Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? - GTEC Reader

[1]Book Review: Bill McKibben (2019), Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Books referred to in this review:

Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (2018) Matt Hern and Am Johal, with Joe Sacco. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge University Press.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. (2016). Naomi Klein. Toronto: Vintage Canada Edition (originally published 2014, Toronto: Knopf Canada). 

Indeed a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Naomi Klein (2016), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, p. 461.


            Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, recipient of the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship, has authored a new book, Falter: Has the Human Game begun to Play Itself Out? McKibben, an environmental activist, prolific author, and co-founder of the environmental organization, 350.org[i], does not focus solely upon the political economy of climate change and global warming. He inquires into a number of social concerns as he ponders the meaning of “the human game” against a backdrop of existential environmental crisis. McKibben proposes, “This is a book about being human…” (p.46) and wonders if the “human game” is evolving irrevocably, once and for all, towards demise.

In this wide-ranging contemplation of the human game and possible future trajectories this game may take, McKibben asks important questions in regards to the meaning(s) we ascribe to our lives and relationships, the stories that give shape to our lives. He asks the reader to imagine other ways of thinking about the human game and of imagining our stories.

The old stories, as Naomi Klein (2016) observed, have failed us. If anything, fifty years on, the negative impact of unrestrained capitalist disregard for the environment, and the proliferation of human induced climate change, have only become worse.

McKibben (2019) and Klein (2016) agree that  climate change and global warming  originated a couple of centuries ago with the Industrial Age, and contemporary capitalism itself can’t be faulted for such beginnings. However, the capitalist obsession with a so-called free market economy[ii],is certainly perpetuating climate change. Noam Chomsky[iii] argues, “Those most responsible for destroying the environment can be curbed by regulatory mechanisms that are in principle available, and should be under democratic control. It’s not just a matter of curbing major polluters. Major structural changes are necessary to deal with what is in fact an existential crisis…”.

Klein writes that, “The challenge, then, is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it’s that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change” (p. 23).

In situating the individualistic philosophy influencing capitalist ideology, McKibben singles out author Ayn Rand as contributing to this ethos. The trajectory of individualism, particularly in North America, has led to and encouraged the rapacious extraction of natural resources from the earth, alongside a supreme disregard for indigenous[iv] persons and communities, workers, and the impoverished. McKibben: “The richest tenth of 1 percent own about as much as the poorest 90 percent combined” (p.86).

Disregard for ecological considerations and a blatant disavowal of the impact of environmental devastation are in evidence around the world. Recently,  Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, within a two-day period, declared a climate emergency, then green lighted the Trans-Mountain pipeline[v], while U.S. President Trump, who has called Ayn Rand’s “…The Fountainhead his favorite book…” (McKibben, p. 93), unilaterally removed the U.S. from implementing the terms of the Paris Climate Accord (cf. McKibben, p.78) and, most recently, the nationalist leader of Brazil denied evidence from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) of a significant increase in logging and deforestation in the Amazon in May and June of this year, remarking, “I am convinced the data is a lie” (Dom Phillips, The Guardian, July 19, 2019).

This past week, in Canada, First Nations leaders meeting at the 40th annual general gathering of the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution citing a “global climate emergency” (CBC News, July 23, 2019). In the words of National Chief Perry Bellegrade, “Mother Earth is saying something. She’s saying, ‘Stop it.’”

As McKibben considers the question as to whether the “human game” is faltering with an imminent end in sight, he, amongst others, insists radical thinking is required in order to move towards a resolution of the current existential crisis threatening human existence.  Despite those who refute[vi] the peril, this is not apocalyptic surmising, this is a pragmatic and practical concern.

Towards the end of his book, McKibben invokes human love as a hopeful trope, reflecting, “Another name for human solidarity is love, and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me… The love that lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing on earth, and makes us okay with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die” (p. 256).

That said, obviously, government commitment at all levels is required to influence and effect sustainability for future generations; while local efforts are valiant and efficacious, a national, and global, strategy and commitment remains imperative. As the Dalai Lama remarked in a different context, compassion is not enough, one must act.

Colin James Sanders, PhD.

Gibsons, British Columbia


[i] Naomi Klein is a board member of 350.org, and read and commented upon McKibben’s book in draft; see Klein’s acknowledgment of him in her own book, p. 528.

[ii] The so-called free market economy ideal ironically often relies heavily upon government to provide tax benefits of various sorts, and, of course, monetary relief and financial bailouts when the market fails, as witnessed with the astounding monetary institution bailouts of 2007. https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikecollins/2015/07/14/the-big-bank-bailout/#1d8796382d83

[iii] See Chomsky interview, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/07/noam-chomsky-interview-climate-change-imperialism

[iv] Klein’s (2016) book offers detailed accounts of the environmental desecration inflicted upon indigenous communities and territories, and also the resistance to such destabilizing and dislocating action. Hern, Johal and Sacco (2018) discuss the imperative of a decolonizing ecology, offering extensive insight into the impact of the Alberta tar sand development upon local indigenous peoples.

[v] https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2019/06/21/Trudeau-Climate-Policy-Inadequate/

[vi]  See this response to a recent op-ed article by a fellow of Vancouver’s The Fraser Institute.

Naomi Klein observes that “A 2013 study by Riley Dunlap and political scientist Peter Jacques found that a striking 72 percent of climate denial books…were linked to right-wing think tanks, a figure that rises to 87 percent if self-published books (increasingly common) are excluded” (p. 38).