American Earth

BILL MCKIBBEN has written more than a dozen books, but in his own words he has recently become “a student of a new genre: the e-mail designed to set protest in motion.” In 2007, McKibben and a handful of Middlebury College graduates organized the largest grassroots environmental protest since the original Earth Day in 1970. He says he’s as proud of this work as anything he has written. His latest achievement, as editor of American Earth, should please him as well as readers. The book is comprised of essays, excerpts, poems, song lyrics, classic cartoons, color photos, and a chronology of the American environmental movement. Its contents will secure a slot for this hefty volume even on the most overburdened bookshelf.

In this anthology, McKibben has illustrated the intellectual and artistic evolution of American environmental writing — distinct from nature writing, which he notes has been ably surveyed by Robert Finch and John Elder in The Norton Book of Nature Writing. While, according to McKibben, nature writing is composed of “accounts of the natural world,” environmental writing goes further. “The body of writing anthologized here drove the political side of the movement more often than the other way around,” he writes. “Marsh and Muir gave us national parks, and Marshall and Zahniser the Wilderness Act.”

McKibben introduces each of the 101 individual authors that make up the book, bridging his or her work to both earlier and more contemporary environmental thought. Readers discover that Mary Austin was among the first to write about the desert, laying the groundwork for Ed Abbey; how W.H.H. Murray’s nineteenth-century writings on the Adirondacks spurred the phenomenon known as ecotourism.

Most of McKibben’s selections are comprised of more recent writing from the period marked by the first Earth Day. Still, his selection of pre-1970 authors provides a solid foundation, including John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson. Yet he’s also incorporated some whose ideas about the environment may be unfamiliar: Susan Fenimore Cooper’s nineteenth-century records of the vanishing Eastern wilderness; showman P. T. Barnum’s resentment of roadside advertising’s intrusion into scenic landscapes; science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s prescient warnings on the hazards posed to human values by technology.

McKibben’s bias for post-1970s works is founded on his sense that “these contemporary writers are doing the necessary work of seeking out ideas and images that will help America, and then the world, to confront the very much deeper problem we now face.” Many of these writers are familiar, such as Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and Terry Tempest Williams. Some, such as Lois Marie Gibbs, depict the direction of more recent environmental thought. Her account of the tragedy of Love Canal illustrates how working-class activism against toxic conditions gave birth to the Superfund Program.

In his foreword to American Earth, Al Gore explains that McKibben’s early writings about the impact of chlorofluorocarbons dramatically reconfigured his perceptions of our natural world, consequently altering his life. To create this shift in consciousness is McKibben’s goal for American Earth. His collection traces the development of our environmental thinking. But it also points the direction toward a new way of being. McKibben is a believer in reflection coupled with action. This book is a tool to spark both.