Bill McKibben—award-winning author, activist, educator—is fiercely curious.
“I’m curious about what went so suddenly sour with American patriotism, American faith, and American prosperity.”
Like so many of us, McKibben grew up believing—knowing—that the United States was the greatest country on earth. As a teenager, he cheerfully led American Revolution tours in Lexington, Massachusetts. He sang “Kumbaya” at church. And with the remarkable rise of suburbia, he assumed that all Americans would share in the wealth.
But fifty years later, he finds himself in an increasingly doubtful nation strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, on a planet whose future is in peril.
And he is curious: What the hell happened?
In this revelatory cri de coeur, McKibben digs deep into our history (and his own well-meaning but not all-seeing past) and into the latest scholarship on race and inequality in America, on the rise of the religious right, and on our environmental crisis to explain how we got to this point. He finds that he is not without hope. And he wonders if any of that trinity of his youth—The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon—could, or should, be reclaimed in the fight for a fairer future.
The dark heart of American racism, alienation, and environmental destruction lies in suburbia, according to this anguished jeremiad. McKibben (Falter) spotlights his 1960s boyhood hometown of Lexington, Mass., birthplace of the American Revolution and now an affluent Boston suburb, as the flip side of the American dream: full of high-minded liberalism, but careful to keep low-income, racially mixed housing out of its lily-white confines; a former bastion of Puritan religious communality now corroded by individualism and spiritual consumerism; and a redoubt of the fossil fuel guzzling suburban economy that's heating the climate. McKibben's critique of suburbia is a familiar one, updated with contemporary twists. He presents a convincing case against suburban zoning codes that essentially ban affordable housing; less cogently, he calls for reparations to redistribute wealth accrued from racist housing policies of the past (while admitting that he's "not sure" what form they should take) and claims that his fellow boomers are "about to be the first generation to leave the world a worse place than when we found it," ignoring the steady, global rise in living standards of recent decades. Sharp autobiographical sketches and social commentary combined with too much ill-considered hand-wringing make this a mixed bag.