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The Perfectionist

Nature and the morality of family size.

Maybe One:

A Personal and Environmental

Argument for Single-Child Families

By Bill McKibben

(Simon an Schuster, 254 pp., $23)

This is an auspicious time for shallowness. Seriousness—and moral seriousness especially—is so rare these days that we are inclined to cut all sorts of slack for those who seem to possess it. The appearance of hard thinking is increasingly mistaken for the thing itself. Attitudes more and more do the work of arguments. Sincerity, solemnity, sanctimony: these are now the marks of moral and intellectual elevation; and the feeling of elevation is what matters. After all, logical and empirical rigor are so unedifying. And there is already so much cynicism loose in the land.

This is an auspicious time, therefore, for a moralist such as Bill McKibben. He seems like such fine and edifying company. He cares so much. Never mind that he may strike us as a bit precious, a bit self-regarding in his various renunciations and refusals. We all know people a little like him, and we are timid about criticizing them, too. We all have friends or relatives who periodically declare that Christmas or Hanukah have become too commercialized (who, in the materialist madness of boom-time America, would deny it?), and therefore they will be boycotting the holidays, which is to say, not giving us any presents. (The adherents of Voluntary Simplicity, a diffuse movement of affluent Americans who have decided that they can live better by buying less and band together on the Internet for self-congratulatory chats about the frisson of frugality, like to call this "non-gifting.") And we have all met the sort of people who will announce that the world is already overloaded with the human pollutants otherwise known as children, and so they have made the decision not to reproduce.

Privately, we may wonder whether these are the fight sacrifices, or even whether, for these particular people, they are sacrifices at all. We may wonder whether a 3,000-page Web site devoted to Voluntary Simplicity, or a series of best-selling books on the same topic (all duly promoted by multicity author tours, point-of-purchase displays, and the like) quite embody the Shaker-like humility to which their votaries lay claim. We may ask whether the very notion of voluntary simplicity is itself an expression of overrefinement, as inseparable from advanced consumerist civilization as, say, the ideal of a pristine wilderness is from the culture that dreamed it up. We may even wonder—privately, again, when the effect of all that earnestness has worn off—whether some of the non-gifters or the nonbreeders might be thought of as, well, cheap or selfish. ("I got caught up in the 'remember when' of being disappointed by others and I decided to be very limited as to giving," confided one non-gifting Internet chatterer. "I splurged on a gift for my granddaughter, asked my parents to share the cost, which they did, and observed that when opened, there was a temper-tantrum from my three-year-old granddaughter.")

But since this skepticism may strike us as we wander the aisles of Toys R Us, feeling free-handed and maybe a little guilty, we probably won't admit to it out loud. I mean, we're the problem, aren't we? And so a set of ideas about what constitutes the virtuous life will escape the scrutiny that it deserves. It's not as if panting consumerism or the environmental implications of population growth are trivial topics. Quite the contrary. So we may be inclined to say of anyone who speaks dourly enough of these topics, bless their delicate, prickly, abstemious souls, and their gifts in our name to charities of their choice, and their deeply committed childlessness. Let them do as they please. All that we ask is that they don't start holding themselves up as models for the rest of us.

EXCEPT THAT SO often that's just what they do. Consider Bill McKibben. He began his writing career a decade ago as a nature-loving journalist who chronicled environmental depredation, and that is what he still does. With each of his books--he has written four and a fifth is on the way--McKibben's tone has become less reportorial and more personal, less analytical and more homiletical. It's as though John Muir had clambered down Half Dome to sit at the feet of Robert Fulghum.

