Bill McKibben: Love and Justice

An interview with the founder, Keystone resister, Occupy supporter, Jesus follower (and, yes, Thoreau scholar)

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present…. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated…. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament — the gospel according to this moment.”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

“My only real fear is that the reality described in this book, and increasingly evident in the world around us, will be for some an excuse to give up. We need just the opposite — increased engagement. Some of that engagement will be local: building the kind of communities and economies that can withstand what’s coming. And some of it must be global: we must step up the fight to keep climate change from getting even more powerfully out of control, and to try to protect those people most at risk, who are almost always those who have done the least to cause the problem.”
-Bill McKibben,
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010)

“With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
-Climate activist Tim DeChristopher, after his sentencing in federal court in Salt Lake City, July 26, 2011

I went for my usual walk out behind our house this morning, after dropping my daughter off at school. (She’ll be eight next month; my son is twelve.) I wore shorts, a t-shirt, and an open flannel shirt. At the edge of the wet meadow along the brook, something caught my eye. I crouched down, and at my feet, among green tufts emerging from the mud, was a tiny, bright-red blossom. I looked up and realized that the branches of the big maple next to me were covered with them.  The sun, two hours up, slanted through the trees across the brook. Cool breeze on my bare forearms and legs. A sublime morning — for April. Or late May, which is what it felt like: 60 degrees at 9 a.m., headed to 80-plus today — March 21 — the first day of spring, whatever that means anymore.

What the seasons mean anymore, what nature means anymore, is a question Bill McKibben has been contemplating — in all its complexity, and all its urgency — for more than two decades.

Perhaps you’ve heard of McKibben.  He’s the lanky, mild-mannered writer, Middlebury College environmental scholar, and founder of the global grassroots climate movement, who introduced the general public to global warming back in 1989 with his classic The End of Nature — and delivered hard truths about our failure to address it in his 2010 book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

He’s also, of course, as a recent cover story in The Boston Globe Magazine put it (with only slight hyperbole), “The man who crushed the Keystone XL pipeline.”

And if you’ve heard of that pipeline — the one that the Republican presidential candidates keep talking about,  which promised to carry oil from the Alberta “tar sands” across the U. S. border to the Gulf of Mexico for export — it’s largely because of McKibben. Or rather, it’s because McKibben and the 1,252 other people who were arrested with him in front of the White House last September — and the 12,000 who encircled the White House with him in November, along with thousands more supporters around the country — persuaded the Obama administration, against great odds and the interests of the oil industry, to reject the pipeline on environmental grounds. The administration cited climate (barely) in its decision. What it didn’t cite are the countless lives at stake in our ever-increasing pursuit of fossil fuels and our half-hearted pursuit of alternatives. (UPDATE: President Obama spoke in Cushing, Oklahoma on Thursday about his support for building the southern section of the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben had this to say at Huffington Post.)

McKibben will speak this Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Weston High School auditorium, in neighboring Weston, Mass. I’ve worked with him now and then over the years (when I was an editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe), and I’ve exchanged occasional emails with him in the past two years as I’ve become involved in the regional grassroots climate movement (including as a volunteer organizer of the Moving Planet rally in Boston last Sept. 24, part of the global event spearheaded by  So I reached out to McKibben to see if he was game for an email interview ahead of his Weston talk. He said he was. The interview, lightly edited, follows.

Wen Stephenson

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WS: What would an honest conversation about climate change sound like?

MCKIBBEN: We would say, 1) This is not a future problem. We’re already being overwhelmed by climate change, in all kinds of places around the planet. On May 5, will do a global day called Connect the Dots, that will be about rallying people who have suffered the effects of global warming already — which is damn close to everyone at this point. We just came through, in this privileged and temperate country, a year with the most multi-billion-dollar weather disasters in history — my state, Vermont, very nearly washed away.

So, too late to stop it.

And 2) It will just get worse and worse unless we break the power of the fossil fuel industry and move quickly away from coal and gas and oil. We’ve raised the temperature 1 degree Celsius so far, and that’s made the atmosphere 4 percent wetter, loading the dice for drought and flood. The same climatologists who warned about that assure us we’re staring at 4 or 5 degrees more unless we get our act together. We’ve almost certainly bought another degree already — now we’re playing for whether it’s going to be a truly difficult century or an impossible one.

WS: How do you convince the mainstream media to take that message seriously?

MCKIBBEN: I think the more action we take, and the more of a movement we build, the more they’ll notice. Time ran a smart piece about our efforts a couple of weeks ago, and the Globe a few weeks before that. If we’re not acting in ways that matter, I imagine we won’t get much attention, especially since it’s far easier to side with the status quo.

