Tuesday, April 6, 2010
The Weekly catches up with activist-author Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College scholar-in-residence, before an April 2 talk at Middlebury’s sister school, Monterey Institute of International Studies.
He’s just come out of the redwoods after a weeklong Esalen retreat in Big Sur, part of a fellowship McKibben leads for early-career environmental journalists. But the glow is already fading: After the talk, he has to catch a flight launching an international tour promoting his new book.
WEEKLY: So are you refreshed for your book tour?
MCKIBBEN: You have to do a certain amount of book touring. But mostly I just spend my life now organizing for 350.org. It’s going great, but the globe is a big place.
Last year in October we had this first global day of action, and it turned out far bigger than we would have thought. CNN said it was the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history. Fifty-two hundred demonstrations in 182 countries. [Check out the Weekly's International Day of Climate Action art piece here.]
This year, on Oct. 10, we’re going to do what we’re calling a global work party. There will be thousands of places around the world where people will be putting in solar panels or digging in community gardens or whatever.
Not because we think we can solve climate change one project at a time, but because we need to be able to say to our putative leaders, ‘We’re getting to work; what about you guys? If we can get up on the roof of a school and pound in a solar panel, you can get up on the floor of the Senate and do the job you’re supposed to be doing.' So it’s as much a political gesture as a practical one.
But of course its practical benefits will be nice too, and thousands of places will have new and improved community infrastructure. That’s what I’m working on hard now, that kind of organizing. I’ll be around the country for the next month, and then China and Australia in May.
Tell me about your new book [Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet].
In a sense, it’s a natural sequel to the book I wrote 21 years ago, The End of Nature. At the time, global warming hadn’t happened yet, and that was a kind of philosophical account of what it would mean as it did happen.
Now, 21 years later, it’s starting to happen in a much larger and quicker way than we could have even anticipated. And so this is a much more practical account. Here’s what we’ve done to the earth: We’ve turned it into a new planet with different ground rules; here’s how we’re gonna have to live on that planet. That’s the book.
Where did the Copenhagen talks leave us?
Nowhere very good. It was the great historic chance for dramatic change to happen. The eyes of the world were focused on this immense momentum.
In fact, we got 117 nations to agree to this 350 [parts per million atmospheric carbon] target that we were pushing—but they were the wrong 117. They were poor and vulnerable nations, not rich and powerful and addicted ones. And so nothing happened.
There’s a vague set of voluntary pledges from different countries, but even if you add them all up, they produce a world where the temperature goes up 3 or 4 degrees [Celsius]. Carbon concentrations reach 600 or 700 parts per million. So it was a bust.
It was a bust in part because there wasn’t enough political pressure to outweigh the pressure from industry. So that’s why we try to build bigger movements all the time. And 350 is by far the biggest one that there’s been yet.
Has any of the new science coming out in recent months surprised you or altered your perspective?
No; the science that’s coming out just makes it clearer and clearer how fast things are happening. Some stuff was an enormous surprise. Twenty years ago it didn’t even occur to people that we could dramatically alter the chemistry of the seawater. But the rapid acidification of the oceans, if you’re reading the journals, that’s just one of the number-one topics at the moment.
Would that we’d been wrong, but the science has been clear that change is coming at a larger scale and faster than we’d anticipated.
How do you feel about recent polls that show a declining concern about global warming among Americans?
I think in part it’s the natural outgrowth of getting semi-close to doing something about it.
Look—we’re talking about the most powerful and profitable industry in the world, much of it headquartered in the U.S. Exxon-Mobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money. That buys a lot of power in our political and media systems, and they’ve used it to sort of kick up dust and confuse people and whatever. So it makes it all the much harder, and it means that those people who do understand what’s going on need to be willing to really organize and fight.
Do you think it takes a majority of the population to usher in the sort of political change we need?
No. I think that history would indicate that truly involved and vigorous 5 or 10 percent of the population is enough to get real change. One doubts that 1 percent of Americans actually took part in civil rights demonstrations, but the people who did were committed enough to really change the politics in profound ways.
What about the 5 to 10 percent who are working vigorously against the climate change reality?
That makes it hard. And it’s one of the reasons the politicization of it is—but of course it’s true that nothing happens easily.
There were lots and lots of people that wanted to prevent progress on civil rights or women’s rights or a lot of other things. It’s a battle, it’s a fight, and there’s no getting around that. It’s not going to happen dramatically, and it may not happen at all. We have a fairly short window to make real, profound change. It’s already too late to stop global warming. We can make it less worse than it would otherwise be.
What do you think it would take to get to that social threshold where people would stop trying to say it’s not happening?
One thing that would help is some real leadership from the White House. President Obama is a good communicator. So far he hasn’t wasted any breath on this issue.
And it’ll just take the continued, powerful involvement of people who do care. Which is growing. Churches and synagogues are finally becoming active parts of the environmental movement. Including evangelical churches. That helps.
Have you gotten to see the new Aquarium exhibit on climate change that includes “Faith in Action”?
I haven’t gotten to see it. That’s so great. The Aquarium is obviously among the best environmental communicators in the country. I don’t go anywhere where people don’t have their seafood card in hand. I’m very glad that they’re doing that work.
You answered some questions for us by e-mail about a year ago. At the time, Obama had just been inaugurated, and you seemed very optimistic about what his administration would do. Are you disappointed?
I am disappointed. It looks like at best we’re going to get a very watered-down piece of legislation out of Congress, and it’s because Obama hasn’t been willing to campaign or fight on this. He’s made the same kind of pre-compromises with industry that he made in the health care bill, but in this case probably larger and worse.
He seems willing to take any bill at all so he can claim victory and go on, and I think that’s a shame. It remains true that he has done more about global warming than all the other presidents combined, but that bar was set remarkably low.
What’s your message to MIIS tonight?
Mostly I want to say thank you to the people here at MIIS who have been an enormous help in this 350 thing. We have about 25,000 pictures in our Flikr account, and I’m going to show about 30 or 40 of them.
We couldn’t have done this without them. They provided the backbone of the translation operation that we desperately needed. I also want to get across what a fruitful collaboration it’s been between Middlebury and Monterey. Middlebury has the most active environmental student body in the country, and that’s where all the juice for 350 came from. And here was the transmission to take it global in a powerful way.