Environmental activist Bill McKibben is known for writing grim volumes like The End of Nature, widely regarded as the first book about climate change. But his latest outing, Radio Free Vermont, is a major departure, a humorous novel about a fugitive radio host who agitates for Vermont to secede from the United States.
“When Mr. Trump was elected, it seemed like the last thing the world probably needed was another one of my dire nonfiction books about the trouble we’re in,” McKibben says in Episode 293 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It seemed like if I was ever going to publish something funny, that would be the year when it might be useful to do it.”
Global warming is a major theme of Radio Free Vermont, where the main characters, all avid skiers, find themselves trying to cope with an unseasonably warm winter. McKibben has long advocated for more people to use the power of art to tackle climate change.
“I wrote a piece maybe 15 years ago arguing that there had been very limited artistic response to climate change, which was odd given the scale and magnitude,” he says. “And I’m very glad to see that changing on every front.”
One group of artists who has tackled climate change is science fiction writers, with authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Tobias Buckell comprising the so-called “cli-fi” movement. In particular McKibben praises Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140, which depicts a future in which rising seas have transformed New York into a city of canals. “For my money the best science fiction—and in many ways the best fiction—of the last year was New York 2140,” he says. “It’s a wonderful and oddly cheerful book, I must say. I really, really enjoyed it.”
McKibbben also praises science fiction writers for addressing the dangers of emerging technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and AI.
“I’ve thought for the last 20 years that science fiction was really the only realm where people were dealing intelligently with some of these questions,” he says. “They were the only people who were having to perform the thought experiment of putting the potential power of these technologies up against the scale of human beings—of their characters—and just figuring out that human beings quickly got overwhelmed by technology at this scale.”
Listen to our complete interview with Bill McKibben in Episode 293 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Bill McKibben on secession:
“I don’t think it’s going to be Vermont that disappears from the Union first. We’re an old state—all you’d have to do is threaten to cut off our Social Security and I think we’d capitulate. But I increasingly wonder if California is in it for the long haul or not—California and with it Washington and Oregon. I mean, California is the fifth-largest economy in the world taken on its own—it’s Germany—and it dominates the fields that the world most prizes right now, like technology. And I have no idea what benefit it really gets from being part of the United States at this point. It seems to me entirely plausible that you could think up events that would cause the good people of the Golden State to say, ‘Huh, you know maybe we could go this alone.’”
Bill McKibben on Donald Trump:
“In the last year I’ve thought about it a lot in terms of what would happen if Donald Trump, talking the way he does and tweeting the way he does, came to a town meeting in my little town of 400 and started in. People would just look at him like he’d descended from outer space, and after about five minutes they’d just stop listening and say it was time for someone else to speak, and that would be that. You couldn’t afford to have a buffoon like Trump running things that really mattered to you day-to-day. No one would put him in charge of figuring out how to plow the roads or something like that. It’s only when you’ve reached the kind of insane scale that we operate on that he seems distant enough that you might just vote for him in order to shake things up, or for entertainment value, or for whatever crazy set of reasons people came up with to justify voting for someone who’s manifestly not a good human being.”
Bill McKibben on futurists:
“It seems to me there’s a deep and ironic contradiction in the minds of a great many futurists, who on the one hand think human beings are so incredibly special that they must never die, and on the other hand think that they’re basically just meat machines that will be happily replaced by much smarter things coming along down the road. You often find people holding both of those thoughts at the same time, which makes me think that scientists/futurists/tech people are at least as prone to a kind of superstition as the rest of us. I’ve always found it mildly amusing that the people who most wildly decry religion and exalt atheism and so on are also the people most completely unable to come to terms with the idea that we’re going to die.”
Bill McKibben on threshholds:
“Our current dominant metaphor, really, and it’s certainly exemplified by our president, is that more of things is always better. But if you think about it, there are other kinds of questions that are threshhold questions. So I—as you can tell from reading Radio Free Vermont—very much enjoy drinking beer. One of the things that makes me happy is that Vermont has more breweries per capita than any place on earth. And I’m very clear that drinking a beer or two every night makes me feel happier than I otherwise would. I’m also very clear that drinking six or eight does not—that that proposition breaks down at some point. This is a threshold question, not a linear question, and so we’d be wise to ask ourselves if we’re getting near certain [technological] thresholds as well.”