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    Bill McKibben on resisting ‘small men doing big and stupid things’

    Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben
    Corey Hendrickson for the Boston Globe
    Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben

    MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Growing up in the historic town of Lexington, Bill McKibben loved stories of the American Revolution. As a teenager, he spent his summers leading tours of the battle green. On the job, he proudly wore a tri-corner hat.

    Four decades later, McKibben is still talking about fighting the good fight. His first book, “The End of Nature,” published in 1989, helped introduce Americans to the concept of climate change, and most of his work since has amounted to one big, distressing warning about the environmental consequences of imperialism and exploitation.

    The message may be dire, but he finds the act of protest to be exhilarating. That’s why he wrote “Radio Free Vermont,” his first novel after more than a dozen nonfiction books about global warming, the loss of community, and how to live “lightly” on the land we’ve inhabited.


    The book, just out and subtitled “A Fable of Resistance,” follows a ragtag band of pranksters who urge their fellow Vermonters to secede from a union that has lost its way. The story, as he writes in an author’s note, is one response to “small men doing big and stupid things.’’ Though McKibben conceived it almost a decade ago, the timing seems right for it now, he says.

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    “The absolute duty of patriots is to be dissenting, to stand up for something,” says McKibben, sitting in his spartan, book-filled office on the campus of Middlebury College, where he teaches. Otherwise, he says with a grin, “you’re what they would’ve called a Loyalist.”

    McKibben is a fan of craft beer and classic soul, and “Radio Free Vermont” is peppered with his favorite things, including the joys of local brewing and the quirks of independent, small-town radio. The book also features “the first cross-country skiing chase in the history of world literature,” the author jokes, “and probably the only one ever needed.” (McKibben is the author of “Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously’’ about competitive cross-country skiing and has served as faculty liaison for Middlebury’s Division 1 Nordic ski team.)

    In fact, the book feels like a relic of the 1970s, when farcical post-hippie novels by Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins jammed the drugstore book racks. McKibben’s three heroes of classic environmental writing are Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and the poet Gary Snyder, and he says he envisioned “Radio Free Vermont” in the spirit of Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

    Simply put, writing it was a fun thing to do, he says, and he’s pleased that the early reviews have been generous.


    “It’s not ‘Anna Karenina,’ I’m well aware,” he says, relishing the chance to think lightly for a change.

    McKibben’s late father, Gordon, was a business journalist who served as a longtime Globe editor. After graduating from Harvard, the younger McKibben worked for five years for The New Yorker, writing (then-anonymous) items for the magazine’s Talk of the Town section. He began to develop some of his ideas about the importance of community-supported business after working on a Village Voice cover story about the fledgling world of microbrewing with his roommate, the future film critic David Edelstein.

    “We liked the taste of the beer a lot,” he recalls, “but it was also the first flowering of this idea that local was better.” He notes with pride that his adopted state of Vermont has the most breweries per capita in the world.

    The guerrilla broadcaster of his new book, an aging radical named Vern Barclay, is based in part on Ken Squier of Vermont’s WDEV, McKibben says. The station, in operation since the 1930s, mixes Red Sox and stock-car racing broadcasts with local news and specialty music programming.

    “Radio has always been a big interest,” says McKibben, who once wrote a long profile of Squier and his station for Harper’s. For his second book, “The Age of Missing Information,” he studied the effects of cable TV on an increasingly fractured (and misinformed) society.


    “One of the best things about it was that it allowed me to get rid of the TV,” he says. “I’d done it its intellectual due.” When his daughter was five, McKibben and his wife were out at a restaurant in the Adirondacks. The place had a TV on above the register, and their daughter was mesmerized. “I’m watching that radio,” she said. Today, Sophie McKibben is working at WGBH, producing the station’s new podcast, “The Frontline Dispatch.’’

    ‘The absolute duty of patriots is to be dissenting, to stand up for something.’

    There’s a small scene in the book in which Vern, walking in the woods, comes across another of McKibben’s favorite things: a healthy pile of moose droppings.

    “[K]nowing that moose had returned to Vermont in his lifetime pleased him enormously,” McKibben writes. “It was the idea that things repaired themselves, that if you backed off a little and didn’t ask too much of the world then it would meet you halfway.”

    Last weekend McKibben’s grass-roots climate movement took part in Pathway to Paris, a concert event at Carnegie Hall to launch an initiative called 1000 Cities, calling for the world’s cities to transition to renewable energy by 2040. Before he spoke (joking that he would provide “the boring part of the evening”), the singer Michael Stipe introduced McKibben as “an environmental hero of mine.”

    For years now, McKibben has insisted that his advocacy for clean energy is better seen as a conservative stance, not progressive or “liberal.”

    “I want a planet that bears some passing resemblance to the one that all human history was enacted on,” he says. “A planet with some ice on either end and the odd coral reef in between. That’s a very conservative set of demands.

    “To my mind, the radicals are the people who work for the oil companies, who get up in the morning maintaining a large fortune by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere. That strikes me as radical and insane.”

    If that’s crazy, then maybe it will take a little crazy in response. Maybe Vermont, with its eccentric radio and ubiquitous brewpubs and its piles of moose droppings, is just the place to start.

    E-mail James Sullivan at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.