There were no empty seats in Marran Theater on Monday night when environmental activist and author Bill McKibben spoke; he was greeted enthusiastically by the large crowd, the majority of whom seemed very familiar with his work. Senior Katy Parr was typical: she said that she went to hear McKibben because she knew his name from learning about highly impactful social movement leaders. “One of the first truths told by Bill when he stepped on stage was that he was an introvert who would rather sit at his computer and spread the message that way, [rather] than speak in front of crowds. This honesty really inspired me; he was here for no other reason than to spread his knowledge from more than just the pages of his books. He set some framework of the reality behind climate change… He brought the harsh truth out there and kind of just left it. Leaving us with a feeling that we are so far gone with climate change that at this point all we can do is come together as a larger social movement and make bigger, tangible changes that way.”
McKibben wants everyone to know that the climate crisis is very serious and cannot be ignored. “Today the World Meteorological Organization showed that CO2 levels in the atmosphere spiked sharply upwards against last year. Ice caps are melting, sea level is rising, and weather growing more extreme. And that’s with one degree globally of temperature increase. The forecast for the rest of the century is for 4-5 degrees. This means agricultural production will decrease – for example, people living in the countryside in Russia are already beginning to move to the cities in search of food. (Soon) we are not going to have civilization as we know it,” he warned.
McKibben is realistic: “We are not going to stop global warming,” he said, “but what we can do is stop it from getting worse. We now have a stronger sense than we did 25 years ago and we know how to do it. For example, Germany has 75 percent of its power coming from the sun. Imagine what would happen if Texas or California did the same, he says. There are more solar panels in Bavaria than in the US. “It is not technology that is a limiting factor – engineers are doing their jobs, just like scientists. It’s political will that is the limiting factor here.”
He argues that if we didn’t have technology, then political will wouldn’t do us much good. And since we do, then we have real possibilities. According to McKibben, the root problem is that the fossil fuel industry is the richest on earth, and its power has prevented us from taking serious action. “Exxon made more money last year than any company in the history of money,” he added. “We are never going to be able to have enough money to compete on that turf. We are going to have to find a new currency and the only currencies we have are movements, passion, spirit, creativity and things that might stand up to that tidal wave of money.”
In a conversation after his talk, he told me that the key message he wants the audience to take away from his lecture is that there is a wide range of people from around the world who are ready to take action to change the trajectory of our planet. Organizations such as 350.org, the planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement that he founded in 2007 with a group of university students from Middlebury College, are building climate-focused campaigns, projects and actions led from the bottom-up by people in 188 countries.
So how can we as a university realistically do our part? McKibben says that Lesley divesting would have a profound impact. “If [Lesley] sold its fossil fuel stock, all its alumni would be educated on the link between oil company lobbying and our current political stalemate over climate legislation.”
Continuing the Conversation
Mary Coleman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, told me that McKibben’s talk reminds her that climate scientists have won the argument, but the fight has not been won. “McKibben raised important questions such as, how do we live locally without becoming parochial? How do we grapple with the tension around divestment? Can we save the planet if we put a price/tax on carbon? Can we manufacture political will?” According to Coleman, political will was manufactured in 1970 when 20 million people participated in Earth Day. Richard Nixon was an improbable supporter of the Clean Air Act and the EPA, she says. “He had enough political savvy to know that this was the right thing to do, though he probably did it for the wrong reasons. The fight can be won if citizens remember that while good national and international laws (treaties) are needed, stopping or stalling bad legislation is also a victory.”
“We are 44 years removed from 1970 and while I cannot be sure, I do not think we have another 40 years to save the earth. So, what must we do now to exercise a healthy responsibility for planet earth? In addition to altering our interactions with the earth, we need to exercise intelligent collective action. The CLAS Read-in is one important step. It is not just about the book; it is about sensing a collective movement to do the right thing for the right reason. It is ultimately about sustaining a planet and world civilization. I worry about the specter of environmental refugees roaming the planet in search of safe passage and protection. I worry about poor nations falling off the face of the earth. This worry is a healthy response to global warming and its power to alter our lives and our planet permanently,” she said.
David Storey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, said that one reason he attended McKibben’s talk is that he believes McKibben, and the movement he has helped to create, understand the key toward moving the needle on climate. “That key has to do with a transformation of environmentalism: it is no longer a fringe concern, a liberal special interest group, the province of upper middle class white people in developed countries. It concerns everyone (and everyone who hasn’t been born yet), and it touches on everything–our economy, our foreign policy, our food, our future. McKibben makes clear that ‘climate’ isn’t just the environment as something ‘out there’–it’s the world as we know it, urban, rural, and wild.”
One thing that McKibben signaled during his talk was the strength, the potential, and the long-term nature of the movement, says Storey. “The climate problem, he noted, is going to be with us for a long, long time; indeed, it is not the ‘war on terror’, but climate disruption, that is our true ‘generational struggle’ – it really is the transcendent challenge of the 21st century. And so the movement to combat it must be built to last; not a few protests here, a few petitions there, but a resilient and distributed network capable of expansion and replication. We have lost the culture of protest in our country, but we need to remember our history and rekindle the fire of public outcry; the golden age of environmental legislation of the early 1970s wouldn’t have happened without concerted public organization.”
During the Q&A session which took place after the talk, Storey asked McKibben what he thought the prospects are for a substantial global agreement in Paris at the end of 2015. Like many, McKibben thinks the chances for an agreement with teeth are slim, but they increase the louder and more persistent–and more demanding–the public is. In particular, he noted, part of a successful agreement would be a plan to help developing countries “skip” or “leapfrog” the stage of carbon-intensive energy production on their path of development; because if China, India, and other populous countries on the move to start living like Americans–eating more meat, driving more cars, using more air conditioning, etc.
And Now What?
McKibben’s well-received talk also included a call to action. His next big thing, he said, is an event called the People’s Climate March: “We’re marching on New York City on 9/21. It will be the largest climate protest in the planet’s history.” Without articulating it, I sensed that he was asking: “Are you on board?” A number of attendees seemed to get that message. As Katy Parr told me, “No, he is not an eloquent, forceful speaker. He is a passionate man who will do whatever it takes to get the public to open their eyes to the horror of our unnatural changing world. I’m going to be in NYC on 9/21!”
For more information about the People’s Climate March, the website is: http://peoplesclimate.org/march/