WS: As you know, there’s a growing sense that we need to start talking, in a far more urgent way, about adaptation and resilience. We just saw a big new report from Climate Central on the impact of sea-level rise on U.S. coastal cities (with an interactive map). But will any amount of adaptation be enough if we don’t stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere?

MCKIBBEN: My last two books — my intellectual work as opposed to my activism — have been largely about the need to build strong, working local communities around the world. At we sponsor things like a Global Work Party that brings together people in virtually every country for just this kind of work.

But they all realize that if we don’t take serious climate action it won’t matter. You can maybe build a seawall to protect Manhattan from a meter of sea-level rise, but almsot certainly not five. (And you can’t build one in Bangladesh at all.) You can have the best local agriculture system on earth, but if it rains every day for a month you aren’t growing anything.

WS: The Keystone fight has been portrayed as a classic battle between big oil interests and “environmentalists.” Even between “jobs” and “energy security,” on the one hand, and “special interest” environmental groups. Does that reflect reality, as you see it? What has the Keystone fight really been about?

MCKIBBEN: It was a battle between people power and the power of the biggest money on earth. Environmentalism in this case gave way to a kind of grassroots populist movement that carried off the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country.

Our win is doubtless temporary, and in any event doesn’t stop climate change. But it does show us some of the ways forward. We’re going to have to find different currencies to work in — passion, spirit, creativity. Sometimes we’re going to have to spend our bodies.

WS: Speaking of which, in “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau wrote: “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.” You went to jail last September for a principle. What was that principle? And did you see your action, and that of all the others who joined you, as in some way revolutionary?

MCKIBBEN: No, I think I’m a deep conservative in many ways. I’d like to see the world remain in something like the shape it was in when I was born on to it, and I’d like to see our democracy in something like the shape my civics classes told me it was. (Remember, I spent my high school summers guiding tours on Lexington Green; I have a somewhat nostalgic and sentimental view of what America should be like.)

Now, to keep the world and our country together, we will have to overturn some of the power of the 1 percent, but that’s not revolutionary to me — it seems more like, I don’t know, rehabilitation.

WS: You’ve strongly supported the Occupy movement, and you’ve drawn a clear connection between climate and the political power of the 1 percent. What’s the connection?

MCKIBBEN: Occupy brilliantly brought to the top of the political agenda an issue of enormous importance: the sheer unfairness of our current political and economic life.

Climate change illustrates the problem perfectly — the 1 percent of the 1 percent (the fossil fuel indsutry, richest enterprise ever) uses its money to warp the political system so they can go on wrecking the planet and foreclosing our futures. That’s why the [OWS] NY General Assembly was outspoken in its opposition to Keystone, why Occupy Portland surrounded the federal building there the same day we encircled the White House.

What I said when I spoke through the human microphone in lower Manhattan stands: “Wall Street has been occupying the atmosphere for decades — it’s about time we returned the favor.”

WS: I tell my environmentally conscious friends here that the most important thing they can do right now — this election year — is help make sure we have two U.S. Senators from Massachusetts who accept climate science and support taking action. But I often run up against a wall of cynicism about politics, and a deep disillusionment with President Obama.

MCKIBBEN: If you think about politics as “who will I vote for?” it’s easy to get cynical. The best of them are very compromised (always excepting Bernie Sanders!). But Election Day is just one day in the political calendar — you use it to choose the person you might have some hope of influencing, and then you spend the next 364 days trying to influence them.

The thing that’s reasonable to say about Barack Obama is he’s potentially swayable, with a ton of work. That’s about as much as you can hope for. We had to turn ourselves inside out on this Keystone fight — but we could have done it ten times over and not reached Mitt Romney.

Politics that counts is mostly about building movements, about accumulating enough strength to be able to match the money of the fossil fuel industry. We’ve done our best at, and we’re getting somewhere. Fast enough? Don’t know. We’re going all-out, but we’re clearly behind.

WS: Joe Nocera ended his NYT column about Keystone on Feb. 11 (in which he quoted you) with this: “But let’s be honest. [Stopping Keystone is] not going to change anyone’s behavior. If Keystone is ultimately blocked, the far more likely result is that everyone who opposed it will get to feel good about themselves while still commuting to work, alone, in their S.U.V.’s.”  So, how’s your SUV running these days?  But seriously, what the heck is Nocera talking about here? And do you think his level of understanding is representative of the mainstream media?

MCKIBBEN: Look, the best defense against ever having to do anything is cynicism. Nothing matters, why bother, they’re all hypocrites, and so on. In truth, the people who turned out to block Keystone aren’t driving SUVs — they’re committed to making change.

