A Book Review by Mary Groh
FALTER by Bill McKibben (Holt and Co. 2019)
The metaphor of human life as a game functions aptly throughout this book. In Part 1, “The Size of the Board”, the author mentions widespread environmental problems we are increasingly familiar with: droughts, fires, pollution, floods, melting ice, rising seas, warming oceans, species extinction and more.
McKibben makes the accusation that “the most consequential lie in human history” was the banding together of Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco and others to deny climate change. The effects of the burning of fossil fuels had been revealed by scientists and, although the oil magnates and company CEO’s recognized the evidence, they deliberately chose (in the 1980’s) to mount a disinformation campaign in the interests of their industry. Their efforts largely succeeded.
Part 2 “Leverage” shows how the novelist Ayn Rand pushed the ideology of libertarian-ism, and denigrated socialism in the minds of Americans, and most significantly, in the actions of their political leaders. The huge oil wealth of the Koch brothers funded efforts to influence political systems and keep the fossil fuel industry growing and unstoppable.
Another threat in the human game McKibben explores in Part 3. It is the unregulated development of AI. Experts in Silicon Valley and elsewhere seem addicted to pushing their technology ever further into the realm of human agency but without values added. Therapies that can rid a fetus of the gene for, say, cystic fibrosis he considers a human advance; but letting parents produce designer babies is not. One negative effect would be more inequality among people. As with unregulated greenhouse gas emissions, there could be runaway effects beyond human control.
In Part 4 the book proposes two ways to “help us keep global warming and technological mania within some limits, and keep the human race recognizable, even robust.” The author enthusiastically promotes solar panel technology, recounting his visits to remote African villages where solar power provides electricity to people in countries that cannot afford to connect them to the grid.
The second way discussed is of particular interest to peace activists: non-violent mass protests. These have the power to bring about change (think Gandhi, Martin Luther King movements). Earth Day 1970, when 20 million Americans joined in demonstrations, led eventually to Nixon having to sign significant environmental laws still in effect today. The protests against the Keystone pipeline (2011) reversed the leverage of the fossil fuel industry. The book is recent enough to include Greta Thunberg and the school strikes, (but not recent enough to refer to the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations).
As a war tax resister I was fascinated with the quote from Thoreau, the New Englander who refused to pay the poll tax. He wrote in 1849 as the Civil War was brewing, “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure . . . [but] in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution.”
This book brings so much pertinent information together in just 244 pages in a readable and persuasive style. “The human game is a team sport.” McKibben makes the reader want to join the team of environmental and peace activists.