The fable of localism

January 9, 2018

Isaac Kreisman reviews a novel by leading climate justice activist Bill McKibben.

AN AGING former ski coach and radio personality holed up at the end of a dirt road in rural Vermont may be an unlikely hero for a fictional rebellion story.

The new novel Radio Free Vermont isn't the work of a local eccentric, though, but perhaps the most prominent voice of the contemporary environmental movement: Bill McKibben. While the founder and Middlebury College professor has been publishing books for decades, Radio Free Vermont is his first novel--or "fable" as the author calls it.

While the book doesn't make any claims to be putting forward a political position or program, the imaginings of McKibben are worth engaging with. The professor and activist has a well-deserved reputation as a leading public intellectual and tireless organizer for climate justice.

His critiques of the fossil-fuel industry and policies of politicians of both parties have been unsparing, and he is vocal in advocating grassroots mobilization as essential to addressing the environmental crisis. In 2016, he was a surrogate in Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, and was appointed by Sanders to the Democratic Party's platform committee.

Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben
Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben (Mark Dixon | flickr)

The back cover of Radio Free Vermont sports endorsements not only from Sanders but also from Naomi Klein, the author of the recent bestseller No Is Not Enough.

RADIO FREE Vermont follows a radio commentator, Vern Barclay, and his three accomplices through a series of anti-big-business stunts, from leaking sewage into the aisles of a newly opened Wal-Mart, to the friendly hijacking of a Coors truck to empty its contents and replace them with much more delicious (and expensive) local Vermont beer.

The gang is hunted as a terrorist cell, and must escape capture through the help of plucky senior citizens, cross-country ski skills and bumbling security subcontractors. All the while, Barclay becomes a voice for a secessionist movement that appears to be gaining ground in the Green Mountain State.

The story takes place in a fictionalized future, but one that seems very close to the present (Rex Tillerson is referenced as secretary of state). The plot is engaging, original and tenderly written.

The most eloquent and fun-to-read scenes are those on cross-country skis, and are a uniquely deserving depiction of a sport that is typically butchered by Olympic commentators who refer to it as some kind of frozen running marathon, or the inexplicable legacy of Scandinavian Viking toughness.

As a native to northern New England and, like McKibben, an avid cross-country skier, I can say that McKibben nails his characterization of the quiet beauty in a sport that is much more accessible, strenuous and meditative than its downhill cousin, which has largely turned into a country-club activity for well-heeled thrill seekers.

He also captures the banal melancholy of a 45-degree rainstorm in the middle of a Vermont winter, which carries none of the destruction of a coastal super-hurricane, but the same ominous warnings of mounting climate catastrophe.

McKIBBEN'S NOVEL is a kind of folksy Monkey Wrench Gang, but the target of the heroes of Radio Free Vermont is more abstract than in Edward Abbey's classic. McKibben's villain seems to be "bigness," whether that take the form of big business or it's promoters in big government bureaucracy.

If there is a thesis to this story, it is that "smallness" ought to be both a means and an end--resistance should be small and local, and the future that this resistance should be pointing towards is one of local government control, local producers and small businesses.

In the final author's note, McKibben himself is less specific than this, stating, "An advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end. In this case, it's not 'We should all secede.' Instead, it's that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster."

McKibben should certainly not be faulted for advocating imagination and creativity. Indeed, imagination is an essential element of any kind of progressive or revolutionary political struggle, and is an element that is desperately lacking from American political life.

Given McKibben's stature, though, the product of his imagination deserves a degree of interrogation. The fable clearly does have a certain political message that goes beyond merely saying we should resist with creativity.

The novel's idealization of smallness contains in it a persistent nostalgia for an earlier time in Vermont. There is a persistent sense in the novel that Vermont's modern problems come from the outside world, which upset a local culture and economy that was at one point, and could again become, untarnished.

This yearned-for past, though, appears more as a Normal Rockwell painting of Vermont than a rigorous historical picture.

In this imagined Vermont of years past, neighbors are quiet but friendly and accepting, cows are milked by a gruff but gentle barrel-chested farm boy with a flannel shirt and suspenders, and politics is dealt with at town meetings, where the community gets together to eat baked beans and vote for a bond to fund a bridge repair.

