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Pieces from an Active Life

by Bill McKibben

Pub Date: March 4th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7627-1
Publisher: Henry Holt

An active life indeed—and, as prolific author/environmentalist McKibben (Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, 2007, etc.) writes, even a charmed one.

McKibben got out of college in the early years of the Reagan administration and fell immediately into the welcoming arms of the New Yorker, whose editor, William Shawn, sent him out to live on the streets with the army of homeless that sprang up during that time. He escaped the “velvet prison” when new owner Si Newhouse arrived and Shawn was forced to resign, in the meantime having become aware of the physical realities of the world—that water comes from somewhere, that food doesn’t just magically appear, that everything connects to everything else. The result, ever since, has been a string of books, sometimes middling (Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth, 1995) and sometimes quite fine (Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously, 2000), that reckon with the real world in the strictest sense of the term. McKibben has emerged as a sharp but courtly social critic whose surveys are at once obvious and subtle: the experiment with watching 1,700 hours of cable TV that led to The Age of Missing Information (1992), for instance, that revealed to him the source of our autism in the medium’s insistent message, “You are the most important thing on earth.” Well, you’re not, says McKibben. The earth scarcely acknowledges us, but it needs our help all the same. As this collection of book excerpts and magazine pieces reveals, he has been well ahead of the curve in recognizing that fact and spreading the word: A decade ago he was arguing that global warming—an appellation that sounds pleasant enough—needed “a new, scarier name,” such as “Hell on Earth,” while two decades ago he was writing presciently of the various strains of damage that would yield what he called “the end of nature.”

A welcome anthology whose constituent pieces, all well written, retain every bit of their urgency.