McKibben's first book, The End of Nature (1989), was the first general interest work to explain the threat of global climate change, and it did so with clarity and conviction. Still, it had its McKibbenish flaws, One could argue, along with some other students of the subject, that The End of Nature was marred by its embrace of the sort of eco-dualism in which the human and the natural are seen as utterly separate and inevitably at odds. Nature is dead and man is the perp, for any and all manipulation of the natural world is a violation of its essence. (Never mind that conservation itself is a manipulation of nature.) Thus, in a trenchant essay called "The Trouble with Wilderness," the historian William Cronon has written rather witheringly that the McKibbenish perspective is possible

only if we accept the wilderness premise that nature, to be natural, must aim be pristine—remote from humanity, and untouched by our common past. In fact, everything we know about environmental history suggests that people have been manipulating the natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing. Moreover, we also have unassailable evidence that many of the environmental changes we now face also occurred quite apart from human intervention at one time or another in the earth's past. The point is not that our current problems are trivial, or that our devastating effects on the earth's ecosystems should be accepted as inevitable or "natural." It is rather that we seem unlikely to make progress in solving these problems if we hold up to ourselves as the mirror of nature a wilderness we ourselves cannot inhabit. To do so is merely to take to a logical extreme the paradox that was built into wilderness from the beginning: if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.

These are serious objections. The point is not only that an overly pious view of nature can actually inspire a debilitating fatalism about the prospects for preserving it. Cronon's criticism suggests a more far-reaching problem: the sort of thinking in which a theological awe of nature is supposed to furnish a basis for human ethics. Such thinking is now widespread; but humanist philosophers have been warning against this fallacy at least since Mill, and with good reason. For there is nothing moral in nature—nothing, that is, that we have not ascribed to it.

There is beauty in nature, beauty unbounded, but there is no justice and there is no mercy. "Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills," Mill wrote in his great essay on nature, "torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider at all what nature does, but what it is good to do." The urge to restore nature, to undo the damage that humans have done to the environment, is itself an impulse of culture. It is a supremely civilized—which is to say, a supremely unnatural—urge.

ITS PHILOSOPHICAL FALLACY notwithstanding, The End of Nature was full of useful information. It was also pretty free of the exemplary presence of its author. The same, alas, cannot be said of McKibben's more recent writings. Increasingly the subject of Bill McKibben's books has been the rightness of the chokes, made by Bill McKibben. In The Age of Missing Information. he found that he had been right to abstain from television. Up in the Adirondacks, in that patch of primeval neo-wilderness to which McKibben and his wife had retreated, the reception was lousy; but after watching thousands of hours of randomly taped TV broadcasts mailed to him by more corruptible friends with cable, McKibben was able to reassure himself that he wasn't missing a thing.

It was an ordeal, of course; not even the moldiest couch potato takes in eighteen hours a day of television. Yet the experiment paid off, insofar as it allowed McKibben the satisfaction of confirming what he knew all along. "What keeps me more truly in touch with the world," he asked rhetorically, "watching all this TV, or taking a simple walk in the woods?" To which his reader might reply with a question of her own: By what artificial dichotomy must television and nature, information and contemplation, technology and spirituality, cancel one another out? It was only McKibben who was asking us to choose.

In Hundred Dollar Holiday, another manual of moral improvement that Simon and Schuster has announced for next winter, McKibben appears to discover that he is also right to spend less money at Christmas, and that the rest of us ought to follow his antimaterialist example. As the publisher's catalog explains, "a more satisfying and meaningful Yule could be had by making it, financially, at least, a far more modest affair." Now there's a revelation suitable for needle-pointing. If there is anyone out there to whom this hoary platitude has not yet occurred, there is surely no book in the world that will enlighten him.

I would like to know, though, what McKibben has to say about the jobs that would be lost—starting with minimum-wage retail positions—if all of the privileged Americans at whom his exhortations are directed quit throwing their money around at Christmas. There is something so privileged about such renunciations of privilege. And the same question may be posed more generally to McKibben's kindred spirits in the Voluntary Simplicity movement. Disdain the market all you like, but we cannot all live by bartering our lightly used Armani and growing our own arugula.

THE MOST EGREGIOUS of McKibben's sermons, though, is certainly his current one. In Maybe One, McKibben concludes that he and his wife were right to stop with just one child, and that the rest of us ought to do the same. The next fifty years "will be crucial to our planet's future," he writes. "[T]hey are the years that could so devastate the earth's biology that it will never again be able to support life as abundantly as it does at present." The best way McKibben now sees for us to limit the damage that humans wreak on the planet is to make the only child a "cultural norm."

