by Bill McKibben
Late Fall 2005

One of the first lessons of the outdoors is to take what nature is giving you. A winter day with deep powder and you head for the lift; an early season cold snap before the snow arrives and it’s time to hike deep into the woods with ice skates slung over your shoulder; a perfect 20-degree February afternoon and out come the blue wax and the classic skis. So too politics: You work with what you have.

In Washington, right at the moment, that’s not much. Last year’s national election left us with four new senators whose voting records show an almost perfect contempt for things environmental; they’d been on the job fewer than 10 weeks before they were able to ram through a plan for drilling in ANWR. There’s little sign that physical and chemical reality has penetrated the Beltway; unlike the capitals of Europe and Asia, D.C. isn’t even talking a good game about, say, climate change. And there’s not much we can do about it until the next election.

Which is bad, just like a January thaw is bad. But there’s always something to be done, and in this case it’s in the state legislatures beneath those 50 golden domes, and in the thousands of city halls, and in the county boards, and in all those other places we mostly ignore unless we’re renewing our driver’s licenses. In California, of course, Governor Schwarzenegger is pressing ahead with plans to demand real increases in automobile mileage; in New York, his fellow Republican George Pataki is closing in on his target of preserving a million acres of land, while Democratic rival Eliot Spitzer has done more as state attorney general to control the Midwest coal-burning cartel than the EPA ever dreamed of.

But it’s not just the big states – all sorts of places (Mississippi! Arizona!) have enacted laws demanding an increase in renewable energy. The New England governors have collectively embraced a Kyoto-like target for carbon emissions, and some of them are even trying to make good on the promise. Individual cities have signed on, too. And always because they’ve been pressed by organized groups of ordinary citizens, who at this level have a fighting chance against the money of the fuel merchants and the car makers.

Now all this makes sense because there’s no other place for that activism to go at the moment. But it also makes a deeper sense, I think, because in the end, real environmental progress may depend on remembering that we live in particular local places, not just in a globalized world.

This struck home for me last winter – I spent those months eating entirely out of the Champlain Valley, where I live. So: no orange juice, just cider, made fresh every Friday at a press a few miles down the road. No lettuce; cole slaw from the cabbage in the root cellar, not to mention squash and beets and tomato sauce we froze in the fall. No chicken on a plastic yellow tray from the market, but chicken that until the day before yesterday was pecking away at insects in the neighbor’s coop. No beer from Holland; beer from our local brewery crafted with wheat from Ben Gleason’s fields down in Bridport. Hell, I even made my own energy bars.

I wanted to do it for many reasons. Taste, for one (I warn you, don’t try an actual chicken if you plan on eating supermarket chicken ever again). And, you know, ecological concern. The average bite of American food travels 1,500 miles before it ever reaches our lips, which means every meal might as well be takeout delivered in an 18-wheeler taxi. (A British study last year found that, in terms of environmental impact, eating local was considerably more important even than eating organic.)

But the real reason was a hunger for the connections that have died away in the globalized economy. Pollsters a few years ago found that a majority of Americans didn’t know their next-door neighbors; there’s a perfect recipe for political powerlessness. If we’re going to solve the deep ecological dilemmas facing our civilization, we will of course need global treaties and United Nations conferences. But we also need communities that can take care of themselves, communities that produce some of their own food and energy and even entertainment. I don’t much want my MTV anymore; I want my local bar with a local singer/songwriter and my Otter Creek Copper Ale.

So much of the economy we’ve built depends on cheap energy that, no matter what Washington does, parts of that economy will begin to fade away, to morph into something older and newer. Right now is the time to be building the infrastructure, physical and emotional, for what comes next. And the oil barrons can’t do a thing about it

About the Author

Bill McKibben is the author, most recently, of Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks.