An Interview with Bill McKibben
Rising Up: Bill McKibben and the Climate Movement
Introduction and interview by Caitlin Steele
Photo by Nancie Battaglia via Creative Commons
Forthcoming in the printed version of Matter Journal 15 East Coast
In 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, one of the first books about global warming written for a general audience. In it he described the science behind global warming, and he predicted, among more obviously tragic effects like famine and flood, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns ahead. The book quickly developed a reputation for depressing its readers, but McKibben had done the research, knew the stats, and had reason to worry us. At that time, the 1980s had seen the six warmest years on record, with 1988 topping the chart. By 2010, 1988 ranked 15th on that same list. The 1990s and 2000s held claim to seventeen of the top twenty. In retrospect, the book seems not only dark but prophetic.
In one End of Nature scene, McKibben describes an Adirondack canoe trip he made with a New York state biologist to visit the nest of a pair of bald eagles. The eagles had been absent from the park for decades, and the pair he witnessed that day were one of three that had returned only recently. He reflected, “This grand sight I owe to Rachel Carson; had she not written when she did about the dangers of DDT, it might well have been too late before anyone cared about what was happening. She pointed out the problem; she offered a solution; the world shifted course. That is how this book should end, too.” His book did not have the same effect as Silent Spring. But he predicted that as well.
Here in Vermont, the winter of 2010-11 was an epic snow year. It was a long, white winter, like those I remember from my childhood, great for sledding and hopeful in the face of climate change. On March 6, our second night home from the hospital with our newborn baby, my little family snuggled inside while the wind howled and whipped. I woke frequently to nurse Una and gazed out the window each time to view the most intense blizzard I can remember. I love snow, but this storm was unsettling. Speaking with a reporter of AOL Travel News, the director of communications for a ski resort north of us would later boast of that snowfall saying, “The record’s been broken, stomped on and ground into dust.” He would rave about 40 fresh inches and more coming down.
Vermont saw another big storm less than six months later. Hurricane Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time she reached us, but the slow and steady rainfall from that August storm burst the banks of our rivers, flooding main streets, taking out houses, businesses, covered bridges, and cropland. In The End of Nature, McKibben responded to a scientist’s prediction that though our climate will change, farmers will adapt. But farmers’ skill, McKibben wrote, is built on past experience. In the face of global warming, “they are like Ethiopian tribesmen hurling spears against Italian tanks.” I wonder if that is how two young farmers felt when they looked out at their Evening Song Farm the day after Irene rerouted the Mill River through their land. Their vegetable crop was gone, the fields filled with river mud and rocks in some places, in other places just washed away.
This year winter didn’t come to Vermont. We had very little snow and a lot of 50-degree days. By early spring, maple sugarers were struggling. The sap doesn’t flow if the late winter nights don’t get below freezing, and this March’s freak heat wave brought Vermont more than one 80-degree day. Friends worried over their apple trees. If the warm weather set them blooming before a last killing frost, what would happen to this year’s harvest? What would Vermont be like without skiing, Maple syrup, and apples?
In the West, it’s a little different: pine beetles, wildfires, drought. But across the country we’ve had record-breaking heat this summer, and with a wide angle view, the story is similar around the world. It’s 2012, nearly a quarter century since McKibben published that famous book, and the weather’s getting wonky, unpredictable for sure, and sometimes downright scary.
McKibben is a prolific writer, having published around a dozen books along with literally hundreds of magazine articles and op-eds. (You may be among the hundreds of thousands of people who have read and shared his July article in Rolling Stone.) In recent years though, his focus has shifted to include a good deal of activism too. In 2008, with a group of Middlebury College students, he founded the group 350.org. Since then, 350 has been at the forefront of a growing global campaign for climate action. Organizing online, 350 activists around the world have led climate events in 190 countries. The face of the movement is diverse, the voices many and varied, but loudest and clearest among them is that of Bill McKibben. In August of 2011, he was arrested with more than 160 other activists. In an act of civil disobedience, they had gathered outside the White House gates to protest the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
McKibben has become a global figure, but here in Vermont, he’s a local hero too. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, he lives in the little town of Ripton, just 15 miles south of my hometown on the western edge of the Green Mountains. Though he’s generous with his time in general, making frequent small-time local appearances, in the two January weeks that we exchanged emails, McKibben was still in the thick of the Keystone XL protest. Besides leading a Washington D.C. event called “Blow the Whistle on Dirty Energy Money in Congress,” he made an appearance on Democracy Now!, was profiled in The Boston Globe, was interviewed on Vermont Public Radio, and was the subject of an article in our local Addison Independent. In this same window of time, President Obama rejected the permit that would have allowed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and delivered the 2012 State of the Union Address in which he stated, “We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough.” A little preoccupied, McKibben agreed to converse with me via email. He responded to each of my questions within a day, sometimes within an hour.
Caitlin: In his TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek argues that great leaders speak not of what they do or how they do it but why they do it and that people follow their lead not because they like what the leader is doing but because they too believe in his cause. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sinek points out, “gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, not the ‘I Have a Plan’ speech.” Over the past twenty-plus years, you have emerged as a great leader in the climate movement. As you continue your work of writing, speaking, and organizing the masses, how would you articulate why you do what you do?
Bill: I just keep trying to explain what’s going on with our planet – and now, to explain what’s going on with our politics, which explains why we’re not doing anything about the former. I’m far less a leader than a writer.
Caitlin: What is it that people most need to know about what’s going on with our planet? What is it that is keeping our government from addressing the environmental problems at hand?
Bill: The essential thing we need to understand is that the climate crisis is not some future threat, but a very present peril, the biggest one humans have ever encountered. Until we understand that, we’ll dawdle.
