The Common Good
September/October 2009

A Difference that Matters

by Bill McKibben | September/October 2009

I am writing these words on the train from Zurich to Geneva, looking up from my keyboard to see snowcapped mountains hanging over the lake.

I am writing these words on the train from Zurich to Geneva, looking up from my keyboard to see snowcapped mountains hanging over the lake. The train was scheduled to leave at 9:32, and indeed it left at 9:32; I have little doubt it will arrive at 12:44, precisely as promised. Because it’s fast, comfortable, and reliable, it’s also well-used; most of the seats are full. It’s impossible for an American to sit on this train and not think: Why can’t we have this? What’s so backward about our country that the best we can do is Amtrak, lurching along, late again?

The answer, of course, is that there’s no good reason. Barack Obama has put a slug of cash in the budget for 10 new high-speed train routes. Someday, one hopes, we’ll be able to travel as easily as most other citizens of the developed world. But the answer, of course, is also that there’s a very good reason. Which is that America has allowed itself to become a hyperindividualized society. That’s why we’ve done more than anyone else to wreck the planet.

That hyperindividualized domain flows from one place: the oil wells and coal mines that have provided us with cheap energy. The society we’ve built is an artifact of that cheap energy—it’s allowed us to sprawl endlessly out across the countryside. The American dream for 50 years has been to build bigger houses farther apart from each other. We’ve succeeded so thoroughly in that dream that the oversupply of starter castles for entry-level monarchs has now cracked the economy. And the more we’ve grown apart, the more we’ve grown apart—the average American has half as many close friends as 50 years ago. When you’ve got no neighbors, spend two hours a day commuting, and work all hours to pay for the mortgage, friends are hard to come by.

Europe is different for many reasons, but one of the most important is structural, and almost accidental. After World War II, with little of their own fossil fuel, European governments chose to tax energy heavily. Gasoline has always been $6 and $8 a gallon—hence very few Europeans embraced the open-road I’m-a-forest-ranger fantasies that marked Americans. Their cities tended not to sprawl—which made mass transit and trains and bicycles much easier. They were still closer to their neighbors—the sense of community didn’t erode nearly as much. In surveys, they declare themselves much happier than Americans, and that satisfaction hasn’t eroded as ours has.

The fight to bring global warming under control—I’m crisscrossing Europe as part of our huge 350.org global organizing drive—is in many ways simply the fight to make the world look more like Europe than America. To set a cap on carbon that will drive up the cost of fossil energy and help us start making smarter decisions—decisions that over time will result in communities that look like the ones outside my train window. We can build support for trains by lobbying for trains in Congress—and we should. But we can build support for trains, and local food, and densifying cities, and bike paths, and all the rest by changing the ground rules, too—by doing something about global warming that removes the privatizing, individualizing temptation of cheap fossil fuel. That’s one of the reasons the climate movement is the defining movement for our time.

And not just in the U.S. The biggest question, probably, is will China and India and all the rest evolve to look more like America or Switzerland? When I’m in China I always tell mayors and legislators: “Don’t look at Houston. Los Angeles is not the model. Go to Copenhagen, go to Amsterdam, go to Zurich. Those are the cities of the future—and they’re filled with bicycles, just like your cities were 10 years ago.” If you look out the window of this train, you can almost imagine the world working—almost imagine the impossible math of environmental trouble somehow adding up. The average Swiss uses half as much energy as the average American—that’s a difference that matters.

Bill McKibben, scholar in residence for environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and the author of The End of Nature, is co-founder of 350.org.

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