Summer 2004

Society and Culture

Interview

When More Is Less

Dan Cloer

Environmentalist Bill McKibben has written several books concerning humanity’s capacity to understand its relationship with the earth and with fellow man, including The End of Nature (1989) and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2003).

In viewing our technological and consumptive gallop across the earth, McKibben contends that human ambition and desire must be checked. His belief that we must reach “a reasonable definition of the enough point” or face an unsettled if not horrific future is a sobering diagnosis. Vision contributor Dan Cloer asked him to comment further on this uniquely human dilemma.

DC America developed on the foundation of the entrepreneurial, material-wealth-as-reward, hustler mentality. What indications do you see that suggest we need to rethink this foundation (and the consumer lifestyle it has given birth to)?

BM You mean aside from the ecological devastation of the planet? And the fact that 350 people now control more wealth than the poorest 3 billion? Perhaps we should also take note of the fact that we’re not an exceedingly happy society. Measure it how you want—prescriptions for antidepressants, perhaps. But the world we’ve built seems to have left us feeling quite a bit too independent; i.e., lonely.

DC Would you outline your view of the connection between the faults of man becoming planet manager (what you refer to as custodians and caretakers of life) and his own genetic manager?

BM It’s the same basic hubris. We were born onto a beautiful, cruel, buzzing, mysterious planet, and we’ve done our best to make it routine and predictable, with sad results both ecologically and spiritually. Now we seem set to follow the same course with our own bodies.

DC You often refer to biblical themes in your writing. Many fundamentalists believe that the Bible sanctions mankind’s “dominion” over the earth—his perceived right to use the earth to his benefit. Yet you argue that our religious heritage actually places limits on our choices.

BM I have no great problem with the idea that we have dominion over the earth. Clearly, in practical terms, it is now an accurate statement. The question is how we exercise that dominion: by backing off a bit in our appetites and numbers to help preserve the rest of God’s creation, or by acting as if we’re the only thing that counts. Religious insight should help us make that choice. I think that the faith tradition at least as far back as the Buddha, and preeminently centered on the Christ of the Gospels, reminds us that we’re happiest and nearest God when we’re giving center stage to others, be they the sick and the hungry and the poor, or the rest of creation.

DC How does one define and develop a personal sense of “enough”? How would such a sense afford each of us greater contentment?

BM It’s hard to do in a consumer world: we’ve been schooled since birth to make “more” our default. It helps to have some quiet and stillness in some part of your day, so you can interrogate yourself a little bit about what you actually want, what actually makes you happy. In some sense, I suppose, we’ve not been selfish enough, in that we haven’t really paid attention to our own losses of connection, of community, of contact with the natural world.