James Wells: A lot has happened here in Whatcom County since your last visit in 2011. At that time, the planned Gateway Pacific coal export terminal was widely regarded as unstoppable. Now, after three years of determined organizing and opposition, the proposal has been greatly delayed and may be on the rocks. While you have put a lot of public emphasis on KXL, where do the coal export plans rank into your portfolio of concern?
Bill McKibben: I think it’s just as important as KXL, one of the most crucial fights for American climate activists to win. There’s as much carbon in the Powder River basin as there is in the Canadian tar sands - it’s all got to stay in ground if we’ve got a chance.
JW: During the last public comment period relating to the coal terminal, we had a lot of discussion about how much to emphasize global warming concerns from the combustion in China of the 48 million tons of exported coal per year. Some activists said we should focus mostly on local impacts, and that global warming issues could be a distraction. What’s the best way to decide whether to focus on local or global impacts of a planned big carbon project?
BM: Focus on what works best! Close to home that’s often the local impacts; others of us from a distance will be doing our best to raise the global issues. But they’re very interlinked, and it never hurts for everyone to be making all of the points. This has been done very nicely in the Keystone fight.
JW: Often it seems that we face the question of how “organized” to be. In a recent Bill Moyers interview, you seemed to be advocating for less overtly directed activism, saying, “The movement we’re trying to build looks more like we want the energy system to look like. Millions of solar panels on millions of roofs, all interconnected and tied together in the same way.” Can you tell us more about this idea?
BM: The more organized the better. I was just trying to make the point that we don’t need big visible leaders a la Dr. King - we’ve got so many wonderful groups and leaders around the world, and we can work effectively in campaigns.
JW: When we argue against carbon exports, a very common counter is, “Hey you selfish person, you’re trying to deprive people in China the benefits of electric power and modernization that you enjoy every day.” What’s the simplest and best answer that we can give to this?
BM: The Chinese are doing their best to cut back on coal — because the smog is shortening their life expectancies and making life hell in the cities. The last thing they need is more cheap coal.
JW: We know that the science is settled on global warming and many of the resultant harms. When we face proposals to expand fossil fuel infrastructure, such as carbon export schemes, it’s hard not to view the proponents as people who are intentionally creating harm — essentially acting in an evil manner. Does that help us?
BM: I think less that it’s evil than that it’s foolish, although, when you look at the Koch Bros and Exxon it’s a little hard. For me, acting as if the science is accepted (because it is) makes more sense than endlessly trying to win over the last remaining deniers.
JW: In parts of “Oil and Honey,” you describe spending months at a time away from where you really want to be. It’s hard to decide if this is inspiring or simply heartbreaking. What kind of plans do you (hopefully!) have to move to a more personally sustainable course?
BM: I hope to spend far more time at home. Partly thanks to Skype, and partly thanks to the fact that the movement has reached a state of critical mass, I think, where it doesn’t need constant stoking from a few of us.
JW: Also in “Oil and Honey,” we read about what appears to be a microcosm of the world you would like to see, in the life experiences of your friend, Kirk, who keeps bees. Through hard work, he is able to live in a way that is free from many of the ills of so-called civilization. Is that kind of lifestyle scalable to a larger part of our population, and if so, how can it be done?
BM: I’ve tried to write a lot about this in books like “Deep Economy.” I don’t think there’s any one way of life for the future, but I do think we need, and are headed towards, a more localized world with power less concentrated and rewards more equally shared. I worry that we may not get there before the friction from climate change derails the effort.
JW: Our local U, Western Washington University, has launched a vigorous divestment effort that started just after your “Do The Math Tour.” For a lot of us, who are not connected with a university these days, our biggest divestment option would be in our 401(k) (if such an option was available in the plan) or in our pension (which we can’t individually control). What can people do to open up divested options in their personal 401(k) or pension plans?
BM: There are lots of options for fossil free investing at gofossilfree.org. In general, though, individual divestment is less important than getting visible institutions to do it — so whatever church, school, or city you claim as your own, go to work on them.
JW: Is there anything else you would like to say to readers in Whatcom County, Washington and in our region?
BM: You guys are the cork in the bottle for a lot of carbon. The decisions you make there will have important consequences around the globe for centuries to come. I’m certain you’ll do the right thing; it’s been inspiring to watch your campaign grow and grow!
Bill McKibben will be in Bellingham, WA on May 16 and 17, 2014.
Chuckanut Radio Hour at Whatcom Community College on Friday May 16, 6:30 PM - with musical guest Dana Lyons (buy tickets)
Western Reads event at Western Washington University, 3 PM on May 17th.
Rally for divestment with Bill McKibben and Students for Renewable Energy, directly after the Western Reads event.
Photos courtesy of Paul Anderson: Check out Paul's website
Bill Mckibben's site.
• 350.org is at 350.org.
Books by Bill Mckibben referenced in the interview are:
• “Oil and Honey,” Times Books, 2013.
• “Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future,” St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008.
Thanks to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse for help with the interview.
This interview was originally published in the May 2014 issue of our great local watchdog paper, Whatcom Watch.
Any time you think that you don't have a choice, you actually do.
Our Future - Worth Saving
Any time you think you have to do something that's wrong, you don't.
Not Any More
We shall not participate in our own destruction.
Previous entries in this series about the coal terminal, in chronological order first to most recent:
We shall not participate in our own destruction
Pretty much the dumbest idea ever
Can a community defy a cabal of multi-national corporations?
Great for the coal cabal! For us, not so much
And So it Begins
Right Brain for This Decision?
101 Reasons to be Concerned About Coal Export
On Refusing to be Rounded out of Existence
Who Are the Welfare Queens Now?
There Is No Daylight
Tis the Season to Decide Our Future
They've Got the Money. We've Got the Humans!
The House of Actual Reality
Collision With Reality
Climate Change and Coal Export - Taking Responsibility
Corps of Engineers Designs Henhouse, Excludes 99 Percent of Chickens
Outsourcing Carbon Pollution: Not So Fast!
Your chance to speak out on a plan that will cause Gigaton level CO2 emissions
The Vampire Squid has Left the Building!