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Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Ken Wolf: McKibben shifts from nature to human nature and wonders whether “the human game has begun to play itself out,” as livable space on the earth shrinks.
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Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (Henry Holt, 2019)

It may be presumptuous to compare this book to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring written in the 1950s—but the temptation is too strong to resist. Like Carson’s work, this is a warning, perhaps not as elegantly written as hers, but written with a sense of urgency and enough specific information and examples to get our attention.

McKibben is writing about climate change and global warming, his passion for forty years. The first book of his that I read was The End of Nature (1989), in which he argued that the natural world, as our human ancestors knew it, as a place of magic and fear (as well as resources) that was somehow apart from us, no longer existed. We now exploit the natural world to the extent that those other, more spiritual qualities of nature that nurtured us and our imagination no longer exist.

McKibben shifts from nature to human nature and wonders whether “the human game has begun to play itself out,” as livable space on the earth shrinks.

In this book, McKibben shifts from nature to human nature and wonders whether “the human game has begun to play itself out,” as livable space on the earth shrinks.

Falter deals, of course, with the current climate crisis, emphasizing its seriousness as well as explaining how much easier it would have been to address decades ago when we were first alerted to it (by Edward Teller as early as 1959 and more publicly by NASA scientist James Hansen in testimony to Congress in 1988. This didn’t happen, in part because just a year after Hansen’s testimony—in 1989—a deliberate disinformation campaign by Big Oil and the fossil fuel industry soon made dealing with climate issues politically impossible.

But what make this book particularly noteworthy is McKibben’s willingness to go beyond the climate crisis to look at the culture or mindset that contributes to it. This includes both the attitudes and economic ideas and forces that have contributed to the crisis we now face.

It isn’t just rapacious, uncontrolled capitalism and greedy oil and coal barons that have kept us from acting more swiftly to save the planet.

He also looks at the Ayn Rand’s “objectivism,” the “emotional core” of the more academic libertarian philosophy, that exalts hyper-individualism and told us repeatedly over the past four decades that “government is bad,” and “selfishness is good.” This attitude has aided and abetted the efforts of those who deny the seriousness of climate change or just say that it is a normal pattern to which we must adapt.

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Beyond that, McKibben also questions the ideas of A.I. (artificial intelligence) proponents like Google’s chief engineer Ray Kurweil, who is excited by the prospect of robots and other technological creatures that soon will be able to learn from their mistakes and thus control us by making our slow and imperfect human brains obsolete.

In a similar category is McKibben’s concern with genetic engineering, especially “germline modification” that can alter human DNA well into future generations by use of a process known as CRISPR. He warns about the social implications of “designer babies.”

These new technologies will make us less human, or perhaps not human at all. “The human game,” McKibben reminds us, “does require us, after all, to be human.”

So, as parts of the earth become literally unlivable due to extreme heat on many days of the year and our coastal cities are flooded, greatly reducing the geographic and economic viability of the planet, the “size of the board” on which the human game is played will shrink. The continued existence of the human species is problematic. We could become “The Sixth Extinction” in the history of the planet.

Yet, it is not too late, “not quite.” We have an “outside chance” to survive; he pins this hope on two things: the solar panel and a massive nonviolent social movement that McKibben says could “reshape the zeitgeist.” To accomplish this, we must see solar panels and nonviolent action as “technologies of maturity.”

Mature people believe the opposite of Ayn Rand. They “find their fulfillment in working for others, in mentoring, in placing limits on their own behavior in the interests of the community.”

Since we still often admire people who have these traits, maybe “it’s possible that we can learn to admire societies for the same things.” That is McKibben’s “outside chance”.

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Ken Wolf

Ken Wolf is an author and professor emeritus of history at Murray, Ky., State University.