Tag: Bill McKibben

Review: American Earth by Bill McKibben

american-earth“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his groundbreaking book, Walden.   With Thoreau as a starting point, Bill McKibben has assembled the finest, most comprehensive anthology of American environmental writing one could hope to find.  The combined work of 101 authors, running almost 1,000 pages, American Earth chronicles the changing landscape of environmentalism from Thoreau to Teddy Roosevelt to Al Gore, with 98 more thrown in for good measure.

This one volume provides a rich orientation to the world of environmental writing which McKibben contends is “America’s single most distinctive contribution to the world’s literature.”  If Walden is the book everyone claims to revere but few have actually read, American Earth offers an accessible door into not only Walden, but 100 more works of significance in the annals of environmentalism.  McKibben, himself the groundbreaking author of The End of Nature, the first account of global warming’s consequences, selects each author with the care of a conductor assembling a fine orchestra.  Some voices speak of spiritual bonds connecting humankind and nature, others tell true stories of real ecological tragedies, and some are historical markers along the environmental movement’s journey from the fringes into mainstream America.

McKibben calls upon Thoreau to set the stage for this anthology — “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.”    He continues with the likes of Walt Whitman, P. T. Barnum (raging against billboards), and features the classic writing of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.  

His list of contributors ranges from the designer of Central Park in NYC (Frederick Law Olmsted), to an  American author and journalist (Theodore Dreiser), to another writer of the depression (John Steinbeck).  Books you may have read are excerpted, such as Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; and, Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring, the classic that influenced Al Gore and resulted in a ban on DDT.

You will not agree with all the pieces included.  Lynn White’s essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” lays the blame (in 1967) for the environmental problems of the US on the Christian worldview.  Or, at least the popular Christian worldview that saw the world as man’s plaything, to use or use up as he chose.  White concludes his essay with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and nominates Francis as patron saint of environmentalists because of Francis’ teaching on humility and his love for all of God’s creation.  The activist Cesar Chavez is also included, but on the lighter side is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was set to the tune of an old Baptist hymn, When The World’s on Fire — more appropriate than even Guthrie might have thought when he chose it.    

If you want to get up to speed in Environmentalism 101, McKibben’s American Earth is the book you need.  A comprehensive survey of literature on environmentalism, the book contains scores of great quotes, real life stories, like The Fog by Berton Roueche’, and contemporary voices like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.  My newly discovered friend, Wendell Berry, is included, as are all of the other great names in the movement — the Nearings, Buckminster Fuller, Scott Russell Sanders, Al Gore, and Paul Hawken, plus many more.  

At  the list price of $40 the book is a great value both for its scope and breadth.  American Earth is even less — about $25 — from Amazon and other discounters, which makes it that much more of a bargain.  I have several of the books referenced by McKibben, including his Deep Economy, and a comparable library would run hundreds of dollars.  You’ll find yourself doing what I have done — pulling out American Earth to read another essay or chapter or poem in America’s great chronicle of all things environmental.

Beyond the church food closet

 Most churches participate in some kind of food closet, which is primarily a way to supply emergency food to those who need it.  But, what if everyone needed food?  What if the global food supply system collapses or goes into deep distress?  How do churches help then?

Chatham House, a UK-based thinktank, researches a wide-ranging variety of global issues.  One of the critical issues facing the world community is the food supply.  We are already seeing food delivery disruptions both in the US and in the developing world.  Rising energy costs have added to the cost of food here in the US, and a Chatham House report sees four possible global food supply scenarios:

  1. Just a Blip: what if the present high price of food proves to be a brief spike with a return to cheap food at some point soon?
  2. Food Inflation: what if food prices remain high for a decade or more?
  3. Into a New Era: what if today’s food system has reached its limits and must change?
  4. Food in Crisis: what if a major world food crisis develops?
What does this have to do with small churches, you ask.  First, food is pretty important and rising prices and declining availability will impact your members and your community.  Second, food supply issues are complex and involve the convergence of energy, environment, and economics.  Finally, churches can prepare for the worst-case of a global food supply disruption or the best-case temporary spike in prices by…
  1. Creating awareness of this and other global issues.
  2. Experimenting with local solutions to global problems, like growing a community garden.  I have enlisted the local 4-H coordinator to help with a community garden for Chatham in 2009.
  3. Learning about alternative approaches, such as the slow food, locavore, and other food-related movements.
  4. Exploring resources related to issues of food, hospitality, and care for those in need.  Bill McKibben’s book, Deep Economy, is an excellent resource for looking at food from a local economic standpoint.  
Challenges of the 21st century will demand that churches be prepared to deal with global problems on a local scale.  To do that, you’ll need more than a food closet.