Bill McKibben’s great strength as an environmental polemicist is that it’s nearly impossible to read him without liking him. His work, including the best-selling The End of Nature, is characterized by graceful prose, self- deprecating humor, and most of all, reasonableness. These traits can be found in abundance in his most recent environmental cri de coeur, The Age of Missing Information, and while they make you think you’d like to meet the author, they don’t convince you he is right.
McKibben’s book is set up as an essay on the contrast between nature and television — ”the two extremes of information,” as he calls them. His idea was to tape, for later viewing, the 96 stations on the mammoth Fairfax, Va., cable system during a 24-hour period in 1990. During another 24-hour period that year, he hiked a mountain in the Adirondacks. Although McKibben insists that ”I’m not interested in deciding which of these ways of spending time is ‘better,”’ you know from the first sentence that this is not a comparison television is going to win.
Not that it should, necessarily. But are you stunned to learn that television relentlessly and insidiously promotes the most mindless sort of consumerism? I doubt it. As a former child of the tube, McKibben can be engaging about shows like The Brady Bunch, which he describes as a touchstone of the ’70s generation, but he is less charming when he’s out on his beloved * mountain, absorbing the ”information” it imparts.
Thus, late in the afternoon of his day on the mountain, he begins to think about the seasons. In modern society, he laments, ”we ignore the progression of the seasons, the shift not only in hours but in climate.” Then he asks, ”But does this really matter?” His answer is that it matters a lot, but he’s not very good at explaining why. Surely people don’t need seasonal cues the way they did when America was a largely agrarian society, so except in some sentimental sense it’s hard to see the tragedy in the loss of this information.
”It’s not elitist,” McKibben insists of his contrast between television and the mountain, but of course that’s exactly what it is. You can’t help thinking, as McKibben exults in the ”purer” information provided by the natural world, that it’s all a writerly device. Eventually he’s going to have the luxury to come off the mountain, return to his heated home, and write about the experience on his word processor. There is much to be said for his passionate belief that unless society changes its ways the planet is doomed. But in the end, contrasting a day of television and a day in the mountains just doesn’t seem like the right way to say it. B-