Journalist, author, and activist Bill McKibben, by all rights, should be an egomaniac. He graduated from Harvard, where he was the editor of the university’s acclaimed Crimson. He moved straight on to a staff writer position at The New Yorker, where he stayed for several years, eventually leaving on principle when his boss, editor William Shawn, was fired. He wrote the first book for a mainstream audience on climate change, The End of Nature, and has since written a dozen other books, all of which have been at least marginally successful. He is also the face of and the driving force behind 350.org, which has produced some of the most effective climate change activism campaigns ever.
And yet he remains a quiet, humble, kind person, someone who makes time for people of all stations, and who gives everyone credit for knowing something.
After 20-plus years on the job, he also still manages to be upbeat and passionate about battling climate change. During an early Saturday morning phone call, McKibben talked enthusiastically about how he got interested in environmental issues in the first place, what inspires and annoys him about the fight against climate change, and what keeps him going today.
To listen to part of the conversation and see images from 350.org, follow this link.
Tell me about your early career, how you went from staff writer at The New Yorker to an environmental journalist – are these issues you were always interested in?
No, not really. I was writing Talk of the Town and had this very urban job. But for a variety of reasons I was reading stuff that would later be very important to me – most importantly Ed Abby and Wendell Barry. And I did a long piece for The New Yorker about where everything in my apartment came from. I followed the electric lines down to Brazil, where ConEd was getting low-sulfur oil, and up into the Arctic where they were buying power from a huge hydro dam in James Bay. I looked at all of New York’s water system, I followed the sewage lines, and on and on and on. By the time I was done I had a stronger realization – a much stronger realization – than I think I had had before of what a physical planet we live on. Even Manhattan, which seems like a place than can generate money and things out of thin air, in fact was exquisitely dependent on the operation of the physical world. And I think that came as something of a shock. And probably set me up for the reading I would do over the next couple of years of the early science on climate change. That story may have had something to do with why I took that reading as strongly as I did.
By that time I’d left The New Yorker. They’d fired Mr. Shawn and I had quit. And I’d moved up to the Adirondacks – in some measure because it was cheap – without quite realizing that I was moving into the greatest wilderness in the American East. And pretty deep into the greatest wilderness in the American East. I spent the next 12, maybe 13, years living there, extremely happily. It proved to be the place that I loved. But while I was reading all that early climate science, I was also having to grapple with the fact that this wilderness that I loved so deeply wasn’t quite as wild as I thought. We were already changing its weather… and its meaning at some level.
That reminds me of something you wrote in The End of Nature about not just nature, but the idea of nature going extinct …
Yes, yes. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s funny when I look back on my work in climate change; in a sense I spend much, much less time now working over those kinds of philosophical problems, you know? I suppose in a sense I’ve come up with better reasons to be worried about climate change because I’ve spent so much time now in places where people are suffering very harshly, very directly. But, ahh, it’s good for me to remember sometimes that at root, my feeling about all of this derives as much from sadness as from fear.
How do you feel about the job the media is doing now to get out important information and to educate the public about environmental issues?
I think that climate change has really been, you know, maybe the great example of media failure. I mean there have been a couple of others too – the housing bubble and the war in Iraq come to mind – but at least with those, once it became very clear what was going on, the mistakes were rectified. Not so with climate. The fact that an astonishing percentage of people remain ignorant of the basic facts or understanding of the most important thing that’s ever happened is a pretty strong indictment of our media, I’m afraid.
And we’re not doing as good a job as the media in other parts of the world where people have a much clearer understanding. Who knows quite why that is? Part of it’s enshrined in the tenets of our approach, which is that, you know, news stories must be balanced, even well past the day when there’s any real balance to be had. Part of it probably reflects the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry to get its story constantly out. Its financial power is so great that it tends to, like a giant star, kind of warp the gravity of everything around it.
Completely anecdotally, it seems like the 10/10/10 working groups got less press than the 350 demonstrations in 2009 did …
I think they got more TV but less press in this country, and probably more press in the rest of the world.
Interesting. Why do you think that is?
