Bill McKibben: Voice of Reason, Man of Action

Utne Reader visionary
by Keith Goetzman, Utne Reader
November-December 2010
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Illustration: Gluekit • McKibben photo: Nancie Battaglia


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Bill McKibben basically invented the job title “climate change expert”: After all, he wrote the first general-audience book on the subject back in 1989, opening the world’s eyes to a then-obscure threat. Since then, he has continued to draw awareness to the predicament in a prodigious stream of books, articles, and media appearances, always coming off as reasoned and authoritative even when climate-change deniers attempt to paint those who bring this message as unhinged and alarmist. 

A few years ago, though, McKibben had an epiphany. 

“I spent a long time thinking that I was doing my part by writing and speaking about this, and that since it wasn’t really my nature to be a political organizer, someone else would build a movement,” he says. “But it never happened, and it became clear to me that this was one of the reasons we were making so little progress. It’s the most important issue we’ve ever come up against, so I figured I’d better do what I could.” 

McKibben, a Vermonter, organized a march in his home state in 2006. Buoyed by the event’s success, he coordinated Step It Up, comprising 1,400 demonstrations nationwide on a single day in April 2007. The movement then grew into 350.org, a campaign-style organization that unites a broad coalition of environmental groups under one banner, and that takes its name from the upper safe limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—350 parts per million. 

McKibben is 350.org’s founder and in many ways its main driving force, spending most of his time working on its behalf. Call him the leader, though, and he blanches. He believes that there are plenty of top-down green groups and sees 350.org as a bottom-up, grassroots organization fueled more by the passion of its activists than by a strong hierarchy. 

He continues to make talking-head appearances on news programs. Though he’s taken a clear stand on climate change, he retains his credibility as a seasoned and deeply knowledgeable expert on the subject. 

“I long ago took a side: I really don’t want the planet to burn up,” he says. “On the other hand, we [at 350.org] have always put the science first and foremost. That’s why we attempt to rally people around a wonky scientific data point. 

“And I suppose there is a certain amount of credibility that comes from having written the first book for a general audience about all this stuff, and having unfortunately been proven right. I would far rather have been proven wrong; the damage to my ego would have been quite small compared to the damage to the planet that we’ve had instead.” 

McKibben was tremendously disappointed by the lack of progress at the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, and he believes that our political leaders will not take decisive action until they are pressed by a groundswell of people power. This only strengthens his resolve to build 350.org into a force that cannot be ignored. 

“Movement building takes time,” he says. “We need to build a movement strong enough to take on the most profitable and powerful enterprise that the human civilization has ever seen—the fossil fuel industry. I think it’s an open question whether we’ll succeed, and whether we’ll succeed in time. Because physics and chemistry put a very definite time limit on how much margin we have.” 

Extras: 

 

Read Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman’s full interview with Bill McKibben and a recent fiery commentary by McKibben on Utne.com. Learn more about 350.org, including upcoming events and actions, at the 350.org website. And see McKibben’s appearance on The Colbert Report 

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