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Worldchanging Interview: Bill McKibben

This article was written by Emily Gertz in April 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Bill%20McKibben.jpg Bill McKibben is one of America's leading environmental writers. HIs first book, The End of Nature (1989), was well ahead of its time as the first book for a general audience about global warming. In his latest, Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben examines the unintended and intertwined consequences of both fossil fuel dependence and economic globalization. Strengthening local economies is essential to creating an ecologically sustainable future, says McKibben, as well as more genuine satisfaction with our modern lives. He urges you to buy your copy from your local independent bookstore. McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Emily Gertz: You've got a lot going on: you've been helping to organize a day of nationwide demonstrations for action on global warming on April 14, and you have a new book coming out.

Bill McKibben: To me, they're the emergency response to the situation we're in, and the long-term response to the situation we're in.

EG: Why don't we start with the emergency response -- what's the Step It Up campaign?

BM: I should say at the beginning that it's really not my forte, this organizing stuff. I'm a writer; I wrote the first book on global warming way back in 1989. And I've watched with increasing despair over the years, as we've done nothing in this country.

So, last Labor Day, I organized with a few friends a 50-mile walk across the state of Vermont for climate action. It was entirely successful: we had a thousand people at our final rally, which is a lot in the state of Vermont. The papers the next day said this was the largest rally on global warming that there had yet been in this country, which struck me as pathetic.

So, we decided to see if we could do a modest national campaign. When I say "we," I mean me, and six Middlebury College students who were getting paid $100 a week. We launched a web site on January 10th, asking people if they would organize rallies in their home communities to fight global warming on April 14th, and told them that we would try to link these all together via the web into some interesting thing. We expected we might get a couple of hundred at most -- a hundred, maybe two hundred if we were lucky.

After about just over two months, we had nine hundred and fifty-some rallies scheduled in all fifty states. It's clearly going to be the largest grassroots environmental protest of any kind since Earth Day 1970.

We're very hopeful that this is changing some of the feeling about this issue on Capitol Hill; we're getting a lot of Congress people coming on board. One presidential candidate, John Edwards, endorsed our demand for eighty percent cuts in atmospheric carbon emissions by 2050.

It's taken off amazingly -- not because we're great organizers, but because people are really ready to try and do something about this problem. They realize that screwing in a light bulb is a really good thing, but they also realize that it's not solving the problem. You almost feel that as you're physically turning the light bulb. So they want to figure out how to be active as citizens as well.

UncleSam2.jpg What's really remarkable is the degree to which we've been able to organize this odd hybrid of a thing: local demonstrations about climate change. And they're happening in the most amazing ways. People are scuba diving in the coral reefs off the Florida Keys, which are endangered by global warming, as underwater demonstrations. Or skiing down dwindling glaciers in the Rockies, or gathering thousands of people in blue shirts in lower Manhattan, a kind of Sea of People that will show where the water's going to be when the sea level starts to rise. It should be fantastic -- all that creativity.

But we've also been able to make it national, using the web. I think it's a beginning of a new kind of political organizing, that's able to be dispersed and yet add up to more than the sum of it's parts.

EG: Have you heard of the concept of the second superpower: civil society powered by networked communications -- like the internet and mobile phones -- which allows seemingly a seemingly scattered constituency to become a real counterweight to government power?

BM: Well this is a perfect example of that. I can't imagine how we would have possibly organized this before the web; we would have needed a huge organization. Instead we're going to pull off this enormous thing with a budget of about $100 thousand: seven of us sitting in a room, and tens of thousands of people in their local communities, working really hard to make those local events happen.

EG: What moved you out of the more standoffish journalist's role into organizing?

BM: It's not the very first time I've moved off that role a little bit. A few of us protesting in Washington about six or seven years ago were the first people arrested in this country who were demonstrating about global warming. But the time wasn't right. It couldn't catch on.

Now the time is right, it is catching on, and it's been a pleasure to be a small part of enabling that to happen.

EG: What's changed since you wrote your book about global warming, The End of Nature, in 1989?

BM: For along time, nothing changed. But in the past three years a couple things changed. The science has gotten a lot worse; we really understand just how high the stakes are. Hurricane Katrina blew open a door in the public's consciousness. And Al Gore walked through that door with his movie, and really educated people.