I think because American reporters are always hard-pressed to cover climate change. It distresses them because they’re gonna get a lot of flak from ideologues about it. And as a result, only when things fit into an easy, broad narrative do they get covered. So last year when we did this [the 350 demonstrations], we were six weeks before Copenhagen. So everybody was writing stories that began, “In the lead-up to the climate talks in Copenhagen …”
And there’s no obvious context this year. In the rest of the world, people are just interested that there’s a big, broad movement going on.
In general, is there a noticeable difference in how international audiences receive your message, versus US audiences?
You know, I’ve traveled around so much all over the world and basically given the same talk and you’ll see in the pictures that the demonstrations and events look much the same the world over, and I think in part it’s because we have this number at our core. And humans, I think, deal with numbers quite similarly. People understand the basic science of it quite easily. We’ve gone past where we’re supposed to go, we need to go back. Of course people perceive it with different emotions depending on whether they’re in one of those places that’s gotten just completely wrecked already or not.
The power of the fossil fuel industry is so great that, like a giant star, it warps the gravity of everything around it.
On that note, there’s been some debate about how important it is that laypeople understand climate science. What are your thoughts?
It’s the equivalent of going to the doctor and the doctor says look, your cholesterol level is too high. I understand what he means and I understand the basic mechanism – I’ve eaten too many cheeseburgers and therefore I’m gonna have a heart attack. That’s the level of understanding that we need to take action. So people understand. Anyone who’s been touched in any way by our campaign basically gets it: We’ve put too much carbon in the atmosphere and now we’re in trouble as a result. When the doctor tells you you’ve got high cholesterol, your first instinct is not to say, “I’d like a full-on disquisition on the lipid system, please.” No. It’s, “What do I do? How does my diet change? Where do I buy my pair of sneakers so I can start exercising?”
I don’t think people have any trouble understanding the basics of climate. I don’t think it’s complicated. I never have, and I’ve been writing about it and explaining it for 21 years now. Doing the actual climatology is complicated – you have to be able to work all the endless equations to build these immense computer models. And I couldn’t do that, but the basic notion isn’t complicated at all. And the idea that people are incapable of understanding it is just a joke.
It’s one of the things that does really annoy me sometimes, when high-priced message gurus and focus-group kings issue reports saying that when they do this they find people can’t absorb it and instead we need to talk to them only about green jobs or something. I’m happy to talk about green jobs, but I’ve never had the slightest difficulty talking to anyone about climate.
Also, this is the biggest problem human beings have ever faced. So in pure terms of honesty with each other, we owe it to everyone to talk about it straightforwardly, you know? It’s not like talking with 7-year-olds about where babies come from or something. You don’t have to use an endless number of euphemisms or whatever. You can just tell people straight.
What are your thoughts on how the digital revolution has affected activism? I know everyone got fired up about a Malcolm Gladwell piece in The New Yorker about how digital activism isn’t the same as real activism.
I take Gladwell’s point and I read that piece with interest. I think he’s largely right. Our approach since the beginning has basically been to say we’ve got this new tool, which clearly is important to figure out how to use, but we think you need to use it to enable things to happen in the real world. The Web is a wonderful tool for arranging things. And clearly we’ve been pretty good at that. The number and spread of things we’ve been able to arrange using it is pretty phenomenal. But the things we arrange happen in the real world, have real consequences; you can invite real foreign ministers and Sunday schools and whatever to come take part in them.
I think the other great use of the Web is taking the results of those things – in our case it’s a series of images – and using them to let everybody see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And I think to be wary about online activism as a replacement for activism-activism is correct. But it would also be crazy not to use the set of tools that we have. Partly because we no longer have the array of institutions in our society that we once did. You know, if one was dependent on, say, churches, for doing activism the way that [Gladwell] points out the civil rights movement very much was, one would be in trouble because a much, much, much smaller percentage of Americans go to church. And they’re mostly much, much older.
What’s it like working with a group of 26-year-olds? Do you see a difference in their approach?
