happiness in life declines precipitously.
We are more likely to account for these damages and losses if we see and feel them right under our noses, in our place. To propose an inelegant comparison, let me say that, basically, nearly all of us wouldn’t dream of crapping in our own front yard.
One of McKibben’s solutions to these multifarious but interrelated problems is the revitalization of local economies and our local communities. If we want to truly become conscious of the consequences of our actions–which all good stewards of community and home would want to do–then we need to connect as deeply as we can to our place. Sure, it’s fine to want to save the rainforest and write a check to a distant environmental organization in response, but the real work of restoring our world to a healthy, habitable, abundant, sustainable (or, as McKibben would say, “durable”) state is to care deeply for–and do something about or support–our Iowa River, our local food providers, our community social service organizations, our native prairies and woodlands (what little is left of them), our community arts organizations, our local media and so on. We need to connect to place.
The most famous quotation from British writer E. M. Forster is probably his short but profound, “Only connect.” While Forster’s context in the novel Howard’s End is Edwardian class struggle, the message has wide applicability. Forster follows up his famous epigrammatic statement at one point with “Live in fragments no longer.” That is essentially what living in place is all about: living a holistic existence, made broad, deep and even beautiful by connecting with all that is palpably around us–the people, the natural world, our cultural and community institutions. When we do that, we will be careful of the consequences of all that we do. After all, we do not want to harm the ones–or the places–we love.
So how do we create a durable future and make a life on this tough new planet? I think Bill McKibben would agree that putting connection and consequence at the forefront of our mind and actions is the best thing we could do. In other words, be in place.