Bill McKibben: Voice of Reason, Man of Action

Utne Reader visionary


| November-December 2010



Utne Reader Visionary Bill McKibben

Illustration: Gluekit • McKibben photo: Nancie Battaglia

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.