Inspired by his love of the Adirondack Mountains, Bill McKibben was one of the first to raise the alarm about climate change twenty-six years ago, when few realized it might be a threat. Last September, he and fellow activists at 350.org helped to organize the People’s Climate March, which brought 400,000 people to New York City and included 2,600 events in solidarity around the world. McKibben is the author of more than a dozen books, teaches at Middlebury College, and keeps bees.
Plough: You’ve been warning about climate change ever since the 1989 release of your book The End of Nature. For those who haven’t stayed abreast of the latest developments, what’s important to know?
Bill McKibben: This last year we learned that the great West Antarctic ice sheet has begun an irreversible melt; and the waters of our ocean planet are rapidly acidifying. Summer sea ice in the Arctic is largely a thing of the past. When the biggest features on earth are being remade in just a matter of years, that is a bad sign. And of course we can see it close up in the endless siege of extreme weather – drought, flood, storm, and the other phenomena we once called biblical.
Your book Eaarth delivers a heavy dose of apocalyptic warnings; you’ve even described it as “grim.” Can anything good come out of climate change?
Sure. If we build the movement that breaks the power of the fossil fuel industry and allows us to bring renewable energy and efficiency to scale in time, then our future is sweet: local, democratic power available everywhere with little pollution and with none of the gross inequality that comes when a few people own the sand dunes and coal mines that everyone else depends on.
You’ve written that “when people ask me where they should move to be safe from climate change, I always tell them, ‘Any place with a strong community.’” How do we build those places?
Though we pay a lot of lip service to “community,” real community is pretty much the opposite of what we’ve specialized in for the last seventy-five years. We live in the era of hyper-individualism and have taken it to an extreme that no other society has ever managed before. So we know what not to do. For instance, don’t build big houses far apart from each other. Not only do they waste insane amounts of energy, they also make it very difficult to live in the way that human beings always have lived – in close contact with each other.
Anyone who has tried community knows that there are some all-too-human roadblocks to living together. How will we learn the new habits needed for this way of life?
We need to depend on our neighbors for something real. For Americans in the last fifty years, neighbors have been largely optional. For social primates, which humans are, that’s a very weird situation, and ultimately a depressing one. Today the average American has half as many close friends as his counterpart five decades ago. You asked before if there was good news about climate change; I suppose, in one sense, there is. We will need to pull together.
Here at Middlebury College where I teach, I tell the students that college will likely be the only chance they’ll ever get to live as most human beings have always lived: in close physical and emotional proximity to a lot of other people. Of course, sometimes that’s a pain in the butt, but mostly it’s satisfying – after all, plenty of people will say that their college years were the best in their life. The irony, of course, is that the goal of most higher education is to prepare students to earn enough money so that they never have to live that way again. But this isn’t inevitable. There are other possibilities.
In your book Deep Economy, you describe what some of those possibilities might look like, starting with the local grocery store.
Localness is where we are heading. For the past century or two, with cheap fossil fuel as the wind in our sails, we have thrown out ever longer supply lines reaching all over the world. It makes sense to share recipes over the internet; it doesn’t make sense to ship the ingredients halfway around the world when we can grow them here.
The good news is that change is already happening. According to a recent USDA report, the number of farms in America is growing instead of shrinking for the first time in 150 years. Who are these new farmers? Most are young people taking over small farms to grow food for their neighbors.
You’ve pointed out that it’s too late for lifestyle environmentalism – driving a Prius, installing efficient light bulbs – to save earth as we’ve known it. What kind of changes should individuals be making?
We should change our light bulbs – I have, twice, and the new LEDs are great. But I don’t try to fool myself that that’s enough. Global warming is a structural and systemic problem. Until now, we’ve allowed ourselves to pour carbon for free into the atmosphere – to use the heavens as an open sewer. That needs to change. And for real change to happen, the most important thing that we as individuals can do is to stop being individuals for a while, and to join together and organize!
Pushing for Change
In 1971, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book critiquing the then-fledgling environmental movement, provocatively titled In Defense of People. Can green activism distract us from our obligations to people – say, feeding hungry children?
To me it seems the reverse. People fighting climate change are doing it in the company of the poorest people on earth, who realize that their very existence is at stake. And in my experience the same people who pooh-pooh whales and redwoods usually don’t have much sympathy for the victims of injustice either.
What got me passionate about climate change was a trip I made some years ago to Bangladesh. While I was there, they had their first big outbreak of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that is spreading in the developing world because of rising global temperatures. It’s a horrible sickness, with no vaccine or effective medication available – in its most extreme form, it results in internal and external bleeding, and sometimes death.
I was spending a lot of time in the slums, so eventually I got bit by the wrong mosquito and got sick myself, as sick as I’ve ever been. Since my health had been strong beforehand, I didn’t die. But lots of people did, especially children and old people. Standing in that Bangladeshi hospital ward looking at the rows of shivering patients, I knew these people did nothing to deserve this.
Bangladesh has a population of over 150 million, but their contribution to climate change is basically nil – very few of them have cars or electricity. By contrast, the United States has 4 percent of the world’s population, yet we produce 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide.
My point is: fighting climate change is about ensuring that hungry children have something to eat – after all, the people who are being hardest hit are subsistence farmers in developing countries. And it’s about protecting children from dying in human-caused epidemics.
Climate change has become a partisan dividing line between left and right. Does that trouble you?