What we're trying to do now is to capitalize on that education, and turn it into action.

EG: Your new book, Deep Economy, isn't just about global warming: it's speaking to broader kinds of dissatisfaction that Americans are feeling with their lives today.

BM: Absolutely. It's interesting; one of the bad effects of fossil fuel is that it's destroying the world. And another is that in odd ways it managed to make our lives less happy instead of more. The endless expansion of our economy stopped producing more satisfaction about fifty years ago. That's when Americans started to become steadily less happy and less satisfied with their lives.

It's remarkable, that statistic, because that same fifty years has seen us treble the amount of stuff that we have. If any of the things that we tell ourselves all the time about the economy were true, those numbers would move in the same direction, not opposite directions. But the fact that they're moving apart like that should cause us feel a little sad that we've wasted this much effort and caused this much damage to the environment without accomplishing anything in terms of human satisfaction. And it should make us think a little harder about what we're going to do in the future. The idea of "more" and "better" being the same thing is very tired now, and you can't make much of a case for it with the data. So it's time to think more cleverly.

EG: How are we going to make that case to countries like India and China, where they're still barely on the cusp of "more"?

BM: I don't think that's the first place it needs to be made. We spent a hundred years getting rich putting carbon in the atmosphere. We can't very well say, well, we used it all up, so you're going to have to think of something else. The Chinese are smart; they know that coal is the cheapest possible option. If they're not going to use it, then they should be recompensed to some degree for that. There's an international deal waiting to be made, and everyone knows its basic outlines. The only question is whether we'll step up and make it or not.

The book talks a lot about China in particular. There are many places in China where people are still at a point in their economic development where "more" and "better" are pretty closely linked. If you're living eight to a room in a hovel in rural China, trying to support your family on a half-acre of not very good farmland, then it's pretty easy to understand why a little more income, and the chance to eat a little better, and maybe have two rooms instead of one, would be a pretty attractive proposition.

One of the big questions for the world is whether China's going to develop on a more European or a more American model. It makes a big difference, because Europeans use half as much energy as Americans do. They consume less. They live in somewhat smaller houses. They take public transportation, which they tax themselves to pay for. Their disposable income is about two-thirds of what an American's is. They have less in the way of material goods, but they take their productivity in guaranteed health care, in guaranteed education for their children, in a guaranteed retirement even if they're not rich, and on and on and on.

EG: In Deep Economy you offer the example of a Norwegian office worker who sits at her desk at lunchtime and eats the sandwich she brought from home, and doesn't feel deprived; she feels very content. Compare that to America, where if you're not going out during lunch hour and spending $15 on a big bowl of salad, you're missing out.

BM: Our perception of what is necessary is out of whack. The world is telling us so: the temperature is going up. And our own society is telling us so: if our consumption was making us unbelievably happy, then there would be no hope of changing it no matter what damage it was doing. We'd have a Pavlovian reaction and just keep hitting the lever. But since that's not true, there's some real hope for things to begin to change.

We're beginning to see it happening: farmers markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy, and that's not because they're old-fashioned and rustic. It's because these are people who are using a combination of old and very new ideas about agriculture to produce good food and produce good livings, and do it for a lot of people. And they're also able to make the rest of us happier because we've got something good to eat, and we've got a place to buy it that's way more congenial than the supermarket.

Sociologists last year followed shoppers around farmers markets and around supermarkets. They found people having 10 times more conversations in the farmer's markets. That's a big number. And they were using about 10 times less energy to feed themselves than the rest of us who were just ordering takeout from two thousand miles away every night of the year.

EG: In your book you describe the Intervale, an area of a couple hundred acres in Burlington, Vermont that's been reclaimed by organic farmers, and now supplies a significant amount of fresh produce to the city, which is the largest in Vermont. But the population of Burlington is pretty small, around 200,000. How do you imagine something like that playing out in a city on the scale of New York?

BM: It's harder to imagine in New York, until you start to reflect on the fact that 75 years ago, the New York metropolitan area supplied all its own food, not just the 10 percent that the Intervale's managing to supply in Burlington. We call New Jersey "the Garden State" for a reason. Some of that soil -- too much -- is covered up with housing developments, but there's still a lot of it left.