While there are certainly elements of truth to this, it is a misleadingly tranquil picture of a bygone Vermont. Vermont has its own antagonistic social history, which can hardly be dismissed as the result of outside forces pressing in.

VERMONT'S FIRST strike occurred in 1846, and was not the last labor dispute in the state to be labeled a "war." When immigrant railroad workers near the town of Bolton were fed up with waiting months to be paid for their work, they took a manager of Vermont Central Railroad hostage.

It was not federal forces that crushed their strike, but local militia and deputized fire fighters. In nearby Barre in 1886, granite workers in the large local quarry formed one of the first unions in the American Federation of Labor.

Many of the workers, immigrants from Italy, Scotland and elsewhere, were militant socialists and anarchists, and waged repeated battles against poor and unsafe working conditions. Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood all visited and spoke in Barre.

In addition to a long history of labor struggle, Vermont has a vicious history of racism as well. The University of Vermont was a prominent site of eugenics "research" and advocacy at the beginning of the 20th century, led by Professor Henry F. Perkins, whose work led to the 1931 Vermont legislation, "A Law for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization."

The Vermont eugenicists believed the state's demographics were a threat to its character, and objected to the presence of Catholic immigrants from Quebec, Ireland and Italy, Jewish immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and the native Abenaki population.

The state's forests that McKibben frequently references were preserved in part by early efforts by the Green Mountain Club, which began as a deeply racist and anti-Semitic organization, and had a rather fascistic view of hiking and nature as a cornerstone of a pure and Protestant Vermont.

The Green Mountain Club is far removed from these troubling roots, and McKibben does not, of course, endorse in any way this ugly history of eugenics. The issue, though, is that McKibben portrays Vermont's current problems as the result of the outside world of Starbucks and Wal-Mart creeping in, rather than something endemic in some form to a state founded as part of a colonial empire.

This willful forgetting is an essential component of a political perspective that calls for smallness and independence: without a highly idealized view of the long-gone world of smaller business and local government control, there is no sense in arguing that this should be our goal for the future.

In addition to this historical myopia, the actual mechanisms by which small business and small politics is supposed to fix the various problems facing the world are quite unclear.

Why, exactly, would an independent Vermont be necessarily insulated from the forces of global capitalism, whether manifesting in the impact of sinking milk prices on small dairies, or the consolidation of retail into big box stores and online mega-corporations?

How would an independent Vermont help lead to solving skyrocketing inequality, racist policing, or military imperialism? How could small action in small places ever really address the issue at the heart of McKibben's life work--the climate crisis?

CLASS, RACE gender, and oppression are largely missing from this politics – either in terms of their place in a struggle for liberation or their reality in a post-secessionist Vermont. As Ron Charles writes in his review for The Washington Post about Vermont secessionism:

There's something irreducibly naive about his cause...Sure, it feels righteous to celebrate the quality of domestic wool and to lament the closing of the corner drugstore, but local control is just as likely to subject people to misogynist health-care rules, discriminatory policing and mythological science classes.

Radio Free Vermont leaves its mark as something of a head-scratcher. While it injects imagination, quirk and humor into a political discourse that is overwhelmingly dark, somber and constrained, in doing so, it reveals the real organizational and ideological trouble at the heart of liberalism today.

Liberals are looking toward a Democratic Party that is seemingly incapable of presenting either a compelling positive vision for the future or a realistic program for achieving that vision. It is not surprising, then, that from this context, the imagination and creativity of McKibben results in a novel that is politically ambiguous and rests on a rosy and ahistorical view of the past.

The novel's story and themes also seem out of touch with the most inspiring movements right now. In Vermont, the most dynamic social struggle of recent years has been the courageous campaign of migrant workers, many without documents, in the state's dairy industry for increased pay and safer working conditions.

This is in sync with a national left that appears increasingly internationalist and intersectional, as one can see from the constellation of movements that have erupted in the last several years--from #BlackLivesMatter, to the airport protests against the Muslim ban, to the Women's March and #MeToo movement.

Hopefully, the seriousness of the Trump presidency and the growing influence of the socialist left will lead to more "fables of resistance"--but with a sharper vision for where we need to go and how ordinary people can build a path for us to get there.

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