Bill McKibben’s new book, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon, takes a critical look at the role of suburbs in the post-war growth of the US. He makes the case that suburbanization was deeply involved in several of the problems we are dealing with today, including racial inequity, the decline of religion, and the climate crisis.

It’s no surprise to find McKibben, a tireless and outspoken environmental advocate, writing about the climate. But his take on other topics, including the central role of suburbs in several of America’s problems, was unexpected.

McKibben’s book is divided into three sections, each representing an important component of his suburban upbringing: The Flag (about patriotism and the concepts of freedom and equality), The Cross (about the role of the church), and The Station Wagon (about suburban mobility).

McKibben was raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. It was also the site of the first gun battle of the American revolution, which led McKibben to learn a lot about the founding principles of the country. As a teenager, he assumed those principles were still at work. It was only many years later that he came to understand how the suburbs (including Lexington) were a central part of the history of white flight from the urban core and restrictions on affordable housing, factors that have resulted in racial inequality to the present day.

In a similar vein, McKibben describes how churches (including the mainline protest denomination he grew up in) have had only limited success in addressing America’s ills. Churches can lead to some extent, and they played an important part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But they have been losing membership for years (even the newer evangelical churches have started shrinking); and ministers can find their position precarious if they stray too far from the predominant thinking of their congregations.

In the book’s final section, McKibben discusses the problems brought on by the car-centric structure of the suburbs. The topics here are the ones I would have expected McKibben to write about, including the debt we owe to those whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed by climate change, which we of the developed world brought about, due mostly to our reckless use of fossil fuels over the past 40 years.

Seniors have an opportunity (and an obligation). In an epilog entitled “People of a Certain Age”, McKibben makes the case that seniors need to get involved in the climate fight, in part because we need to provide a livable world for our children and grandchildren, and in part because it was on our watch that we allowed the climate to deteriorate to its present state.

Here, McKibben is speaking directly to Kendal residents, and others like us. He acknowledges that we may not be able to lead the fight, but we can certainly support it. That’s what his new organization for seniors, Third Act, is all about. In a slightly different sense, it is what the multi-Kendal organization SSAFE (Senior Stewards Acting For the Environment) is all about. It’s important to get involved with organizations like these. Our generation allowed the planet to deteriorate, but it isn’t too late for us to do something about it.