There's a lot of land north of New York, in Westchester County, and beyond, all the way up into the southern tier of the state of New York, good and productive land that's been growing into scrub forest for two or three generations because we weren't growing food on it; we've been buying it all from the Midwest. It's quite possible to imagine the remarkable expansion of the very successful green markets all over the city extending to the poorer parts of Brooklyn and Queens, as well as the one in Union Square.

And it's quite possible to imagine lots of other changes. The building code in New York City should make sure that every new skyscraper is a net energy producing building, which wouldn't be hard -- it's huge panels of glass exposed to the sun. We should be working hard to reduce energy use across the city with all the interesting technologies that we've figured out. New York is already a pretty green place in terms of its energy use, and it could get greener still.

EG: What sobers me is the power of some of these government-supported industries to resist change. Big Ag has been getting subsidies to grow corn to feed beef cattle and to export. And now the inexorable weight of the system seems to be making corn-based ethanol a central point of a new national alternative energy plan -- even though it's perhaps the worst way to go about creating a fuel alternative.

BM: You're essentially exactly right about the enormous, cycling power of those self-reinforcing subsidies.

EG: Where do you see the fault lines in reforming the system?

BM: The only way to beat it -- and it may not happen -- is with really strong citizen political action.

I remember interviewing John McCain some years ago, in the Senate, and he said, global warming is an easy call for us. Exxon made $40 billion dollars in profit last year, and that buys a fair amount of influence. We hear every day from these fossil fuel lobbyists, and we never hear a thing from our constituents about global warming.

I'm sure it's the same thing with industrial agriculture.

EG: Last year I heard you speak on a panel that included representatives from Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Dupont. It struck me that you were going against the prevailing enthusiasm for the consumer green movement, but were genuinely excited about some of Dupont's commitments.

BM: The consumption that we do have should be green. People need light bulbs. There's no reason not to buy a compact florescent light bulb; in fact, we shouldn't even sell anything else. But the man from Wal-mart made a very revealing point when he said, the reason we want to sell these things is they'll save our customers X numbers of millions of dollars of energy, and we know from our studies that they will spend 38 percent of that or something shopping at Wal-mart for things they couldn't afford to buy before.

That's the problem! It's going to take not just more efficient technologies; it's going to take a different approach to the endless growth cycle of our world. And solely turning it over to the corporations to make those changes isn't going to work. We need to fashion the playing field to restrict a lot of things about what everyone can and can't do, and empower a lot of things that are impossible now precisely because of the power of those huge corporations. It's very difficult to do responsible agriculture in a world where we subsidize irresponsible agriculture. It's very difficult to get renewable energy going in a world where we subsidize destructive energy.

The Coke guy was similarly interesting. Yeah, they're doing whatever they're doing to be greener; but they're also trying to sell people with perfectly good water supplies yet more plastic bottles of water. If there's any commodity on earth that symbolizes the pointlessness of our economy, it's got to be bottled water. It's a product that would actually be useful in certain parts of the world that have terrible water supplies, but of course no one there can afford it, and it's completely unnecessary in all the places that they're selling it.

EG: That's the inherent contradiction of a place like Whole Foods: it makes it easier for many people to buy food that's healthier, and often sustainably produced, but there's a whole wall of little bottled drinks greeting you at the checkout line. It's not really discouraging you from making those choices, it's encouraging them.

BM: Those choices will only be discouraged as our economy begins to change to reflect the real cost of energy. If the cost of energy reflected the damage fossil fuels are doing to the environment, we would not be shipping water in little plastic bottles around the continent on trucks.

That's the first half of the economic revolution that we need. The second half is to start asking, "What is an economy for?" Is the point of the economy to grow larger all the time, and is it our job to help that happen? Or is the economy meant to service the needs of people, and to make them more satisfied than they were before?

If that's the answer, then we need an economy that not only values environmental damages correctly, but also that promotes those things that human beings need, like community, as much as it promotes accumulation and acquisition.

EG: What are companies like Dupont doing that you find so exciting and encouraging?

BM: In those sorts of primary producer categories, people are doing much more straightforward work. They want to save some energy, so they're saving it: they reconfigured their systems to allow them to do things far more efficiently. It didn't require a lot of preaching, it just happened. There's not the same kind of gamesmanship that's going on in the consumer sector.

