What’s Wrong with the ‘Burbs?

An interview with Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben at a climate rally in Times Square, New York City (Adam Welz/Alamy Stock Photo)

Author and activist Bill McKibben is one of America’s leading environmentalists. His memoir, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, was published this summer by Henry Holt & Company. He spoke about it recently with Associate Editor Griffin Oleynick for the Commonweal Podcast. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The whole conversation is available here:

GRIFFIN OLEYNICK: You begin your book by describing two pivotal events from your childhood in the Boston suburbs. The first was a protest, the second a referendum. What happened at each of these events, and what do they mean for you now?

BILL MCKIBBEN: They happened about six weeks apart in the spring of 1971, when I was ten or eleven. Our family had just moved to Lexington, the birthplace of American liberty. The first fight of the Revolution took place on its historic Battle Green, and because of that, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an antiwar movement led by John Kerry, wanted to camp there. But the town fathers said no, that was illegal, and threatened to arrest them.

Several hundred townspeople went down to stand there on the Green with the veterans. All were arrested and taken off to the town public-works shed for the night. My father, a mild-mannered business reporter, was very uncharacteristically there with them, and it made a big impression on me. It seemed to my ten-year-old brain that the long arc of history was moving in the right direction, towards solidarity and greater inclusivity.

But that same spring, there also was a plan to build the first affordable housing in lily-white Lexington. After a visit from Dr. King, the town’s Suburban Responsibility Commission had come up with a plan to build one hundred units of affordable housing. All the town fathers agreed, and the ministers were in favor of it. But some homeowners petitioned for a referendum. In the privacy of the voting booth, the citizens of this theoretically liberal town voted the plan down two to one.

Looking back, that marks the other historical current—towards a more privatized and selfish view of the world, one that cared about property values above all. The 1970s were probably the hinge moment when these two views of the world—a project headed towards a great society, a beloved community—clashed with the vision of a more privatized world. And by the 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the elevation of markets above governments, that second vision had won out. And it’s that world we still inhabit.

GO: The first section of your book, “The Flag,” looks critically at the history of Lexington and America. It also indicts the racism, structural inequality, and self-deception that undergirds much of suburban life in this country. At a certain point, you write, “My life and the life of other people like me, was built in very real part on the suffering of others. That’s not wokeness, that’s not critical race theory, that’s history.” You note that your parents’ house put you on the path to prosperity, something that wasn’t available to other people—and by other people, you mean Black people.

BM: In 1970, they bought that house for $30,000, which would be about $200,000 in today’s money. And it sold last year for one million dollars. So that $800,000 appreciation was the payoff, the premium for having been in the right place at the right time. But not everybody could afford to be in that right place. When Black soldiers came back from the war, they didn’t get to use the GI bill like my dad did. When Social Security was formed in the 1930s, it mostly excluded the categories of labor where Black people were dominant. Because they couldn’t accumulate the capital to buy in at the start of that poker game, it’s no wonder that the wealth gap has widened between Black and white Americans over the last fifty years.

GO: You bring up the concept of reparations, and note the visceral reaction that many Americans had to initiatives like the 1619 Project, spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Why do you think so many Americans are hostile to the notion of reparations when, as you say, Black families were excluded from accumulating the kind of capital that your family acquired so easily?

BM: For one thing, it would require some money, and too many of us don’t want to pay taxes to begin with. But in a deeper way, I think it really forces people to confront the idea that things haven’t been fair. There’s an ingrained sense in much of America that you end up with what you deserve. Most of us probably know that’s not really true. In the context of American history, Black people haven’t been given a chance to do that, to compete in those same terms. That’s painful for people to admit, and in my view that’s what most of the furor over critical race theory in schools is about. I don’t think anyone really believes that kids can’t handle learning the truth about history. Instead, people are worried that they’ll be made uncomfortable by their kids asking questions that really can’t be answered.

If you want to move Washington or Wall Street—and I would like to—then it would be good to have some older people, too.

GO: But you do think that there’s some part of the American story worth preserving. What part is that?

BM: The part where you stand up as an underdog to entrenched power, where you refuse to be pushed around by kings. The idea that everybody was equal was a remarkable one. And even if we didn’t mean it when it came to “everybody,” we meant it more than it had ever been meant before on the planet. That’s the powerful thing about the American story, and the tragic part is that we didn’t live up to it on our own terms. But the good news is that we still can. We can make that history better than it otherwise would be by doing what we should’ve done all along.

GO: You were raised Christian. You attended different churches, which left a real impression on you. What was Christianity like for you when you were growing up?

BM: I came out of the mainline Protestant traditions that in those days comprised most Americans. More than half the U.S. population was Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. That 52 percent is now about 13 percent, with mainline Protestantism losing out to Evangelical Christianity over the last fifty years.

I think the religious story is similar to the political one. The mainline churches were, whatever their flaws, concretely engaged in this project of building a better society. They were the people who were trying to get affordable housing built in Lexington, who were ministering to the veterans on the Green, and so on. They’ve been replaced to a large extent by an Evangelical Christianity that’s much more about “what’s in it for me”—a one-on-one, individualized relationship with one’s Lord and personal savior, as they say. This attitude makes it easy for people to ignore the things that Jesus came to talk about: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, turning the other cheek, and giving money to the poor, as radical a doctrine as there’s ever been. It’s sad: we’ve surrendered not just the flag, but also the cross to the right wing in this country.