The first thing is, because we work internationally it’s almost taken for granted [that I’d be working with younger people], because in much of the world, most people by far are under the age of 30. The median age in country after country is 23 or something. The second thing is, my crew that I work with, this core group of us who did Step It Up and 350, the same seven people, when I met them they were all 22 or 23 and they’re all now 26, so they’re all half my age. But I’ve said from the beginning, to them and to everybody else, that I don’t work with them because they’re young. I work with them because they’re the best organizers I know.
One of the things that drives me nuts is the way we often patronize younger activists. You know, we got to Copenhagen and there was like a “youth day” at Copenhagen when all the youth delegates from around the world went off to have their day and gave a lot of earnest talks about how they were the future of the world, and presented their petitions, and essentially were patted on the head and sent home so that, you know, the big boys could get to work. I have no interest in that kind of stuff at all. I mean you can make an argument that youth have some particular stake in this because they’re gonna be here longer. You could make an argument that older people have some particular stake because they have grandchildren. I work with who I work with because they’re so good at what they do.
That said, I do think that young people bring particular skills. And one of them is a visceral sense of interconnectedness that arises from a lifetime spent on Facebook and on the Web and things. And I don’t know whether that’s a better skill than what old people have who have different experiences, but it’s very much an important skill and one that we’ve been able to put to very good use.
On the political front, are there any US politicians who seem to get it and are able to actually do something?
Well, there are plenty of politicians who get it on the national level. But very few who have understood, I think, the depth of the urgency of it. As a result, the few attempts at legislation, like the Senate bill this year, have been so mild and watered down, and fought for so limply, that we haven’t gotten very far. I mean, John Kerry gets it – I think. But he hasn’t figured out a legislative or communications strategy to reflect that. He’s got a tough hand to deal with: lots of fellow senators who are determined not to get it because it’s not in their financial interests to do so. But you know, look, I mean I live in Vermont and our congressional delegation gets it great – Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy have all been tremendous friends of this issue. I think Barbara Boxer gets it in a serious way. A lot of these guys have gone on junkets to Greenland or the Antarctic and things like that, and I think it’s hard to go there and not understand on some gut level that this is a different magnitude of problem than rewriting the tax code or something. But no one’s done a very good job of translating that urgency into action yet.
Speaking of political action, why do you think the Obama administration was dismissive at first of 350’s push to put solar on the White House only to turn around a few weeks later and go for it?
Even people who don’t care about or don’t believe in global warming like solar panels.
I’ve got no idea! I don’t pretend to understand politics played at that level. I do think we demonstrated that there was an enormous amount of enthusiasm for this idea. We had these big rallies up and down the East Coast with tons and tons of people out looking at these solar panels. They were like rockstar solar panels, you know? So my guess is that they looked at that enthusiasm and thought, well, if they’d been thinking about doing this, then maybe it seemed like a good time or something. But God only knows. I’m not privy to those discussions and I’m not sure quite how happy they are with us in general, so who knows? But it will be a good thing. It will make people happy when it happens, the same way that Michelle’s garden made everyone happy when it happened. I think the one thing that was very clear that we kept saying to them was that, look, even people who don’t care about or believe in global warming like solar panels. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t. And so maybe they sort of heard that at some level.
A lot of people, even within, or maybe especially within, the environmental movement feel overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation and the amount of information out there. Does that ever happen to you, and if so how do you deal with it?
Well, yes and no. I’m not overwhelmed with the volume of information because when I started doing this there wasn’t any. When I wrote The End of Nature I could fit every report there was about climate change on top of my desk. Now it would fill an airplane hangar. And unfortunately nothing has changed except that we understand it’s happening more quickly.
But yeah, look, when I was working on The End of Nature, I was very much knocked for a loop. And it took me, I think, a couple of years to fully deal with it. That was partly because I was sort of dealing with it by myself. There was no real support group because really no one else, with the exception of a few scientists, had any sense of the gravity of what we were talking about.
Having done that a long time ago, I’m still prone sometimes to that feeling. But mostly I work through it, you know? And now I’m a little more of the I-don’t-know-how-this-is-gonna-come-out school. I’m just not going to worry about being an optimist or a pessimist. I’m just going to get up in the morning and do everything I can and we’ll see what happens. And somehow that’s gotten a little easier.
Amy Westervelt is Managing Editor of Earth Island Journal.