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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Hope Against Hope

Air Date: Week of November 10, 1995

Author Bill McKibben explores examples of people living lightly on the earth, with host Steve Curwood. These people and their places are the subject of McKibben's new book Hope Human and Wild. McKibben, author of the 1990 best seller, The End of Nature, says fear & despair are lousy motivators of change.

Transcript

CURWOOD: In 1990, Bill McKibben, for years a staff writer for the New Yorker, published the best-selling book The End of Nature. It was a brilliant success, but this great essay on the threat of global warming and other changes in the biosphere also brought with it a cloud of despair. McKibben's new work on the environmental crisis takes a different approach. It's about hope. McKibben looked around for signs of hope near his home in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, and then traveled to communities in Latin America and India, where he thought there were outstanding environmental successes. The result is a book called Hope, Human and Wild. I asked Bill McKibben how he got the idea.

McKIBBEN: One of the moments when I knew what I wanted to say was when I heard the news that in Vermont the state game department had certified the fact that there were mountain lions back living wild in Vermont, for the first time in 100 years. And I just had that kind of flash that goes through you that makes you understand that it's a different wood, one that has a mountain lion living in it. I wanted so much to figure out how to protect the recovery that was going on in our woods. Wanted so much to learn how we might start to back off some, because I felt very strongly that surge of hope. Hope that the future could be as rich in some ways as the past. Hope that my daughter might grow up where I live and hear a wolf howling there some day. And that was the moment that really got me to work.

CURWOOD: You start your book in the Adirondacks.

McKIBBEN: Right.

CURWOOD: And you celebrate all these wonderful things that are going on here. The land that was one clear-cut. But you sound kind of edgy about it, Bill McKibben; you sound kind of worried.

McKIBBEN: Well, clearly our progress there, and any place else that's beginning to make some sort of recovery, will not survive the kind of changes that are coming. Simply the fact that you put a, pass a law and say this is now wilderness, doesn't mean a thing. If the temperature goes up 4 or 5 degrees, that forest isn't going to care about the fact that it's in a quote "protected wilderness" unquote. It's going to be under absolutely severe heat stress. It's going to be trying to migrate north much more quickly. It will have to go much more quickly than a forest can in fact move.

CURWOOD: Why, with you worrying about the Adirondacks, did you start looking elsewhere for solutions?

McKIBBEN: Because it's clear that the problems that menace the Adirondacks and every other rural area, wild area, are as much global in nature as they are local. I wanted to find out if people really could learn to back off some in their demands on the natural world. Because if places are ever going to recover, that's what we're going to need to do, take a step back. I went to a city in Brazil, a place called Carachiba that should be an urban basket case like Rio or Sao Paulo. I mean it's poor and it's grown 500% in the last 20 years. It's a great place. Among other things, they've built the best bus system on Earth. The buses work so well, are so pleasant, that everyone uses them. And as a result they use 30% less fuel than people in the rest of Brazil.

CURWOOD: How did they make that change? How do they use a third less fuel with this massive bus program?

McKIBBEN: They were able to do it for 2 reasons. One, they're very creative and innovative. The mayor for many years is an architect. And a very clever guy. He does things like, he wanted to make the buses move faster. He figured out a way to allow you to get on this bus as you would a subway, with sliding doors, so that 20 people a second can get on and off the bus. Now it moves people as quickly as the New York City subway system moves people at rush hour. The other half is they had a real political will. They decided 25 years ago, they said in this city, buses are going to be more important than cars. We're not going to hesitate to shut down some streets, to make exclusive bus lanes, to do all the things that really allow this transit system to work.

CURWOOD: What's the lesson that we can take away from this kind of approach?

McKIBBEN: One lesson is that public action can work. We've been taught, since the age of Reagan, that public is synonymous with shabby and inefficient and not very nice. And there's been some reason for us to think that; things public haven't worked as well as they should have often in this country. But it does not need to be that way. And in the future, it probably can't be that way. One of our biggest environmental problems is the kind of cult of hyper-individualism, of everybody driving by themselves in their one car, wherever they go. We're going to need different approaches and more efficient approaches to deal with the future. And that's one of the reasons Carachiba gives me such hope.

CURWOOD: Now you also traveled to India, to the province, the state of Karala in the very southern tip there of India.

McKIBBEN: That's right. Amazing place. Thirty million people live in Karala, which means it's about the population of California. So we're not talking about a sort of tiny example here. Karala is extremely poor, even by Indian standards it's poor. People make about $300 a year on average, or in other terms, about 1/70th what Americans make. Hence, their impact on the environment, at least on things like the atmosphere, is about 1/70th what ours is; they're just not burning much fossil fuel there. On that amount of money, they have a life expectancy that's the equal of ours. Their infant mortality rate is close to ours. Their literacy rate and their female literacy rate are better than ours. Their birth rate is lower than ours, and they'll reach zero population growth before we will.

CURWOOD: So tell us, what's the secret, though of Karala? If they have the same life expectancy and infant mortality rates that we have and better literacy rates, for that matter, and they're doing it with 1/70th of the money, what's their secret?

McKIBBEN: They focused on redistribution as opposed to economic growth and they've set clear priorities. Sixty percent of the state budget goes for health and for education. You can't go more than a couple of miles there without bumping into a free health clinic. Everybody uses these free health clinics all the time. Therefore, their infant mortality rate is low, they're not worried about their kids dying. Therefore, they have one or two kids instead of four of five kids, because they'll know that they'll reach adulthood. It's " it's a remarkable place because it breaks the intuitive link in our minds between more and better. It's not that we need to live like the people there live. They're too poor. But that span of 70 times, that gives one at least a little bit of hope that the alternative to our consumerist civilization is not dying at the age of 30 in a dark cave someplace.

CURWOOD: And after you took these trips, how did you face the threats, the challenges, that you have in the northern forest?

McKIBBEN: It made me understand that a large part of our future there is going to be learning our own ways, our own appropriate ways to back off. To figure out how to place fewer demands on the planet. There's no, you know, obvious environmental future for any one place on earth, that we're all going to have different futures. But in common, we're all going to have to learn to be much more self-sufficient than we are. In New England, we'll know that we're making environmental progress the day that we drink more apple cider then we drink more orange juice. Because we can make apple cider ourselves, you know? We don't need to send a jet to Florida for it. That's what I mean by self sufficiency.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. Bill McKibben's latest book is called Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth.

McKIBBEN: Thanks, Steve.

 

 

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