GO: So many Christians wring their hands about declining numbers and an increasing lack of institutional clout. Yet you’re not depressed about the present state of affairs. You argue that it’s actually a good thing for Christianity to move, as you put it, “from an institutional force to a force that challenges institutions.”

BM: There was something to be said for that world that I grew up in, but we’re not going back there. When everyone’s in the Church, the Church is just baptizing the status quo. My sense is that Christianity works better as a counterculture than a culture. Now it’s in the position to be a counterculture again, as it was in the first couple of hundred years of its existence.

GO: In your work as an environmental activist, you see members of different faith traditions working together. You say that Christians don’t need to lead environmental movements, but can still be partners in the initiatives that are happening right now. Could you elaborate on that?

BM: Thirty-five years ago, there was no religious environmental movement of any kind. In liberal churches, it was viewed as something you got to after you did poverty and war. In conservative churches, it was viewed as a way station on the road to paganism. But that’s begun to change considerably as people understand climate change better. Destroying the environment is probably the most effective way of damaging the lives of people around the world that we’ve ever come up with—which is really something, considering we also came up with colonialism and imperialism. But now we’re taking away people’s ability to earn their daily bread in the place where they live. So it’s been very powerful to watch people enunciate a theology of care for the world that God gave us.

GO: The final section of your book—entitled “The Station Wagon,” after the quintessential suburban vehicle—is critical of the ways American prosperity has been unevenly apportioned, hoarded, and consumed. What’s changed over the past four decades since you grew up in the suburbs?

BM: They’ve just gotten richer and richer. In the 1970s it seemed like a modest paradise: we had everything we could have needed. But that didn’t stop anyone from seeking to acquire more and more. Suburban houses are now routinely enlarged, or simply torn down and rebuilt to be bigger. The station wagon now seems like an innocent, small vehicle since today we’re all driving huge, semi-militarized vehicles everywhere we go.

That has not been without consequence. The suburbanization of America was even more carbon intensive than the industrialization of China, producing the largest puff of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere has ever had to absorb. What America spent most of its money on since World War II was the project of building bigger houses farther apart from each other. Once you’ve built them, you have to heat and cool them, you have to fill them with stuff, and you have to travel the distances between them, which really could only be accomplished with an automobile.

The reason that Lexington couldn’t have affordable housing was because its zoning laws mandated that everybody have their own driveway and their own yard and their own house detached from the one next to it. And that’s by definition expensive and inefficient. In order to build diverse communities, we need zoning that allows multifamily housing and densification, especially on transit corridors. And those are precisely the same things that help with the environmental footprint. We’re finally starting to realize that this has to happen, but we need to move quickly, because climate change is a timed test. And if we don’t get it right soon, then we will not get it right.

GO: What would you say to people who are hopeless about climate change?

BM: I don’t always know how hopeful I am about climate change: I wrote the first book about climate change thirty-five years ago, and it had the cheerful title, The End of Nature. But I am convinced that we can make a big difference by organizing, so that’s what I do. We’ve started a program called Third Act, which is organizing people over the age of sixty for action on issues around climate, race, and inequality. People are flooding in to do this work. There’s room for change, and as long as that’s a possibility, it’s incumbent upon us all to do what we can.

Intergenerational work is really important. When I was in my forties I founded 350.org, which turned into the first global climate campaign. But I did it with seven college students. One of the things we did was to promote a massive divestment movement, which took root on campuses all across the country, and indeed throughout the world.

After college, those kids wanted to keep working. So they formed the Sunrise Movement that brought us the Green New Deal. Young people were doing extraordinary work even before the appearance of people like Greta Thunberg and the mobilization of tens of millions of junior high and high school students in this fight.

That’s all well and good, but I began to worry that I heard too many people say, “Well, it’s up to their generation to solve these problems.” That seems ignoble. It also seems impractical, because for all their intelligence, idealism, engagement, and earnestness, young people do not currently have the structural power to make the changes that we need.

That’s why we’re trying to get older people engaged. There are 70 million of us above the age of sixty, a population larger than France. We all vote like crazy—there’s no known way to keep old people from voting. And we ended up with most of the money. We’ve got about 70 percent of the country’s financial assets, compared with about 5 percent for millennials.

If you want to move Washington or Wall Street—and I would like to—then it would be good to have some older people, too. But what’s fun is when we’re collaborating. We’ve been doing protests against the big banks that fund the fossil-fuel industry. I was at one not long ago outside Chase Bank in Manhattan. (They’re the single biggest lender.) There were many young people, high school students. And since they’re a little sprier, they were at the front of the march. But in the back was a big cloud of people my age, marching under a banner that said “Fossils Against Fossil Fuels.” That’s the kind of spirit it’s going to take, and it’s great fun to do across generations.

Published in the September 2022 issue: 

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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