In its broad outlines, McKibben's neo-Malthusianism is nothing new. What distinguishes him from other population doomsayers is his yuppieish determination to see moral virtue and the opportunity for self-betterment where they see only stark, terrible necessity. Saving the earth isn't enough? Apparently not. McKibben wants to convince us not only that one-child families are environmentally sound, but also that they are psychologically enriching—superior, in certain important ways, to the messier constellations of bigger families.

The "real reason" he did the research for this book, McKibben explains, bore no relation to the planet. "I did it because of Sophie, my four-year-old daughter. I wanted to make sure that growing up without brothers or sisters would not damage her spirit or her mind. That's why the first chapters of this book have nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with kids." As a preamble to a manifesto of sorts, this is rather bizarre. For if the population crisis is as grave as McKibben portrays it, then the psychological niceties of the singleton status are irrelevant, And if it is not as grave as he portrays it, then why get into the business of defining a politically correct family size at all? Why try to dictate for others what is, or ought to be, a fiercely intimate choice?

To his credit, McKibben asks himself these questions, too. He agonizes that he and his wife did not make the deep ecological decision to forgo children altogether. "What eventually made up our minds was largely simple desire; like most, though certainly not all, people we felt some need deeper than deep to raise and nurture a child. Anything else may simply be justification." He offers the acknowledgement (it is a little stiff, but at least it is there) that "this book may not persuade most readers to limit themselves to one child—there are many deep factors involved in that decision." And he returns again and again to the idea that we are living in a "special moment," a fifty-year moment of truth during which we can open up more of a margin for environmental error and experimentation if we in affluent America have fewer children.

Of course, the attentive reader will recall that in affluent America we already have fewer children, fewer than we used to have and fewer than our counterparts have in the developing world. The fertility rate in the United States first sank below what demographers call the replacement level—roughly 2.1 children per woman—in 1973. Since then, the American birth rate has risen slowly back to replacement levels, but this is a minor increase in comparison to the soaring fertility rates of the late nineteenth century and the more recent baby-boom period. “Few demographers would forecast either a resurgence of fertility equivalent to the baby boom of 1940-1957," the demographers Douglas Anderton, Richard Barrett, and Donald Bogue write in The Population of the United States, "or a dramatic fall in fertility to below the replacement level in the near future. Instead, the likely prospect seems to be small ripples in a plateau hovering either just below or at the replacement level."

THE REASONS FOR this are fairly clear, and they hinge on the changing role of women. Generally speaking, the more women work outside the home, and the higher the professional status they achieve, the more likely they are to postpone childbearing and the fewer children they are likely to have. (High divorce rates in the United States probably also contribute to lower birth rates.) The reality, then, is that most of us already live in smaller families. As Anderton, Barrett, and Bogue put it, "Only 10 percent of married-couple families contained 3 or more children in 1992.… The trend since 1980 is towards an increase in childless families and a reduction in large numbers of children present in families."

Today, roughly one in four American families has just one child, compared to one in ten in the 1950s. And if you want to measure this new fertility regime in terms of attitudes rather than numbers, you can do that, too. Twenty-three times in the last 60 years, the Gallup Poll has asked Americans for their opinion about the ideal size of a family. In 1938, 66 percent of those polled said three or more children in a family was ideal. In 1962—the last hiccup of the baby boom—an astonishing 80 percent did. In 1997, just 36 percent of those polled thought three or more kids would be swell.

There is a population problem of sorts in the United States, but it is not one that can be conceived of in McKibben's terms, as a problem of human bulk. The answer to this population problem, moreover, is not a general thinning of the herd. Our problem is that half of all the pregnancies in the United States are unintended; and so the children who result from these pregnancies (about half of them come to term) are probably less likely to get the love and the care they need than children who are planned. "When people are born whose parents don't want them," as the demographer Joel Cohen succinctly observes, "there is definitely a population problem."

