A little more than two years ago, bestselling author Bill McKibben’s life was filled with canoe trips, mountaineering, writing, and teaching. The author of a dozen books and a scholar in residence at Vermont’s Middlebury College, McKibben lived at a relatively slow pace with his wife, writer Sue Halpern, and daughter, Sophie.
But the author who made his reputation in 1989 with the first general audience book on global warming, The End of Nature, would soon organize his first protest. That would lead to the creation of one activist organization and then another. His goal? End the global lethargy on climate change.
Today, McKibben works with a handful of recent college graduates in a group called 350.org.
These days, McKibben is in constant motion. The only way we could talk was to connect via cell phone one Sunday as McKibben drove from one speech to another in New Hampshire. He had just returned from a trip to China, Italy, Trinidad, Sweden, and Canada to promote 350.org. “Right now my carbon footprint is much higher than it should be,” he says.
Q: You recently wrote that global warming is the biggest problem humans have ever faced. Why do you believe this?
Bill McKibben: Think about it. All the other things that we’ve done as a species have had a limited scope. We’re now talking about melting the ice caps, raising the level of the seas dramatically, changing the distribution of every other species on Earth, perhaps wiping out one-third or half of them. The changes at work now are geologic in scale. The level of change required to deal with it is enormous, too. It will require change in every country. It will require a degree of global cooperation that we haven’t seen before.
Q: How did we get into this mess?
McKibben: Fossil fuel is very seductive stuff. [John Maynard] Keynes once said that, as far as he could tell, the average standard of living from the beginning of human history to the middle of the eighteenth century had perhaps doubled. Not much had changed, and then we found coal and gas and oil and everything changed. Now we’re reaping the result of that, both ecologically and socially.
In the United States, cheap fossil fuel has eroded communities. We’re the first people with no real practical need for each other. Everything comes from a great distance through anonymous and invisible transactions. We’ve taken that to be a virtue, but it’s as much a curse. Americans are not very satisfied with their lives, and the loss of community is part of that.
Q: You wrote about those problems in your book Deep Economy.
McKibben: That was an essay about my hope for the emergence of a more localized economy. Now, it’s happened, or begun to happen, with amazing speed. We’re flying less and driving less. The only houses holding most of their value during this economic downturn are in the city or along the transit lines or in the walkable suburbs. All of a sudden, the fifty-year American dream of building a bigger house away from people is turning into a nightmare. SUVs have gone from being objects of desire to expensive planters.
Q: Has the Bush Administration played a role in making global warming worse?
McKibben: The Bush Administration was precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time. This was a crucial eight years we lost. We did nothing about our own carbon emissions. As important, we sat idly on the sidelines as emissions in China and India began to take off. I imagine that history will clearly hold Bush responsible for the folly in Iraq. My guess is that doing nothing on global warming at the moment that it was accelerating will also be seen as an abdication of responsibility.
Q: You’ve spent much of your career as a writer, but in the last two years you’ve stepped into the role of a political organizer. What prompted you to make the change?
McKibben: It’s really not my favorite thing. I’m happy to do some of it. I still write. I look forward to the day when that’s all I do. But about two years ago, I was obsessed with the idea that nothing was getting done. Everyone had seen Al Gore’s movie. Everyone had seen what happened in Hurricane Katrina, and nothing was going on in Washington. I organized a march on global warming in Vermont. That march was successful in converting our Congressional delegation into zealots on global warming, but it was depressing to read in that newspaper that the 1,000 people we gathered for the march made it one of the largest demonstrations on global warming in this country. That spurred us to try the Step It Up campaign we did last year. We organized 1,400 demonstrations in all fifty states. Then we created 350.org, a global version of the same idea.
Q: How did you come up with the name, 350.org?
McKibben: Scientists are now telling us that 350 parts per million [of carbon] in the atmosphere is the upper limit. We’re at 387 parts per million now, and we’re up in that zone where the risk of going past irrevocable tipping points is elevated. It’s no different than going to a doctor and learning your cholesterol is too high, and you’re at risk for a heart attack. You have to work to lower your cholesterol and hope to get there before the heart attack comes.
Q: When I interview climate scientists, they often tell me to turn off my recorder and then confess that they have little hope that we will find the political will to stop global warming. Do you agree?
McKibben: They’re absolutely right. That’s why we’re trying to build the political will. There’s no shortcut around it.
Without a movement pressing for change, there’s little hope. We’ve got to work the political system to make this happen fast. The physics and chemistry are daunting. The resources on the other side are very large.
Q: Do people elsewhere respond differently than Americans do when you talk about this?
McKibben: Where people aren’t as deeply reliant on fossil fuel as in the United States, it’s far easier for them to imagine change on this scale. When you go to Europe, they’re much more ready. They use half the amount of energy per capita that we use. They can imagine using less than that. They see the benefits. They’re ready to go.
When you go to China and the developing world, people understand more clearly the dangers that are coming at them because they’re living closer to the margin. They don’t have any of the false sense of invulnerability that Americans have.
People from developing countries also feel that it’s their right, if you’re talking in terms of justice, to use fossil fuels like we did for a hundred years to get rich. It’s hard for them to give up that vision.
But there are people in China who know that it’s possible to leapfrog to good technology. I was just at one of the largest solar panel factories in the world in China, and it is an exciting place to be.
Q: It sounds like you came back from your trip more optimistic.
McKibben: It’s hard to be optimistic. I spent two weeks hardly able to see the sun [in China] because of the pollution in the air. For me, it’s not an issue anymore of being optimistic or pessimistic. I work as hard as I can to organize, and then we’ll see. It’s realistic to hope for dramatic change in China, but it’s not going to happen without dramatic change here. We’re going to have to lead the way. That’s only fair because we led the way down the path of burning fossil fuels.
Q: What does life in a post-fossil fuel world look like?
McKibben: I think it will look different depending on where you are. The economy will be much more localized. Many commodities, food, energy, entertainment will be much more likely to come from your neighbors or from people in your region than at present. I don’t think food will be traveling 2,000 miles. I think it will be traveling 20 miles. In a post-fossil fuel economy, energy will be coming from solar panels on your neighbor’s roof and your roof.
Not only will that provide good, clean power, but it will do that without your having to send your daughter or son off to the Persian Gulf to defend a 10,000-mile-long straw through which we suck hydrocarbons. We won’t have to blow the tops off any more mountains to mine coal. The most important parts of our standard of living, good food and good friends, will be strengthened by a more energy efficient economy. I look forward to its advent.
Q: What is the one, most important thing each of us can do to stop global warming?
McKibben: Get involved politically. Often when I’m on TV, they’ll ask what are the three most important things for people to do. I know they want me to say that people should change their light bulbs. I say the number one thing is to organize politically; number two, do some political organizing; number three, get together with your neighbors and organize; and then if you have energy left over from all of that, change the light bulb.
Diane Silver is a nationally syndicated columnist who writes about climate change and LGBT issues. She blogs at www.hopeandpolitics.blogspot.com.