Q&A with Bill McKibben
December 14, 2010
A Sunday school teacher and one of the foremost writers on environmental issues, Bill McKibben looks at how we can live more responsibly on a planet that is becoming unbalanced.
In your first book, The End of Nature, you said things 20 years ago about climate change that no one else seemed to be saying. Is it gratifying that people are finally paying attention to this?
It would have been nice had it happened more quickly. I wrote that when I was 27. And, contrary to what I thought would happen, it didn’t change the trajectory of the world’s economic system!
Your book The Age of Missing Information chronicled your experiment to watch 24 hours of cable television in your city—all 100 channels, so 2,400 hours of TV. What did that teach you?
The most powerful message that came through the television all the time, and it’s the message of a consumer society, is that: “You’re the most important thing on earth. You’re the center of the universe.” We’ve come to describe this idea as human nature. But throughout most of human history, other things have been at the center of peoples’ lives. The relationship with nature, with God, the tribe, has been how people defined themselves. But our culture teaches us to think about ourselves in units of one, not anything bigger than ourselves.
You’ve been accused of being a doom and gloom guy about the environment. The claims of environmental damage are a hoax, according to critics. Who is right?
Most Americans are clear that climate change is real. The overwhelming majority of those around the world think so, too. The fossil fuel industry is the single most profitable industry on the planet. Exxon Mobil made more money last year—$40 billion—than any company in the history of money. There are at least 40 billion reasons for them to resist why we need to get off of our dependence on fossil fuel.
Why did you decide to go from being a journalist to being an activist?
I saw that writing by itself wasn’t changing things that much. When I was in Bangladesh I got dengue fever, which is a mosquito-borne disease that is up 200 percent in Asia and South America because mosquitoes like the warm, wet world we’re building for them. I got sick and went to the hospital, and thought it was unbelievably unfair that these people were suffering because of how countries like the U.S. were changing the climate. The 4 percent of the world’s population, which is the U.S., produces 25 percent of the world’s CO2, which is making the planet warmer, raising the water level, melting the glaciers. That made it harder to shut up and easier to do something beyond writing and speaking.
Out of that drive came your organization, 350. What have you learned about leading people and rallying around a cause?
There wasn’t any movement about climate change. There was Al Gore, and scientists and economists, but nothing that gave it any heft or power. So, with trial and error, I tried to organize something. We went on a long walk from Robert Frost’s cabin in the Green Mountains and walked for five days, slept in farm fields, had Methodists provide potlucks, and by the time we got to Burlington we had 1,000 people. Politicians met us there and signed a declaration to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. It was the largest demonstration against climate change in the U.S. That was 2006. We tried to organize more events and had 1,400 rallies simultaneously in the U.S. But later that year, the Arctic began to rapidly melt and showed our target was out of date and we’d need to organize around the world.
What is the significance of the number 350? And what’s the plan from here?
Three hundred and fifty is the number of parts per million of CO2 where, if the number is higher than that, it’s not compatible with the planet’s ability to sustain life. We’re already past that now, which is why the Arctic is melting, why Australia is on fire. We need to get the world’s number under 350. We recently had 5,200 demonstrations simultaneously in 181 countries, the most widespread day of political action in history. One hundred and seventeen nations endorsed the target—a true citizen effort. On October 10, 2010, we’re having a global work party. Not because we’re going to solve the problem one project at a time, but it’s a chance to say to our leaders, “If we can get on the roof of a school and put in a solar panel, why can’t you get up on the floor of the Senate and do the work you’re paid to do, which is to pass legislation about important things?” That’s the message we have to get across.