Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

By Bill McKibben. Henry Holt and Company, 2019. 304 pages. $28/hardcover; $17/paperback (available January 2020); $2.99/eBook.

We are messy creatures, often selfish, prone to short-sightedness, susceptible to greed. In a Trumpian moment with racism and nationalism resurgent, you could argue that our disappearance would be no great loss. And yet, most of us, most of the time, are pretty wonderful: funny, kind. Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love that lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth, and makes us okay with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die. Even—especially—in its twilight, the human game is graceful and compelling.

I decided to begin my review with Bill McKibben’s last words, words of hope and love, because so much of the book is scary, and I want readers to know that the reward for reading the whole book is the hope that you feel when you put the book down. My partner, Louis, and I had the privilege of walking with McKibben for five days in Vermont in September 2006. The small group of people, mostly college students, who walked the whole course came to know each other quite well, and we came to know McKibben as a knowledgeable, committed, kind, and caring man. His sermon at the Congregational church in our town helped us to understand the climate crisis is a result of our broken relationship to the Creation. So getting the chance to review his latest book is a privilege.

The first third of the book lays out in a complete, scary, and engaging way the issues that we face today. Even if you are well-versed in the crises we face, you will learn many new and important facts. But it’s not just the facts that are important in this book; it’s the perspective of the author and his ability to put those facts into the context of our lives on this beautiful planet. He reminds us that “we forget that if the billions of years of life on Earth were scaled to a twenty-four-hour day, our settled civilizations began about a fifth of a second ago. That short burst covers the taming of fire, the development of language, the rise of agriculture.”

McKibben then helps the reader understand the thinking and beliefs of those whom we might call “climate deniers.” Many, if not most, are devotees of Ayn Rand, the author of many books that advocate reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge, and that reject faith and religion. Rand supported a system based on recognizing individual rights. McKibben describes her philosophy as “Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft. You’re not the boss of me.” One of her early followers was Alan Greenspan, who later became the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve and brought that philosophy to his work. McKibben names many others who believe as Rand did, and who are influential today in business and government, including political, business, and philanthropic heavyweights: Charles and David Koch, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Even Donald Trump says his favorite book is Rand’s The Fountainhead.

In Falter, McKibben addresses the problems of economic inequality; the diminishing wildlife: “there are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970”; and the potential collapse of human civilization, taking down the rest of life on the planet.

This could all lead to despair. But McKibben does share some rays of hope in the last part of the book, titled “An Outside Chance.” That chance includes the power of resistance; the advances of renewable energy worldwide; and the millions of dedicated people, like you, doing all they can to turn the tide and assure a safe and healthy planet for all that lives.

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