Since it’s Earth Day, I’ve asked five questions of environmental activist, thinker, and educator Bill McKibben. He has published 16 books, including the seminal End of Nature in 1989 and Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet in 2010, as well as hundreds of articles, all written with a piercing clarity in elegant, straightforward language. In 2014, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, known as the “alternative Nobel.” He won the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize in 2013.
With like-minded people he founded the grassroots 350.org to unite climate activists around the planet. He was a key participant in the successful fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and was arrested several times in Washington for civil disobedience in opposition to that project. He has inspired tens of thousands of people to join the effort of getting public institutions, including universities, churches, and municipalities, and even mutual funds to divest their stock portfolios of fossil fuel shares. A pragmatic visionary, McKibben is a guy who likes to start conversations. For more than two decades, he’s been having a long conversation with us about the environment and the economy. One key thing he taught me long ago is how inseparable these two are from one another.
METEOR BLADES: When you wrote The End of Nature in 1989, your first book on the environment, and the first popular book dealing with climate change, you expressed a lack of optimism about our chances of dealing with what was then the concern of just a few scientists and almost no activists. In the quarter-century since then, have you become more or less optimistic?
BILL MCKIBBEN: Less optimistic about the science—it's happening much faster, and with more weight, than we thought it would. The last six months have been devastating—temperatures setting every possible record, entire ecosystems like coral reefs starting to fundamentally collapse, trials for the poor and vulnerable like the emergence of Zika and the highest wind speeds ever recorded amidst devastating cyclones, and new research indicating that we can expect the collapse of ice sheets on a much faster time scale than we'd anticipated.
More optimistic about the rise of movements. Since the policy response of governments has been so feeble, we've had to build globe-spanning movements to try and check the fossil fuel industry. And we have. The fight over Keystone has turned into a thousand other fights—what one industry executive lamented as the “Keystone-ization” of every other project you can think of. And we're winning a surprising number of them. It's now people versus the biggest, richest industry on earth, full-on.
MB: Do you think either of the two Democratic presidential candidates have gone far enough in their prescriptions for reducing the growing impacts of global warming? And, if not, what is missing from their proposals?
MCKIBBEN: No one goes far enough in their proposals—it would be almost impossible to go “far enough.” And in any event I worry less about specific policy proposals than i do about people's willingness to fight hard and consistently as the terrain changes. I'm for Bernie because I'm from Vermont, so I know what he's like close-up. (No accident he got 86 percent of the vote in his home state—it's a small place, small enough that a phony would get smelled out, and he's just the opposite of a phony). But I'm also for him because when we were launching our movements, he was almost the only person in DC willing to lay it on the line and help us.
But this election—Daily Kos comments aside—is not the be-all and the end-all of political struggle. The day after the election people need to be as politically engaged as the day before. I've already told Bernie we'll probably have to go chain ourselves to his White House, too, should he get in. The worst thing we could possibly do is elect him, or anyone else, and then leave them alone to deal with the forces of the status quo.
MB: Many people consider you a hero for your prescriptive writing and in the past dozen or so years, your relentless activism in 350.org, the divestment movement, and the People’s Climate March, to give just a few examples—as well as your boots-on-the-ground protests that have often ended with handcuffs on your wrists. Do you have any climate activist heroes of your own?
MCKIBBEN: I think one of the best things about the climate movement is that it's essentially leaderless. We have no Dr. Kings, for better or for worse, and so we've made a virtue out of that necessity—much like the energy system we hope to see on this planet, we're a far-flung, sprawling, and protean resistance, but well enough connected that when the occasion arises we can all work together—as in next month's BreakFree actions. I don't think of myself as a leader—as I've written—at best one of many “elders” in this fight who have been at it a long time. And there are more other great figures than I could ever hope to name, heavily concentrated in the front-line communities that daily bear the brunt of the industry's impact, and in the indigenous communities around the world whose activism is making a startling daily difference.
MB: Nearly a decade ago, you wrote a monograph or a manifesto called “Deep Economy” in which you asked a question that rarely if ever gets asked in Economics 101 classes: What is the economy for anyway? That essay touted interdependence, decentralization, sustainability, a retreat from the doctrine of incessant growth, and illuminated examples of workable alternatives. Ten years on, are you encouraged by the developments you have seen in this regard?
MCKIBBEN: Yes—the rise of the local food movement has been beautiful to watch. (And the local beer movement—Vermont leads the world in breweries per capita, I'm pleased to say). And now the energy system is headed the same way—despite the effects of the Kochs and the Buffets to stifle it, we'll end up with tens of millions of rooftops providing power for each other. The only question is can we do it fast enough to catch up to the physics of climate change, and there I don't know the answer. I'll do what I can to make it so.
MB: Those of us of a certain age know that the personal is political. But if you had to urge people to to do just one personal thing and one political thing to address climate change, what would those be?
MCKIBBEN: It is right to change your bulbs and worry about your car and so on—I've done these things. But I try not to fool myself that they're solving climate change. The most important thing an individual can do in this fight is not be an individual. The problems are structural and systemic, and so we need to band together in movements that can make change at that scale.