My guest this week, Bill McKibben, is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, and the Schumann Distinguished Professor in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He was a 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize, and the Gandhi Peace Award. He has written over a dozen books about the environment. His first, The End of Nature, was published 30 years ago. He lives in the mountains above Lake Champlain with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, where he spends as much time as possible outdoors. In 2014, biologists credited his career by naming a new species of woodland gnat—Megophthalmidia mckibbeni–in his honour.
As I mention in our conversation, the first time I first met Bill was at the Blue Vision Summit in Washington DC back in 2009, and he blew my socks off with his combination of solid science and electrifying passion. Then we marched together in Copenhagen in December of that year during the COP15 UN climate change conference, under the banner of 350.org.
Bill is one of the most tenacious eco-warriors I know, and a great inspiration to me. In this conversation we talk about climate change – of course – but also oil companies, denial and disinformation, the Koch brothers, Greta Thunberg, solar power, the work of science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, New York, Washington, COP26, the book of Job, nuclear bombs, the role of over 60s in climate activism, and bush-whacking (and I don’t mean the former president).
I hope you enjoy our conversation. You might be interested to know that we also publish the VIDEO of these conversations to our Patreon page, at Patreon.com/sowingtheseedsofchange.
Bill’s favourite quote was: “There are no lost causes, only causes not yet won.” –Norman Thomas. Well worth holding as a mantra, when all seems hopeless.
Here are my favourite quotes from Bill himself:
The fact that we failed to do it [implement free healthcare in the US] for all those years won’t make it harder to do – it will still be there to work on. And climate change really isn’t like that. If you don’t solve it fairly quickly, in fact, very quickly, then you don’t solve it at all, because you pass a series of tipping points that are irreversible.
They [the oil companies] embarked across the industry on a multi-billion dollar campaign to build this kind of architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation, that would keep people engaged in a completely sterile debate about whether or not climate change was real. A debate, remember, that both sides knew the answer to – it’s just that one of them was willing to lie about it. And it turns out to have been the most consequential lie in human history, because it cost us 30 years when we could have been at work.
[On conscious acts of civil disobedience, which has seen Bill put in handcuffs and jailed multiple times] People have to go to jail over and over and over again, to make our institutions pay attention to basic physics. But we do apparently have to do that over and over again.
The kind of analysis deepened among people building movements, and we began to have very particular lines of attack, taking on fossil fuel expansion, things like the Keystone XL pipeline. That turned into huge movements that helped more people understand what was going on, maybe most effectively this vast fossil fuel divestment movement, that’s now become the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind in history, about $15 trillion in endowments and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuel, including Oxford, Cambridge, as of last week, Harvard.
[On the woodland gnat, Megophthalmidia mckibbeni] It seemed appropriate that they would name a pesky insect in my honour, and I was very grateful to the biologists for having done so.
At this point, we’re not playing to stop global warming anymore. That’s not on the list of options. We’re playing to stop it short of the point where it cuts civilizations off at the knees. And it’s a very open question whether we’ll be able to do that or not. The momentum of these physical systems is enormous and scary, and against it, we still have a relatively puny band of people who are willing to devote all of themselves to making change as best they can.
Exxon is not ever going to change. It knows how to do one thing, which is dig up stuff and set it on fire.
If you’re JPMorgan Chase, yes, you make a lot of money lending to the fossil fuel industry, but it’s still only six or 7% of your deal book, so maybe, maybe you can figure out how to sacrifice that much in favour of the planet surviving.
It was Oppenheimer watching that [first atomic bomb] explosion who quoted from the Hindu scripture, from the Bhagavad Gita: We are become as Gods, destroyers of worlds. So far, we haven’t managed to blow the world up with nuclear weapons, thank heaven, because I think we could imagine the damage that would result. But we’ve had a harder time imagining that the explosion of a billion cylinders inside a billion pistons every second of every day, could accomplish the same kind of damage.
One of our jobs is to figure out how to make ourselves so much smaller, and fit back into the world around us.
Physics and biology don’t negotiate, they don’t compromise, they don’t meet you in the middle, they just do what they do. And if you insist on believing that they will, then you will end up living on a world where the temperature gets so high that, if it’s not exactly hell, it’s roughly the same temperature.
We’re past the point where your individual action can actually solve climate change, we’re not going to deal with the math of climate change one Tesla at a time, one vegan dinner at a time. The most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual, and join together with others in movements large enough to make some kind of difference.
Bill’s latest book is called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? which Naomi Klein described as “A love letter, a plea, a eulogy, and a prayer. This is Bill McKibben at his glorious best. Wise and warning, with everything on the line. Do not miss it.”
Bill’s website is billmckibben.com
Our Patreon page: Patreon.com/sowingtheseedsofchange