THESE UNINTENDED PREGNANCIES are more common than average among the young and among the poor. Yet impoverished teenagers are not the group most likely to read McKibben's book, or to make decisions about their lives on the basis of abstract arguments about global climate change. And among his likely readers—the college-educated, the eco-savvy—what McKibben calls the "taboo" on one-child families has long since broken down. Only children are more common than they used to be, especially in the higher income brackets; and the advice-giving apparatus that attends modern parenthood has caught up with this reality.

It is not at all unusual to flip through magazines aimed at striving parents and find an article such as "Only Kids Aren't Lonely … and other Reassuring Research for Parents of One Child" (Parents magazine). Popular how-to books such as What to Expect in the Toddler Years tell parents that "children aren't like potato chips; you can stop at just one, if you want to." (The authors go on to tout research showing that "only children performed better academically than children with siblings, and were strongly represented among the population of highly successful people.") So McKibben is really preaching to the converted.

But he is ready with an answer. It is true that affluent First Worlders do not drop big litters, but it is also true that affluent First Worlders suck up more resources. One kid in Larchmont is more of a drag on Mother Nature than six kids in Lahore. We tromp on the earth, while others are obliged (by grinding poverty, it must he said, rather than by Earth Firstism) to tiptoe. They are woodland sprites; we are teletubbies. As McKibben unflatteringly puts it, "The richest tenth of Americans—the people most likely to be reading this book—each emit eleven tons of carbon annually.… My daughter, age four at the time of this writing, has already used more stuff, added more waste to the environment than most of the world's residents in a lifetime."

What a costly little girl! But if this is the problem, then surely the solution lies in renewed attempts at conservation—recycling, fuel efficiency, solar energy and other corrections yet to come. On this point, however, it turns out that McKibben has become something of a fatalist. All those changes in lifestyle and technology happen too slowly to make a difference, he believes. Worse, they may not happen at all. We are naive to keep putting our faith in them: "You'd think offhand that compared to changing fertility—the number of kids we bear—changing consumption patterns would be a breeze," he writes. "Fertility, after all, seems biological—hard-wired into us in deep Darwinian ways. But in fact, I would guess that it's easier to change fertility than lifestyle. For better or for worse, we live in a culture that can say 'that's enough' in regard to children at least as easily as it can regarding cars."

"It's easier to change fertility than lifestyle": a purer expression of the yuppie view of the world was never uttered. And if this is so, if it is really true that we would sooner interfere with our commitment to children than with our taste in cars, then surely this is for the worse—so much for the worse, in fact, that we ought not to resign ourselves to it. There is something deeply dispiriting about McKibben's straitened sense of what is possible. For the yearning to have children, and the having of children and the caring for them, are part of what make us believe in the continuity of life, and gives us hope in a future; part of what frees us from the bonds of self; part of what ties us to this earth and to everyone else on it. More than work, more than nature, more even than God, children are what confer meaning on the lives of most people around the world. Before we surrender all this—and restricting yourself to one child when you long for more children and you firmly believe that a family is properly comprised of sisters and brothers is a surrender—why not try to make the kind of changes that do not violate something so fundamental?

McKibben's homey moralism disguises the fact that he has surprisingly little confidence in moral agency. If moral agency were enough, then he would not have had a vasectomy, which is, after all, an anatomical fix intended to vanquish forever the temptation, if it is one, to procreate. Yet McKibben describes his vasectomy proudly, and alas, in some detail: "So I sat on the table, and pulled my pants down my ankles, and he swabbed my scrotum with iodine ('the iodine needs to be a little warm—the last thing we want is shrinkage before we start') and then he injected a slug of anesthetic into each side of my testicles. Yes, it was a needle down there, but no, it didn't hurt much; by chance I'd spent the previous afternoon in the dentist's chair and this was much less painful. (And no flossing!)" I suppose it was noble of McKibben to go for the operation himself; vasectomies are less invasive than tubal ligations, the procedure that his wife would have had to endure to achieve the same end. (Women generally do most of the worrying about birth control.) Noble, and no flossing!

