Environmental writer and organizer Bill McKibben is the only person who’s been chosen twice as an Utne Reader Visionary—first in 2001 for his writing on climate-change issues, and now in 2010 for his role as founder of 350.org, turning his expertise into passionate activism. I recently spoke with McKibben about how he helped build 350.org into a force to be reckoned with, what keeps him inspired, and how he retains his cool demeanor in heated debates about our warming world:
You’ve long been a strong voice on climate change and in fact were one of the first commentators to call widespread attention to the problem. What made you take on a more activist role by forming 350.org?
“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 go be a political organizer, someone else whose nature it was would go and build a movement. But it never happened, and it became clearer and clearer to me that that was one of the things that was really lacking—one of the reasons we were making so little progress. I’d been dealing with the most important issue we’ve ever come up against, so I figured I’d better do what I could.
“As usual, these things begin as small and manageable, and end up completely out of control. We started with a march across Vermont in the fall of 2006. That was very successful, and it grew into Step It Up in the spring of 2007, and that was very successful—we coordinated about 1,400 demonstrations on a day in April 2007, and got [Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton to change their positions on climate change. And that grew into 350.org, which has been very, very large, and so far not successful, at least in slowing global warming quite yet.”
When you say 350.org is large, are you talking about the membership of the organization?
“It doesn’t really have membership, I guess, in any traditional way. In fact, we’ve set it up not to be an organization. One of the insights we’ve had from the beginning is that in the Internet age, it’s probably less necessary to have more organizations—we have a lot of good ones yesterday—and more important to have ways to let everybody work together toward a common goal.
“So we set 350 up as a campaign and tried to make it easy for absolutely everyone to play along, and that’s what’s been happening all over the world. And I think it explains why we were able to help coordinate this massive Day of Action for last October, this thing that spanned 181 countries and that CNN said was the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
Despite high-visibility events like this, and some pretty high-profile media coverage of 350.org, why do say you haven’t been successful so far?
“Well, we didn’t actually expect that we were going to defeat on fossil fuel industry inside of a year. Movement building takes time. 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. That’s by its definition difficult work. I think it’s an open question whether a) we’ll succeed, and b) probably more, whether we’ll succeed in time. Because physics and chemistry put a very definite time limit on how much margin we have.”
Despite leading this campaign-style organization, you’re still appearing often as a talking head on climate change matters on the news, and you’re taken quite seriously as a climate change expert. How do you maintain that sort of credibility while also taking a very clear side in this fight?
“Well, I obviously can’t go do beat reporting on climate for a major newspaper or something—that would be wrong, you know, because I am a part of the—I long ago took a side that I really don’t want the planet to burn up. On the other hand, we’ve always put the science first and foremost. That’s why we operate something that attempts to really people around a wonky scientific data point.
“And I suppose there a certain amount of credibility that comes from having written the first book for a general audience about all this stuff, all those many years ago, and having unfortunately been proven right. I would frankly far rather have been proven wrong, and the damage to my ego would have been quite small compared to the damage to the planet that we’ve had instead.”
In a recent commentary for TomDispatch, which we republished on Utne.com, you pointed out that you’re a mild-mannered guy, slow to anger—and yet you wrote that you’ve basically lost patience with the lack of progress on global warming.
“Well, this has been a very brutal summer. The contrast between the very clear—we’re really seeing this summer what, in its early stages, this global warming looks like. That prospect is so disturbing, and we look at what’s going on in Pakistan, or Russia, or the Arctic, and it’s just especially disturbing when we contrast it with the incredible inaction in D.C., the lack of urgency at the White House, the lack of willingness even to take a vote in the U.S. Senate—to me that’s really scary. And yeah, I might have even said a bad word in that article, which is unlike me.”
I’ve noticed in your media appearances that you seldom come off as argumentative or confrontational—you always keep your cool when taking on arguments about climate change.
“It may be that for better or for worse, having worked on this for more than two decades now, basically as long as anybody on the planet except a few scientists, maybe my emotions get less tangled up in the middle of it all. When I was first wrote the end of nature, I was feeling—I was in a state of, not clinical depression, but I was very sad. And some part of me remains very much that way. But some other part has, in the way that we do after a long time, gotten a grip on it. And now I just—maybe it’s because I spend less time than I used to worrying about whether we are going to win or not. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I just know that it’s necessary for me to get up every day and do everything that I can think of to do.”
In that same commentary you laid out some prescriptions about where we can go from here. You wrote that “Step one involves actually talking about global warming.” How do we go about talking about it?
“Well, what I was contrasting it with was the tendency among some members of Congress or the administration to endlessly talk about it as if the real issue was that we needed some way to create green jobs, or energy independence. Now, these are all good things that would happen were we to take seriously the need to get off fossil fuel. But the need to get off fossil fuel stems from the fact that if we don’t, the planet is not going to work. And that’s what we’ve got to keep saying now with increasing urgency. Most people here, even in the United States, understand that there’s a problem with climate change. The polling shows like two-thirds of people sort of get it—but not too many of them get the fact that it’s happening now in a very dramatic and powerful fashion.”
How do we bring that home to those people who don’t understand that?
“Well, we do what we can. We write; we did this huge political rally last year; we’re doing a huge Global Work Party this October; in November we’re doing this global-scale kind of art project. We’re trying to figure out every way in. It may mean that we need to do more of the civil disobedience kind of stuff in the future that we did some of last year at the congressional power plant in D.C. We’ve got to figure out every way we can to communicate this urgency, and it’ll reach different people in different ways, of course, because we’re all wired kind of different.”
Environmentalists are often told that we’re not supposed to mention things like, oh, civilization as we know it may cease to exist if we don’t do something. But it seems to me that we’ve got to start talking candidly about this. How do we do that without setting off this fear response that allegedly is unhealthy for people?
“I don’t know—and so my default mechanism is just to tell the truth. You know what my books are about. The last book, Eaarth (Times Books, 2010), was no punches pulled. It’s a pretty grim first chapter, it must be said. But it’s just a recitation of the evidence about where we are, with no attempt to sort of showboat it or anything—just say it: Here’s what’s going on, right now. And it’s possible that—you can make an argument that we need to figure out some other message or framing or something—I’m not clever enough to do it. So my default mechanism is just to tell people the truth. And 350 is kind of the height of that. That’s the most important number we know about the world right now.”
Clearly, there’s plenty of discouraging news in climate change action these days. What is it that inspires you day to day, keeps you encouraged and going?
“The incredible outpouring of people all over the world. I go and look at the 25,000 pictures in the Flickr account at 350.org when I get really down about all this, and I see people all over the world, most of whom do not look the way that Americans think environmentalists do—i.e. rich white people. Most of them are black, brown, Asian, poor, young, because that’s what most of the world is, you know. That people in orphanages in Indonesia and slums in Mombasa, and in every kind of circumstance on earth, can join hands to stand up on this stuff, then I can’t find any good reason why I shouldn’t keep trying.”
I know you were tremendously disappointed by the lack of progress in Copenhagen at the climate talks, having read some of your post-conference coverage. Presumably the world is going to have to get around a table again to talk about this—how can we avoid the gridlock and inertia that bogged things down in Denmark?
“The only way we can avoid it is if we built a movement strong enough to have some real power. Look, in the end this isn’t about figuring out some magic set of words, or some perfect conference protocol. This is about power, and at the moment the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable business humans have ever engaged in, has enough power to easily beat back the steps that need to be taken to preserve the planet. So unless we can build a movement that has enough power to beat back the fossil fuel industry, then we’re never going to have good outcomes.”