WS: Who do you see in The Times and elsewhere in the media who really get it? And not just science reporters and bloggers. I mean elite opinion influencers.

MCKIBBEN: There are lots of good reporters on these issues — at The Times alone, Justin Gillis is doing very solid straightforward reporting on climate and Ian Urbina is doing incredible work on uncovering the truth about fracking. Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post. Tom Zeller, late of The Times, now on staff at the Huffington Post. And so on.

Even some pundits: For all his conventional wisdomness, Tom Friedman at least makes it clear that climate is an enormous problem. Ditto Nick Kristof, ditto Mark Bittman, ditto the folks at Rolling Stone, ditto some of the beat reporters at places like the AP.

WS: In a long and powerful interview with Terry Tempest Williams in Orion‘s Jan/Feb issue, Tim DeChristopher (now serving two years in federal prison for placing “false” bids in a BLM auction of oil and gas leases on public Utah land) said this: “I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people.” Now, you and many others have suggested that taking serious action on climate change is as much about “justice” for human beings as about “saving the environment.”  What does “climate justice” mean to you?

MCKIBBEN: Well, I’m a Christian. For me, climate justice is in part about answering the call to love one’s neighbors, as opposed to drowning or starving them. There is a deep ethical dilemma here — Americans will be victims of global warming, but we are also its greatest perpetrators, so we have a special duty to act. But frankly, I also think the rest of creation is important too — when I wrote The End of Nature, which was the first book about all this mess, the sadness was as much for the non-human world.

WS: I’m glad you brought up Christianity. You’re a mainline Methodist, yes? In other words, not an evangelical Christian (who tend to be not only more theologically conservative but also socially and politically conservative)?

MCKIBBEN: Evangelicals come in many flavors. I write a regular column for Sojourners magazine, which is deeply evangelical but not deeply conservative. And I speak at more “conservative” places, but always find a deep connection with people who take seriously the Gospels.

WS: You were among the first in the “secular” environmental community to highlight the emerging “creation care” movement among American evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals, which gave rise to things like the Evangelical Climate Initiative and a slew of evangelical environmental groups. (As you know, I’ve written about evangelicals and climate.) And they emphasize, as you say, “answering the call to love one’s neighbors.” Do you see potential for this new generation of evangelicals to be game changers?

MCKIBBEN: They can be a big part of it, just like mainline Protestants, just like Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, atheists. Our experience at is that sincere people of faith will play a big role.

WS: Is it possible to set aside divisive culture-war issues to work together on “climate justice,” “loving one’s neighbors”?

MCKIBBEN: Heck, at the first 350 day, Jordanians made a giant human “3” on their beach of the shrinking Dead Sea, Palestinians a “5,” and Israelis a “0.” It was one of the great pictures of the day. So yes, I think we can put aside all kinds of issues when we need to.

WS: You’re a Thoreau scholar (you edited one of the most widely-used editions of Walden), and in The End of Nature, you quote Thoreau in Walden: “God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.” Does God still culminate in the present moment, even as the reality that surrounds us is a human-altered Earth? Where do you look for meaning now?

MCKIBBEN: It’s all relative, I guess. But this week, with the temperatures off the charts for March in New England, with a completely novel kind of late winter — it seems hard to just soak in the sublime present and not have it tinged by a thought or two of exactly what the hell is going on.

WS: “The remembrance of my country spoils my walk,” Thoreau wrote in “Slavery in Massachusetts.” But I don’t really buy that. I think it reminded him of his walk’s real purpose — to wake up to the reality that surrounded him, human and wild. Thoreau’s spiritual awakening in nature led him back to society and to political activism. He sheltered escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. Do you think enough people know that?

MCKIBBEN: I think people should read a lot more Thoreau. He’s where the oppositional strain in American thinking came from, and we need that oppositional strain now more than ever.

WS: is it possible that the climate movement has more in common with the Civil Rights movement, or even the Abolitionist movement of Thoreau’s time, than with the modern environmental movement, as most people (certainly the media) seem to think of it?

MCKIBBEN: I think that’s exactly right. This is the biggest problem we’ve ever faced — and unlike even slavery, it has the element of time attached to it. If we don’t solve it very quickly, we won’t solve it. Hence we need the urgency of a William Lloyd Garrison, or even more.

WS: Where do you walk these days? Are you getting outdoors enough? I hope you can still draw strength, and some kind of peace, from the wild.

MCKIBBEN: Not enough. The last few years have been hard that way — too much travel and organizing. I’m grateful I have a lot of mountains and forests stored up inside of me from many years of wandering, and hopeful I’ll get back to it. Thanks to you for those good wishes.


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