The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened

By Bill McKibben. Henry Holt and Company, 2022. 240 pages. $27.99/hardcover; $17.99/paperback; $14.99/eBook.

Bill McKibben is best known as an environmental activist, but he is actually a journalist by trade. I really enjoyed this new book, which uses McKibben’s own life span to date as a way to bookend his question: “what the hell happened” to create today’s complicated life in the United States? I always enjoy McKibben’s writing because he’s a good storyteller, and he uses quotations and statistics to make his points. This is evidence of the deep research behind the claims he makes.

This book names U.S. symbols for patriotism, faith, and prosperity, and calls their meanings into question. The flag stands for U.S. history, yet a great many have not sufficiently accepted that our success and power are based on slave labor and Indigenous genocide. The cross stands for Christian faith, yet White denominations (he wisely sticks to what he knows) have become mainstream, if not conservative: not a way to follow Jesus’s teachings. The station wagon is a symbol of U.S. prosperity, yet it also symbolizes the “carbon explosion” of the last 60 years and having enough carbon to explode, which comes at the cost of other people (and animals) across the world. This last point allows McKibben to claim that if you are 60 today, 82 percent of global emissions have happened in your lifetime.

The station wagon is also a symbol for suburbia, which was private industry’s postwar building project just as the interstate highway system was the government’s. Suburbia created a car-centric lifestyle, and the homes there have gotten steadily bigger, reflective of a growing culture of overconsumption, which in turn causes even more carbon emissions.

Suburbia was also designed as a White lifestyle in the years before the Fair Housing Act and largely remains so, partly due to local zoning laws but mostly due to home prices. He also tells stories of school integration efforts that benefited a few while sidestepping the systemic changes that could lead to equity.

There was an upwelling of hope in the ’60s and ’70s with the Civil Rights Movement and Roe v. Wade, which countless church leaders and people of faith supported at the time. Then came the erosion—though most of us couldn’t understand it—as neoliberals poured money into brand-new think tanks that were intended to shift public opinion. This was a backlash against the country’s leftward shift. As McKibben describes it, the resulting consequences painted a bleak picture:

The sense of national unity dwindled; the religious faith that had helped order communities melted away. Mass prosperity itself turned into the most dangerous weapon of all, unleashing the flood of carbon that raised the temperature of the earth till the poles thawed.

In those days, McKibben was a kid, albeit one old enough to get presciently upset (and drunk) the night Ronald Reagan got elected. His interrogation into “what the hell happened” is the story of “breaking the wrong way” in voting and buying patterns ever since.

Our problems of race-based inequity and a carbon-based economy are harder to solve the longer we wait. The wealth gap gets bigger instead of just continuing to exist. The storms get bigger, and the droughts get longer instead of just continuing to happen. And those who did the least to cause the problems bear the brunt. That is expensive, which in turn erodes resources for other concurrent needs and for the future. (The Paris Climate Accords of 2015 addressed this directly.)

McKibben grew up a practicing Christian, unlike many his age. In fact, the overall drop in the number of people who belong to organized religions means that those who act in faith aren’t numerous enough to have the influence that they did during the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. They—we—should play a supporting role in social change rather than a leading one.

And, although there are many older people, McKibben believes that they, too, should play a supporting role for the young people who are leading the climate movement today. Resources like time and money are what the baby boomers can bring; seniors and young adults have an “alliance that needs rebuilding.”

If you are wondering what (the hell) we can do, I have a few suggestions.

McKibben founded Third Act, a community of seniors who work to support young leadership. One of Third Act’s current campaigns is about fighting voter suppression; another is to influence investment companies that manage retirement assets, often in oil and fracking. See thirdact.org.

My thoughts jumped to Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) and their “Vanguard’s Very Big Problem” campaign to pressure Vanguard to create funds that avoid fossil fuels and/or invest in renewable energy. See eqat.org.

AARP’s Future of Housing campaign supports zoning to allow denser and more accessible housing, which benefits lower income people and reduces carbon footprints. See futureofhousing.aarp.org.

Karie Firoozmand (she/her) is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md.

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