Book review: Falter

Review of Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (New York: Henry Holt, 2019), 291 pp., no illus. or maps.

Bill McKibben forges into new territory in this book, bringing together the threat of climate change with fears of Artificial Intelligence and of gene modification. His conclusion is that the three developments are causing mankind to “falter,” that is, to come near to extinction. He stops short of proclaiming the end of the human race, but it is faltering, tilting, like the letters of the title on the dust jacket of the book, downward.

It is important to notice from the start, that these three developments may not all be problems, and that even if they are, they are problems of different sorts. Climate change is one thing, but there are those who believe that Artificial Intelligence and gene-altering technologies are blessings and not curses for humankind. Indeed, some think they may be the salvation of the human race. No one thinks climate change is a good thing, let alone the salvation of humankind. In other words, McKibben appears to be committing a category error in this book, forcing developments that may have some problems associated with them into the same disastrous category as climate change.

We can also say from the outset that although the problems laid out in this book are altogether modern–climate change, Artificial Intelligence, and gene modification—the author’s solutions are as old as American popular politics. In the case of climate change, his solution is to slay the Monsters that block the path of The People’s Will. Anyone who has taken a college course in American history will recognize the familiar template for reform described in Bill McKibben’s book. He identifies the Monsters, “a tiny clutch of people” (p. 195)—the Koch brothers, Exxon, and a few others–standing in the way of addressing climate change. The rest of us are morally sound and constitute the vast majority of the republic. We the People must organize to resist their selfish and greedy schemes. He likely knows but does not say that the inventor of this scenario for political success was Donald Trump’s favorite politician from American history: Andrew Jackson in his war on the “Monster” Second Bank of the United States.

McKibben fears that climate change might end human life altogether and that AI and gene modification will ultimately make human life not worth living. In the case of gene modification, McKibben is careful to distinguish between “gene therapy,” using the technology (called familiarly CRISPR) to “repair” genetic diseases as opposed to “germline” genetic engineering to take control of the whole evolution of the human race. Our offspring could become too perfect to have challenges that give any sense of satisfaction in their solution, he argues. The idea is that there is nothing sporting in knowing at the beginning of the race that some technician engineered you at birth to have superior abilities so that you will inevitably win.

Falter all but embraces the New Catastrophism, that is, thinking that geologic and human history could be interrupted by a colossal disaster like the Biblical Flood. McKibben quotes a comment on hurricane Harvey calling its prodigious rainfall “biblical” (p. 27), and later explains, “we’re used to the idea that geologic history unfolds over boundless eons at a glacial pace,” but the pace changes “when you’re changing the rules ” of the game through human intervention, interference, and control (p. 28). “Cataclysm on a geological scale is clearly possible,” he warns, but he settles for the less alarmist—and original idea—that for now the problem is that the size of the board for the “human game” is shrinking.

McKibben, of course, has real gifts for communication. He can step back and take a broad gaze and capture modern developments in original and sometimes breath-taking characterizations. He did that most famously in The End of Nature. Here he does it again with what you may well wonder about, his reference to the “Human Game.” His point is that “the size of the board on which we’re playing the game is going to get considerably smaller, and this may be the single most remarkable fact of our time on earth” (p. 56). That is literally true in the sense of rising waters that make lands we have been living on uninhabitable. But it is true in a larger sense as well, changing the once-great possibilities of human history. His description of this phenomenon is definitely memorable. Relying in part on the work of the foundational environmental historian Donald Worster, McKibben says that Columbus found not a pocket of Asian wealth but a whole new world of great spaces and abundant resources. Toward the end of the nineteenth century yet another underground new world of fossil fuel energy was discovered. Climate change signals the end of this last great expansion, the fossil fuel expansion, and now we must enter the era of “restraint.”

Restraint is not a virtue much in evidence in Silicon Valley, and that is the new area for McKibben to attack in this book. As an indictment of the culture of Silicon Valley, Falter adds to the devastating case against it made by David Wallace Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth. Somehow too many of the thinkers in that rich valley of intelligence seem to think humans will live in an electronic parallel universe and need not worry about earth and climate change. He depicts the dominant idea in the realm of digital technology as a belief that geometrically increasing intelligence will proceed so fast that humans as we know them now will be left behind. In some form or other that we may not even understand now, the more enthusiastic digital apostles of the digital revolution believe, we will live forever (p. 134).

CCL readers will not likely be as interested in this as in the other parts of Falter, but we can conclude that the planet will not likely be saved by futurist gene-splicers with their CRISPR technologies and by digital engineers. The astonishing poverty of social vision in America’s greatest new centers of intellect is emerging as one of the most dismal failures of our modern republic.

What McKibben says about climate change will be familiar to readers of other parts of his vast corpus of journalism and books. So will his social solution. He calls it non-violence here, and its organizational embodiment is his movement 350.Org. His favorite technological solution is, by and large, the simple solar panel, as Gabrielle Walker shrewdly pointed in her review of his book in the Times Literary Supplement (September 10, 2019). McKibben seems not to be much enamored of technology, certainly not of big technology. The most attractive feature of solar panels to him is their deployment by local effort and under local control. Fossil-fuel power is centralized in big corporations and comes from afar.

In other words, one can learn a great deal about Bill McKibben from this book. His real heroes are not scientists or engineers; they are naturalists like Thoreau and John Muir. He comes right out of that familiar American environmental tradition. But he is not an ultra-individualist like Thoreau. McKibben identifies as a major villain in American history the ultra-individualist writer Ayn Rand, and eagerly points out those members of the tiny villainous minority that stands athwart The People’s Will who swear by Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. (In truth the fifteen or so pages about Rand in the book make, ironically, some of the best reading in it). Inefficiency, the bane of economists, does not bother McKibben much (p. 231); he is not enamored of “normal politics” (p. 219); to him, the great social virtue is a Puritanical “restraint” (p. 235). Several times in Falter, McKibben snipes at Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now, who is much too “sanguine” to suit McKibben, and his animosity to Pinker offers us another important clue to McKibben’s outlook: he is a Romantic. Science and engineering, children of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, did not pave the intellectual road for his views. (To be fair, he denies Luddite and romantic impulses in his pantheon of virtues on p. 240, but I was not convinced).

For some, such a future of “restraint” is as bleak a prospect as the programmed and overdetermined future that McKibben says is a threat posed by modern science and technology. There are Americans who will not be satisfied with his admonition “that instead of dreaming about utopia, we should be fixated on keeping dystopia at bay” (p. 235). There are those who identify ours as a nation of dreamers. Not everyone will be satisfied with the nostalgic comforts and verities McKibben champions here. He dislikes the dreams and aspirations of the “powerful and reckless” (p. 255), but, he often expresses a hazy longing for a past that may never actually have existed. He does not seek the efficiency of the economists’ ideal: “Amazon is incredibly efficient—I can have something that I may or may not need at my doorstep tomorrow—but when it puts actual stores out of business, it sacrifices the other services those actual stores provided: ‘gossip, help for old people, surveillance of the street.’ Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland are incredibly efficient—I can buy food for very little money—but when they put local farmers out of business, we lose rural communities, pastoral landscapes, agricultural diversity” (p. 231).

And that leaves the reader right where the environmental movement has been stuck for years: the demographic most enthusiastic about restraint and the environment does not mind paying higher prices, presumably because it has more money.

Gossip and being surveilled by the neighbors? Would those be a real loss? If his real concern is for damage to the idea of community, McKibben could have picked better examples. The problems discussed in this book may be the new ones for the “human game,” but the solutions are familiar and will seem a little bit old-fashioned for some.

Mark E. Neely, Jr.
Member, State College Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

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