Dec 15, 2009

Bill McKibben: Extravagant Emotional Excess

A few weeks ago I read Bill McKibben's 1989 book, The End of Nature. It's considered the first mainstream book on global warming and is, one presumes, part of the reason McKibben is a revered environmental guru.

I discuss that book in this blog post (see the section appearing in navy-colored text, midway through). What surprised me, as a newcomer to McKibben's work, is how utterly emotional his arguments are. Yes, he cites scientists and their research, but the book is first and foremost a philosophical/spiritual/highly emotive treatise. As I observed in my earlier post:
McKibben talks incessantly about his feelings of "sadness." In one paragraph, he uses that word four times (see pages 60, 68, 72, 73, 74, 160, 162). He also tells us about his other emotional responses to environmental questions:
  • grief (p.73)
  • loneliness (76, 144)
  • fretfulness (86)
  • fear, panic and nervousness (89, 175)
  • revulsion (147)
  • depression (182)
(The page numbers refer to the 2006 US paperback edition.)

There's a reason the term "cheap emotionalism" came into being. It's used by people who try to manipulate - rather than rationally persuade. And although it works well on teenaged girls, most grownups are less than impressed by it.

Smart, thoughtful people value dispassionate investigation, careful and systematic analysis, and logical arguments. But McKibben seems to think we should listen to him because he cares. Because he cries.

Yesterday he authored a guest blog while attending the Copenhagen climate conference. It appeared on a website associated with the Center for American Progress. (Actually, it's a reprint from the Mother Jones website, dated the day before - which makes this worse. Not one, but two separate publications judged this missive worthy of their readers' limited attention.)

I don't mean to be unkind, but this post is embarrassing. Second paragraph, first line:
"This afternoon I sobbed for an hour, and I’m still choking a little."
Third paragraph, first line (about a church service he attended):
"But my tears started before anyone said a word."
Fifth paragraph, first line:
"I cried all the harder a few minutes later when the great cathedral bell began slowly tolling..."
Sixth paragraph, first line:
"And these tears were now sweet as well as bitter..."
The eighth (and final) paragraph mentions his tears in its first sentence, too.

Bill, hon, it's time to pull yourself together. Take a vacation - maybe even some medication. And please stop imagining that your tears have the power to change the mind of anyone with a working brain.