It’s not a left–right issue; it’s become a money issue. In fact, environmentalists working on climate change are the truest kind of conservatives. I defy you to name a more radical, anticonservative act than changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and just waiting to see what happens – especially once scientists have told you what’s going to happen, and then you see it actually starting to happen. All that environmentalists are saying is, “Can’t we have a world that resembles, at least in some ways, the world that all humans over the last ten thousand years have called home?” That’s not radical; it’s conservative. But money means power, and the fossil-fuel industry is the richest industry on earth.
Still, aren’t we individually also part of the problem?
Look, we are all enmeshed in a fossil-fuel economy. But do you care, when you turn on the light switch, whether your power is coming from a solar panel or a coal mine? The only people who have a strong opinion on this question are people who own coal mines. That’s why they spend hundreds of millions of dollars gaming our political system to make sure that they stay the richest people on the planet.
But this doesn’t mean things can’t change. There were days in summer 2014 when Germany generated 80 percent of its power from the sun. The Germans don’t have much sun, but they do have political will.
The People’s Climate March last September was massive, with indigenous communities, college students, union members, and scientists in white lab coats all marching together. What comes next?
We need to build movements that are themselves a form of community. We have enormous issues to address. In order to address them, we need strong movements of people demanding action.
The most moving Sunday morning I’ve spent in many years was not in a church but in a Washington, DC, jail in 2011, after I was arrested with other marchers in front of the White House. I imagine more of us will need to go to jail before the decade is out.
Readers of your book Oil and Honey know that you love living close to the land, and would rather be beekeeping in Vermont than hotel-hopping around the country. Is the activist life actually – to use a loaded word – sustainable?
No. If everyone was on an airplane all the time trying to build a movement, the carbon would overwhelm us all. That’s why we’ve tried to build 350.org with as few moving parts as possible, a movement that works locally in thousands of places and yet can come together as one when the occasion demands. I’m trying to leave the frequent flyer club – Skype is a blessed invention in my opinion.
Can the battle be won?
I don’t know if we’re going to win – we’ve waited a long time to get started. But I do know we’re going to fight, and that it’s the fight of our time.
What fascinates me about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. is not only the clarity of their moral visions, but also the power of their tactical acumen. These two qualities are not unrelated. Their insight from the Sermon on the Mount – that one heaps coals on the head of one’s adversary when one returns kindness for enmity – is invaluable. It underlay the fall of the British Empire in India and the fall of Jim Crow in the United States.
For Gandhi and King, time was on their side.
That highlights the special challenge of climate change. Unlike past struggles, it’s a timed test – if we don’t change our ways quickly, it won’t matter. In this case, God has given us a blue exam book, and when a certain amount of time has passed, we have to put our pencils down. It reminds me of the great old hymn:
Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light.
In much of life, fortunately, we have multiple chances to decide and redeem ourselves, and the choice does not go by forever. But in the case of climate change, the hymn has it exactly right. If we don’t settle this soon, it will settle us.
That sounds alarmist. Are you calling for a radical change of lifestyle?
Let me answer that in two parts. First, there’s definitely a lack in modern society that leaves us less happy than we might otherwise be, so it’s important to think about other ways of living. Equally important – probably more so – is the fact that we just cannot go on in the way we have been. The temperature of the planet is rising sharply; 2014 was the hottest year on record. We need to figure out some different arrangements quickly. Do they have to be “radical?” Not necessarily, but they do have to be thorough. We’ll need some dramatic moves.
Who Is My Neighbor?
You spoke earlier about hyper-individualism and consumerist behavior. Perhaps the more accurate words would be “selfishness” and “materialism.”
One of the powerful stories for our time is the story of the rich young man whom Jesus tells to sell what he has and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17-30). The Gospel says: “He went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” Chances are his list of possessions was not as long as the list that goes with being an average middle-class American. Many of us go away sorrowful from what we know we are called to because we have great possessions with which we are reluctant to part.
Where do Christians in particular need to step it up?
We are charged to watch out for the least among us. That should be our top priority. Yet in the United States, laws are being rewritten to benefit the most privileged among us, and golden calves are being erected in honor of mammon.
The very first chapters of the Bible teach us about the good world we’ve been given and how we are commissioned to take care of it in God’s stead. No discussion about dominion theology is necessary. At this point in history, we clearly have our thumb on the scale of nature, and we’re doing a terrible job of stewardship. We’re like the bad babysitter who takes the two-year-old out to get a tattoo.
Christians are called to love their neighbors as themselves, so climate change strikes at the heart of our integrity. Our high-consumption way of life is drowning, sickening, and impoverishing our neighbors. No number of mission trips can make good the damage.
You’re currently teaching a course on “Stories from the Bible.” Are there any stories that strike you as especially relevant now?
I love the story of Job, particularly God’s speech from the whirlwind at the end of the book. This passage is the best piece of nature writing in the Western tradition – a beautiful tour of the crunchy, earthy, buzzing, cruel, magnificent world of creation, filled with its animals, plants, organisms, and natural forces. The Lord tells Job: You are not the center of everything. You are a small part of something very big. So stop whining.
Our problem today is that we are rewriting that story. When God asked Job, “Can you tell the proud waves ‘Here you shall go and no further’?” Job had to say “No, that’s your job.” But in our time, we are able to figure out how high the sea is going to rise and how hard the wind is going to blow. For the first time in human history, we are able to just spit in God’s face if we want to. That’s a bad, sad place to be.
Job’s response is to fall down before God, overwhelmed with awe for creation and the Creator. How can we reclaim that sense of wonder?
One way is to get people out into nature. The world is still a beautiful place, even if we’ve damaged it some. There is no calling higher than taking kids out for a camping trip, letting them see the Milky Way, helping them understand what a big and beautiful thing creation is.
Interviews by Peter Mommsen and Sam Hine on January 16, 2015 and December 20, 2014.