And the other thing we need to understand is that the financial power of the fossil fuel industry has so far prevented even any minor progress. They have a sweetheart deal unlike any other business on Earth: they’re allowed to dispose of their waste for free, to use the atmosphere as an open sewer. And they will do all they can to defend that special privilege.
Caitlin: Record flooding in New England, unprecedented wildfires in the Southwest, and unfathomable snowfalls in Alaska – these seem to be signs of global warming in America. In the last year, how has climate change manifested itself in other parts of the world?
Bill: There are so many symptoms of this disease it’s hard to know where to start to catalogue them, but just look at the effects on hydrology – on the way water moves around the planet. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold, and so the atmosphere is about 4% wetter than it was 40 years ago. This loads the dice for flood and drought, and we’re seeing both in stunning abundance. Name a country. In the last two years 24 countries have set new all-time temperature records. We’ve seen flooding on an epic scale in every continent – the floods in Thailand last fall did damage equivalent to 18% of the country’s GDP. It’s off the charts – and if you don’t believe the scientists, ask the insurance industry, the people we pay to analyze risk in our society.
Caitlin: The broad energy plan Obama outlined in this year’s State of the Union Address included references to clean, renewable energy but also a strong emphasis on natural gas as a domestic energy source that he claims could serve America for 100 years. Extracting and burning natural gas may be a significant step toward energy independence for America. In terms of climate change and environmental impact, though, is this a step in the wrong direction?
Bill: Yeah, I think fracking for gas will reduce the incentive to turn to renewables, and I think it will do a lot of other damage across the countryside. I did very much like Obama’s attack on fossil fuel subsidies for fossil fuel companies. We asked for that in demonstrations and petitions, and now we’ll try to push it forward.
Caitlin: Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline is a good sign, too. What other causes for hope and celebration have you seen recently?
Bill: All the signs of incipient activism and uprising, from Tahrir square to Zuccotti Park to [the recent] shutdown of the Internet to protest web censorship. People are getting smart and getting connected.
Caitlin: Social media has played a critical role when it comes to “getting smart and getting connected.” How have the Internet and cell phones changed the face of the environmental movement? Do you see significant downfalls to these ever-evolving forms of communication?
Bill: Well, there’s always the danger that people will simply sign online petitions, the way they used to just mail in checks, and there’s the greater possibility we’ll just spend our whole lives staring at screens and never get anything done. But, absent the net, we certainly couldn’t have organized in 190 countries around the world. It’s no substitution for face to face interaction – that’s why we have “days of action” where people are in real contact with each other – but it’s the cheap (and low-carbon) way to do an awful lot of the planning and organizing. And we can build, for $20k, a website as good as one Exxon can build for $20 million.
Caitlin: Protesters have received a lot of attention in the mainstream media recently. It seems striking that Time Magazine declared The Protester their 2011 Person of the Year. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start protesting in order to make a difference?
Bill: I’m not sure I’m a very good source of advice since we’re kind of making this up as we go along. When we were doing civil disobedience last summer, we had people come in neckties and dresses – we were trying hard to make the point that we weren’t the radicals, that oil companies are radical because they’re willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere. I guess the underlying principle might be, don’t make it too easy for them to stereotype you.
Caitlin: Where are some of the most inspiring places you’ve been? In the global climate change movement, who do you see leading the way forward?
Bill: One of my favorite places is the Maldives, an all-Muslim nation in the Indian Ocean with a culture that stretches back 5,000 years. But since the highest point in the archipelago is a meter or two above sea level, even the next hundred are not guaranteed. They’ve committed to becoming the first carbon-neutral nation on Earth by 2020, building windmills as fast as they can. And they’ve become deeply politically engaged – just for instance, the president taught his whole cabinet to scuba dive so they could hold an underwater cabinet meeting along their dying coral reef and pass a 350 resolution to send to the U.N.
Caitlin: When I learned I was pregnant with my first and only biological child, I read your book Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families. Now our one, Una, is nearly a year old. She is a constant joy, a cause for hope, and a strong incentive for me to continue my efforts toward a greener, cooler future, and yet . . . It has been well over a decade since you wrote that book; the times and our planet have changed. There are 7 billion of us now. Should I be terrified of the world that Una does and will inhabit or hopeful that a revolution is at hand and that she may have the privilege of seeing humanity rise to the challenges ahead?
Bill: Look – every time is the wrong time and the perfect time to have a kid, and you just do it when you can. They’ll grow up into a world that’s difficult and wonderful, and they’ll make the best of it they can, and hopefully help turn it in the best possible direction. I think it’s going to be a tough century; I also think people are starting to rise up, and that a growth in human solidarity will help compensate for the loss of margin in the natural world that will make life harder. At least I sure hope it will – and I see good signs all the time, especially in things like the rise of local agriculture. Last year, for the first time in 150 years, the USDA reported there were more farms in America, not fewer. That has to make you happy.
Caitlin: With the best-case scenario in mind, how do you imagine we will live differently in a post-climate crisis world? What changes can each of us make now to begin to realize that brighter future?
Bill: I think the world on the other side of fossil fuel is more local – the logic of sun and wind is diffuse and spread out, not concentrated like the logic of coal and oil. I imagine a certain amount of consumer impulse will be replaced by community connection. You can already see it starting with things like the local food movement. But we’ll never get there if we let the climate crisis bloom unchecked, so for the moment the key is to organize, organize, organize!
 More than 6-months later, the battle over the Keystone pipeline rages on.
 President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, subject of the documentary The Island President, was ousted from power in a coup d’etat a few weeks after my conversation with McKibben. You can read more about him in this New York Times article.