EG: Do you imagine that we're going to see legislation mandating carbon caps in the country this year?

BM: I don't know about this year; it's possible that President Bush is such an idiot that we won't see anything until he leaves office. But if not, then we'll see them in the first two months of the next presidential administration. The only question is if they're going to be tough ones or not. The industries know this; they're going to try and cut an easy deal. We have to make them cut a much harder deal. And when we do, all the kinds of technological change we need to make will be much easier.

Right now, the force of economic gravity works in the wrong direction. Every good thing has to fight against that force, because we assess no penalty on fossil fuel for its environmental devastation. If we did, then that economic gravity would work to support a thousand great technological and cultural changes, and we would really start to see, not a thousand flowers bloom, but a thousand solar panels unfold, a thousand windmills spin.

EG: What about nuclear power? Some very prominent environmentalists, like British scientist James Lovelock, are supporting expansion of nuclear as the only way to produce the amount of energy modern societies need without contributing to global warming.

BM: If you want to hand me $2 billion to build a nuclear reactor, I can show you two billion things to do with it that would get you a lot more carbon bang for the buck, mostly to do with conservation. Spend that money going around your state and refitting every industrial motor to make it three times as efficient. Go stuff insulation in every old house in your state. Take your $2 billion and go to Wal-mart and buy compact florescent bulbs, and mail them at random to everybody in the phone book, and you'd get more bang for your buck than building a nuclear power plant.

The one thing I will say is that it's very useful to talk about it, because it allows people to understand that a new coal-fired power plant is at least as dangerous as a nuclear-fired one. A nuclear power plant carries risks; a new coal-fired plant carries the absolute certainty of climatic destruction.

EG: Americans are not well known for embracing energy conservation.

BM: It's only going to happen if it's driven by the economic system. And that's what all this carbon cap and trade stuff is about. The effect is going to be drive up the price of fossil fuel, and cause people to conserve, and to invent the technology that will allow us to conserve more easily.

EG: So you're not necessarily looking for a big moral transformation?

BM: No. We just need enough of a political outcry to cause us to start changing the rules of the game. And once we change the rules of the game, all kinds of things will happen, including that we'll build local economies that work in a much more congenial fashion than the economies we have at the moment.

EG: Do you imagine that someday in a city like New York, most people will have some chickens growing backyard in addition to going to work on Madison Avenue?

BM: No, I doubt that. I think that self-sufficiency is the wrong goal, and it feeds right into our American individualist thing. Sufficiency in a region or a locality is what we're after. Even that's not going to be total; you can't produce everything. But the trajectory should be in the direction of regions that are able to take better care of their own needs. Redefining efficiency in that direction will be really helpful.

EG: One thing I think about when I read materials, such as your book, that discuss the need for this sort of transformation for ecological and environmental reasons, is that certain types of human rights that were realized in the 20th century came directly as a result of modernization. I'm thinking of women's rights in particular. I worry that when we talk about a resurgence of localism and regionalism, we're not considering whether or not that type of flexibility in who we are in society is going to erode.

BM: That's a very good question. The problem with localism in the past is that it's also been parochial and stifling. We happen to live in an era with this great new technology, the web, which allows people to live locally and be part of something large. The metaphor that I like to use for it is a society that's easily able to trade recipes with people around the world, but doesn't have to trade ingredients with people around the world. That can trade ideas, which are easily portable, and doesn't have to move oil through pipelines that we need to defend with soldiers.

I think that it's much easier than it's ever been in the past to imagine a localized world that isn't parochial, where people are much better citizens of the world because they're good citizens of their own place.

Full Disclosure, or Way Small World Department: Bill McKibben is a board member of and contributes to Grist Magazine. I have written several articles for Grist, and occasionally contribute to the magazine's blog, Gristmill.

Worldchanging Interview: Bill McKibben on Creating the Durable Future is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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That's a very good question. The problem with localism in the past is that it's also been parochial and stifling. We happen to live in an era with this great new technology, the web, which allows people to live locally and be part of something large. The metaphor that I like to use for it is a society that's easily able to trade recipes with people around the world, but doesn't have to trade ingredients with people around the world.

Posted by: Robin on 20 Sep 08



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