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Book Review

The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon
by Bill McKibben

Longtime environmental activist Bill McKibben shares a personal reckoning with his upbringing, class, and whiteness in his latest, “The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon,” teasing out a way forward for the climate justice movement and our survival as a species. By considering the titular flag, cross and station wagon, McKibben complicates the attractive folk tales of American patriotism, religion, and prosperity — injecting each with a truth serum to expose a fuller story. The result is a more accurate understanding of why and how the United States became a “society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before the pandemic that deepened our divisions, on a heating plant whose physical future is dangerously in question.”

He locates a much more recent turning point than Ghosh, listing the ways that the Carter administration sought to take seriously the interconnected issues of racism, inequality, and climate change. Recapping Jimmy Carter’s efforts at mitigating the damage of the 1979 oil crisis with huge investments in solar power and other green technologies and cutting-edge conservation, McKibben writes that if those policies had been allowed to take hold “climate changes would have turned from an existential crisis to a manageable problem on a list of other problems.” Can you imagine? Then Reagan came to power, took down the solar panels the Carters installed on the White House roof, instituted tax cuts for the very wealthy and before long it was February 1985: the last month that the planet was cooler than average.

Throughout the book, McKibben returns to the theme of debt. And there are so many debts to recount and repay. The debt the United States owes African-Americans for their enslavement comes to $11 trillion or more. The debt the older generation owes the younger generation is also massive and urgent. McKibben writes, “If you are over 60, 82 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions have occurred during your lifetime.” There is also the debt the Global North owes to the Global South for climate change. Bangladesh, which is losing land to sea level rise and seeing an increase in diseases as a result, is “responsible for .2 tons of carbon per person,” more than 100 times less what a North American emits. McKibben writes that “these debts call into serious question the meaning of the symbols we theoretically honor … Debts are there to be paid.”

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