MCKIBBEN WANTS TO persuade his readers that there would be no real loss entailed in making one-child families the norm. For him, this means first and foremost overcoming what he calls, a bit melodramatically, the "prejudice" against only children. And this in turn means assembling recent psychological research showing that singletons grow up to be no more spoiled or selfish or lonely or misanthropic than children with siblings.

To do so, McKibben relies on the work of a psychologist named Toni Falbo who, along with her colleague Denise Polit, reviewed 141 studies on the personalities, the peer relations, the intelligence, and the achievement of only children. They concluded that only children scored slightly higher than other groups on some measures, especially those having to do with achievement and motivation in school. In almost all other areas, they were virtually indistinguishable from children with siblings.

In a way, this conclusion is not surprising: or what is surprising is how easy it is to assimilate. For if there is a prejudice against only children, it is not the sort of prejudice that slams doors in their faces or girds anyone's heart against them. It is more like the notion that redheads have tempers: you may vaguely believe it, but you are happy enough to have it overturned. I am certainly content to accept Falbo's findings, and to credit the obvious explanations that only children might do better in school on average because they get more of their parents' attention and because they live in households in which adults set the tone. It is clear, too, that if only children risk growing up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, they risk it less now than ever, since so many more kids of all kinds are in day care at early ages.

Alas, McKibben does not stop with such sensible reassurances about onlies. He crows over their achievements—“disproportionate numbers of only borns have had their faces on the cover of Time"—even when he slyly admits that such evidence is anecdotal. (The cover of Time is not supposed to matter in the woods.) Worse, McKibben's spirited defense of singletons leads him to pathologize the sibling relationship, which he portrays as a teeming petri dish of resentments. "[A]s more children enter the family, there's a dilution of resources," he writes "Everyone tries to give their second, third, and fourth child as much of their attention as their first, but there are only so many hours in the day, only so much stress a father can tolerate, only so many Frisbees a mother can throw."

This sounds true, and it probably feels true, to many parents; but it cannot actually be true that younger siblings get consistently less attention from their parents. If it were, then psychological woes of all kinds would be more liberally distributed among younger siblings than among older ones. Anyway, the particular size of the family matters. In a family of eight children, somebody probably will be overlooked, but there is no reason why this should necessarily be the case in a family of two or three children.

Of sibling rivalry, McKibben notes bathetically that "sometimes the hurts go on forever: Bank and Kahn [the authors of a book called The Sibling Bond] tell the story of a chronically unhappy older sister who feels perpetually anxious and driven and cannot understand why she and her sister still don't get along." And when sibs form especially strong ties, he says, it is usually only to compensate for a lousy relationship with their parents. "Your sister can be, in other words, a kind of fallback mechanism, a relationship of last resort." This seems to me a rather bleak and attenuated way to describe what for many people is a vital and joyous and irreplaceable bond. It is always hard to generalize about such things, and it is certainly true that siblings can form powerful trauma bonds if they come from families where their parents abused or neglected them; but my own experience has taught me that remarkably close relationships between brothers and sisters can and do flourish under happier circumstances. (Even if you like and love your parents, they are still a source of bafflement, and who besides your sister or your brother will try, with a curiosity like your own, to figure them out with you?)

The pitfalls of sibling relationships--jealousy, competition, the anxiety that one loves more than one is loved, the eventuality, that your cute new cardigan will be pilfered from your closet--are to some extent the pitfalls of attachment to others. They are nothing worse than the cost of loving. And when McKibben goes on to cite the incidence of sibling incest ("[S]ometimes the hurts are very deep. Sibling incest has been estimated to be at least five times as frequent as parent-child incest, and many researchers think that's an underestimate"), presumably as a way of saying that sibling relationships are more trouble than they're worth, he loses me entirely.

