"We're not going to outspend Exxon, obviously, so we have to find other currencies to work with, the currencies of movements, passion, spirit and creativity." – Bill McKibben
By Francesca Rheannon
Super typhoon Haiyan bore down on the Philipines just a few days before this year’s UN Climate Change Conference opened in Warsaw. It packed sustained winds of 190 miles per hour, with gusts up to 230 mph. Some weather scientists are saying that it was “off the charts” – an unprecedented Category Six typhoon – except that “Category Six” doesn’t yet exist in the weather lexicon. It was the second year in a row that a devastating typhoon coincided with the climate talks. Is Mother Nature trying to tell world leaders something?
From Armchair to Activist
One person who has been trying to bring Mother Nature’s message to those who will decide the fate of the climate – and with it, our civilization – is climate activist Bill McKibben. In 2009, with just seven of his Middlebury College students, he started a movement to solve the climate crisis with the launching of 350.org. That movement has spread like wildfire, sparking the proliferation of grassroots climate activists everywhere.
Yet McKibben is a reluctant activist. A journalist of longstanding, he has been writing about climate change and the environment since his 1982 book, The End of Nature. He is most comfortable writing, teaching and relaxing at his home in rural Vermont with his family and neighbors.
But in 2009 he had reached a point where the “terrifying new math of global warming” presented him with a problem: was he going to continue just writing about the climate crisis—or was he going to do something about it?
He decided to take action. His latest book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, tells the story of building a grassroots movement for climate action that spans the globe – an example of the “Blessed Unrest” eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawken has written about.
Fighting Money Power with the Currency of Movements
I spoke with McKibben several months ago about Oil And Honey. I started out by asking him what was the catalyst that prompted him to make the shift from observer to activist:
At the time I wrote The End of Nature 20 years ago, I assumed—and I think most people assumed—that, given the fact that all our finest scientists were trotting up to Capitol Hill every year to explain what was going on, eventually action would happen.
But that turns out not to be how our system works in this case. The financial power of the fossil fuel industry was so great that it was necessary to try and build some countervailing power. We're not going to outspend Exxon, obviously, so we have to find other currencies to work with, the currencies of movements, passion, spirit and creativity.
In the five years since you started 350.org, climate activism has blossomed into a worldwide movement. Why did it take fire?
There were a lot of people around the country – and the world – eager to do something about climate change. The trouble is, climate change feels so big that it's not clear that any of us can do anything effective about it as individuals. So we tend to try to ignore it or wish it away. But the minute that we were able to suggest that there was political action to be taken on a scale that might actually matter, then there were lots of people ready to go to work.
Leading the Charge with the KXL Pipeline Fight
You started out by zeroing in on the Keystone XL pipeline. Why did you to choose that issue to launch your climate campaign?
Because the pipeline is very important. The tar sands in Canada are one of the largest pools of carbon on earth. Right now, the atmosphere is about 400 ppm of carbon dioxide – which is already too high. The Arctic is melting as a result. But if we burned all the oil up in Alberta, that number would go to about 540 ppm. So, this is a very big deal and the President is getting to make the call about this pipeline himself, without having our crazy Congress in the way. It seemed like a really important place to make a stand.
The first demonstration about the Keystone XL pipeline was at the White House. Over a period of a few weeks, more than 1,200 people got arrested, including you and climate scientist James Hansen. You say it was a moment when “insider environmentalism” got taken over by grassroots power. Talk about these two different wings of the environmental movement.
At this point, I don't think there are different wings. We're becoming a much more unified movement. The environmental movement had become very professionalized for a number years, centered in Washington. But I think that everyone involved had wanted a movement to emerge; I think it was exciting for them to see it happen.
And now people have jumped on board in a big way. The Sierra Club, our oldest and most influential environmental group, is changing its charter so it can take part in civil disobedience for the first time in 120 years. That's what happens when people really start to see the possibilities.
Learning to Flex Political Muscle
It's fascinating to read in your book, Oil And Honey, how you learned how to build a movement and how to exercise the political muscle as a grassroots movement against the power of the fossil fuel lobby in Washington. What were some of the most important lessons you learned?
That, left to their own devices, [the fossil fuel lobby] always wins, because they have all money. But it's not impossible to stand up to them because they don't have a lot of public support and they've lost the scientific argument. So, if one does the hard work that many thousands of people have done to stand up to them, then there’s some chance, at least.
It's a lot harder than it should be. This tar sands is a just horrible idea, a Rube Goldberg machine for producing global warming. It couldn't be more gross and stupid. So it shouldn’t take a lot of people going to jail to stop it but that's what it does take. And it's good that there are people willing to do that.
Going on Offense with Fossil Fuel Divestment
You write that there was a certain point where decided you had to stop playing defense and go on offense. What do you mean by that?
We're not going to stop global warming one pipeline at a time. There's just too many. We have to oppose every bad project that comes up but we've also got to try and put the fossil fuel industry on the defensive, because their political power keeps us from ever discussing things like a price on carbon, which we need to get out of the trouble that we're in.
So our thought was to look around history and see where there have been effective corporate campaigns. The last really big example in this country was the one against apartheid a generation ago. And what was really effective then was divestments by colleges and universities, cities and churches.
We launched the fossil fuel divestment movement last November and it's been spreading very quickly. There are 380 campuses where this fight is underway and six or seven of them have divested. The United Church of Christ divested this summer. A lot of cities, like Seattle and San Francisco are divesting.
We’re going after the big institutional investors because that's where it's most obvious and public about what's going on. Our job is not to bankrupt Exxon – it's not possible, at least in the short run. Our job is to politically bankrupt them and I think we're beginning to make progress. It'll take a few years. And the fight is as good as the win. We're telling people over and over the story of the fossil fuel industry and why they've become a rogue industry.
You end the book at the big climate rally last February; 50,000 people were there. I was one of them with my son and my granddaughter. What did you feel when you looked out over that crowd?
When I got up on the stage and looked over the crowd, I just blurted out what I was thinking, which was, “I’ve waited my whole life to see a climate movement develop and now it finally has.” It was very beautiful to see.
Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from Francesca’s radio interview with Bill McKibben for her weekly book show, Writers Voice.