‘This Is About Power’: An Interview With Bill McKibben

| 10/14/2010 4:53:28 PM

Tags: climate change, global warming, environmental activism, 350.org, Bill McKibben, Utne Reader Visionaries 2010, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Bill McKibbenEnvironmental 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.