ANYWAY, ANSWERING FOR the psychological health of only children does not exhaust the argument about the morality of a one-child norm. This is grimly clear in McKibben's chapter on China, "the nation with the world's largest population of only children, as well as the source of some of the most potent images of their wickedness." If all those number-one sons are not "spoiled," whatever that means, then we can charge ahead with a commitment to having tiny litters, free of the worry that a preponderance of onlies might change our culture for the worse. And what do you know, the useful Toni Falbo has done a study in China, too; and she has found, again, that onlies are pretty much like everybody else. The Chinese are not producing a generation of "little emperors," after all!

In fact, it is hard to consider Falbo's study definitive proof of anything, given what one imagines the cultural barriers might be between an American social scientist brandishing questionnaires about self-esteem and a population of provincial Chinese children for whom onlyness is already the norm. More importantly, a study such as this one misses what would seem to be the more urgent point about China's population regime. The real trouble with China's one-child policy is not that it may result in the cossetting of some boys, but that it has apparently resulted in the abandonment or the infanticide of many girls. The distortion of morality that results when a heavy-handed state intrudes on the private sphere is what matters here. McKibben's Chinese example is grotesque.

Not that McKibben wants a state policy mandating one child per family. He takes some pains to make this clear. No, he wants only to appeal to our higher selves, to the saint in us that will forsake our deepest and in some ways our most generous longings in order to do the right thing—or what McKibben thinks is the right thing—for the planet. Yet there is something anti-humanistic in such a message, something morally troubling about demanding such extraordinary commitments of ordinary people as a matter of course. For it really is extraordinary to give up one's idea of a family on the chance that we may emit a little less carbon dioxide, to deny parents the hope that their children will enrich one another's lives tong after they themselves are dead, and to turn a primary human bond into a relic. Surely this is too much to ask—unless, of course, there is an emergency, and it may be claimed with some certainty that we are facing an extraordinary population crisis.

Are we? Maybe. The pace of world population growth has certainly accelerated dramatically in the last century, so dramatically that we cannot know what impact it will have on the earth or the quality of human life. It took until 1830 for the earth's population to get to 1 billion, but it took only one hundred years for it to reach 2 billion and only 45 years for it to reach 4 billion. On the other hand, the rate of global population growth hit a peak in 1965 and has now fallen to 1.5 percent a year. The total fertility rate worldwide dropped by nearly two-fifths between 1955 and 1995; from about 5 children per woman to about 3.1 children per woman. In one scenario, advanced by a respected Austrian demographer named Wolfgang Lutz and endorsed by others, the world's population will peak at 10.6 billion in the later haft of the next century and then begin to shrink. A number of leading demographers now dispute the global doomsday scenario, and some of them are worrying about a population implosion.

THE PARADOX FOR environmentalists such as McKibben is that these numbers are falling largely as the result of social and economic development in the Third World—that is, as a result of the sort of development that means more cars, more factories, more pollution, more living heavily on the land. McKibben himself is a bit coy about this: "It's relatively easy to explain why populations grew so fast after World War II, it's much harder to explain why that growth is now slowing." But that isn't exactly true. A strong scholarly consensus supports the observation that economic and social development—in Europe and America as they industrialized, and more recently in Asia—have tended to bring reductions in family size.

Development, and an improvement in the status of women, has been generally more successful than coercion or exhortation in reducing fertility. In a way, this is not a mystery. People have fewer children, Amartya Sen writes, "when they have some basic education, know about family planning methods and have access to them, do not readily accept a life of persistent drudgery, and are not deeply anxious about their economic security." They also have fewer children when health care and sanitary conditions improve to the point that babies no longer die quite so regularly: if parents can count on more of their children surviving, they need not have "extras" as an insurance policy against infant mortality. "In country after country," Sen observes, "the birth rate has come down with more female education, the reduction of mortality rates, the expansion of economic means and security, and greater public discussion of ways of living." Sen points out that we cannot even say with certainty that China's one-child policy lowered" the birth rate any further than it would have been lowered by development alone.

McKibben is right when he says that population prediction is a notoriously unreliable business. Yet the ambiguity can cut both ways--and in the past it has cut most often against pessimists such as himself. From Malthus onward, the field is littered with failed forecasts of demographic armageddon, most of them based on the idea that population will inevitably outstrip food supply. In 1968, in his bestselling book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich thundered that "the battle to feed humanity is already lost, in the sense that we will not be able to prevent large-scale famines in the next century." In that same year, an equally popular and even scarier book called Famine-1975! predicted mass hunger worldwide in less than decade, Doom galore; but the fact is that food production has consistently outpaced population since Malthus's time, and in recent decades food prices worldwide have been falling.

Of course, even if the demographic Cassandras have been wrong in the past, they may be right now. And even if they were wrong about food supply, they may be right about the threat to the environment. The trouble is that we really don't know how many people is too many people. Estimates of the earth's "carrying capacity," or the number of humans it can sustain, have ranged in recent decades from fewer than a billion to more than a trillion. Such elasticity is probably unavoidable, since both "carrying capacity" and "overpopulation" are essentially subjective terms.

It makes sense to talk about carrying capacity when you are assessing a habitat for boll weevils or wolves; but it makes no sense at all in relation to humans, who are capable of adapting and altering both their culture and their physical environment, and so of defying almost any formula that might settle the matter. (Also they vary from nation to nation and culture to culture in their use of resources.) The number of people that the earth can support depends on how we on the earth want to live, on what we want to consume and on what we regard as a crowd. Population density is not an adequate measure, since we can easily point to densely packed cities (Amsterdam, Tokyo) that are considered among the most functional and livable cities in the world.

For some environmentalists, it seems to come down to an aesthetic judgement. They like the idea of what Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!, calls the "Big Outside." They are suckers for grandeur, snobs for solitude. McKibben typically complains that there are crowds at every national park and state campground. (Every one? Two summers ago, on a road trip from San Francisco to Bend, Oregon, I stopped in several national forests and campgrounds where I scarcely saw a another soul.) And he regards this overcrowding as a spiritual danger. "We can live without big wilderness," he frets, "but it's not clear we can live as Americans, not in the way we have in the past." We must be singletons in the face of the sublime, too.

BUT DO WE really wish to continue to "live as Americans" in this regard? Surely it would be best for the environment if Americans stopped thinking of nature in a certain American way, that is, if we ceased to regard nature as the antidote to culture, as a people-free zone where some of us go to flex our muscles and save our souls. Maybe it would better if we gave up our Ansel Adams fantasy of unsullied nature, so that if it isn't sublime, well, we might as well turn it into a strip mall. The choice between arcadia and Monsanto is a spurious choice. For it is a primary fact of our history that the wild and the cultivated have blended together more or less successfully, if not altogether seamlessly. The human mastery of nature is hardly an occasion for shame; and it is hardly incompatible with a sense of awe.

Indeed, it is McKibben's proposal that marks a collapse of awe. This critic of the liberties taken with nature takes liberties with nature. He is licensed by perfectionism. Like all perfectionists about human life, however, McKibben seems unattractively detached from it. His consecration to the ideal has caused him to demean the real—the real existence of ordinary people, who love their children and do not hate the rain forest, who strive to live morally on this side of sainthood. McKibben puts me in mind of Orwell's strictures against Gandhi: "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.… In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that 'nonattachment' is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings."

McKibben is the yuppie yogi. He is irritating not only because he is so wrong, but also because he is so sanctimonious. And his sanctimony has nothing to do with the truth or the falsity of his beliefs. After all, one may hold a true belief and not be sanctimonious. Sanctimony is something more. It is the promotion of a belief into a judgment of those who hold or do not hold that belief. In this way, the distinction between rightness and righteousness disappears. Yet the distinction should be reasserted against McKibben. He is righteous, but not right. It is delightful to be a worse person than he is. 

This article originally ran in the July 20, 1998 issue of the magazine.