“We kind of built this idea that there was a movement big enough to begin to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. Within five years, we were able to put 400,000 people on the street in New York. We were able to start these fights around fossil fuel infrastructure. We were able to start the divestment movement, which now is about $8 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios. So we were able to build this movement out of very little. And the reason was always this psychological insight that people needed to sense that there were enough other people like them to give this some opportunity of succeeding, because then they’d be willing to invest their hopes in it.”
Intro: I’m not convinced that there’s any institution in the world that’s produced more people doing more interesting things in the environmental world than Middlebury.
P: You are listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders, independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion.
If you’ve read anything about climate change in the last 30 years, chances are you’ve read the words of my guest today, Bill McKibben. Bill is an author, environmentalist, a journalist, and has been a leading voice on climate change for over three decades. His 1988 book, The End of Nature, was the first book about global warming written for a general audience and has been translated into 24 languages.
Bill was named one of the 100 most important global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine. And the Boston Globe said he was probably America’s most important environmentalist. We are so proud that much of Bill McKibben’s global environmental activism has his roots here in Middlebury, Vermont. Most recently, Bill worked with students on Middlebury’s Energy2028 initiative.
In 2017, I challenged the Middlebury community to create a bold plan to take next environmental steps after Middlebury reached carbon neutrality in 2016. I’m delighted to say that this plan was approved in January 2019. By 2028, we aim to have our core campus powered 100 percent by renewable energy; reduce our energy consumption by 25 percent; and have a robust faculty-initiated experiential curriculum in place focusing on energy use. In 10 to 15 years, we will also have divested our direct fossil fuel holdings. It’s here that our conversation began with Energy2028.
M: So Middlebury should be extraordinarily proud. You in particular should be proud for having shepherded through this Energy2028. Middlebury has made a deeper, firmer commitment on every aspect of moving its energy future forward and linking it up with its investment, in linking it up, most importantly, I think, with curriculum. And I think what you demonstrated was that, at their best, academic institutions really are places, maybe the only places left, where reason and conversation and discussion, as opposed to just money and power, can determine outcome.
What Middlebury did was model what the world should actually be doing, figuring out how to move responsibly, but aggressively, in the right direction. How to do it in a way that brings as many people along as possible. And the end was extraordinarily compelling and important because what Middlebury became was the first institution to say first, no, and then, yes.
The first institution to change its mind.
M: Inertia is one of the strongest forces in the world. Left to our own devices, we just keep doing the same things forever as individuals, as institutions, as anything else. Figuring out what the things are that can sort of snap people out of that inertia, and institutions out, is difficult.
And it’s not just as simple as, well, let’s have a demonstration and yell at people, whatever. Sometimes you have to do that and it works. And sometimes you have to figure out lots more complex and interesting ways of doing things.
P: I was struck by the way in which you think about how you evolved, right? So you were not always an activist. You were more of a journalist academic. And yet the interesting thing about the fight has to do with being aware that there are multiple levels of being convinced, right? So there are some young people who get involved in 350.org because they are scientists, and they’re persuaded by the data.
There are others who are persuaded by their friends.
P: There are others who are persuaded by Bill. So you have like all these different levels in which people suddenly get on board. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you’ve seen about what it takes to change people’s minds.
M: My sense is that a large number of people have had for a long time a great deal of worry and even despair about what they knew about climate change. The problem seems so big, and it is uniquely big, and we seem so small in comparison to it that there was no way for people to imagine that they actually could play a role in solving it.
Everybody intuitively understood that changing their lightbulb, though a useful and good thing to do, was not going to solve climate change. But no one had built a vehicle to connect people in a way that allowed them to think they might have a route. When we started 350.org here on campus, the first thing we did was organize small demonstrations in every corner of the world.
We took a day and asked people wherever they were to do something on the same day in the autumn of 2009.
Broadcast: People around the world are using today as a day of action in fighting climate change. Hundreds of environment campaigners gathered in Edinburgh today.
M: And we had 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN said it was the most widespread day of political activity in the planet’s history.
Chants: We will change, we will change.
M: But most of those were quite small because there wasn’t yet a movement in place. It was 200 people in Dharamshala, and 200 people in Kansas City, and 400 people in Angola, and on, and on, and on.
What we did that day was tell everybody to immediately upload pictures of these things to the Web. Flicker was our-
P: I remember Flicker.
M: Killer app, yeah. And as those pictures were coming in, and they were coming in sometimes 10 and 20 a minute from around the world, we took all the little money we had and rented out one of these electronic billboards at the end of Times Square that normally have whiskey ads or things. And we were just projecting those pictures up, bang, bang, bang, bang, as they came in from around the world.
P: How long did you do that for?
M: A day. We did that because we wanted to show the press in New York that there was a big thing going on around the world. But we also were taking pictures of those pictures and sending them back to the Congo, to Laos, to the hills of Peru, saying look, here you are, you are a big part of something big. Like you’re literally big, you are 30 feet tall in Times Square, part of this big movement.
M: We kind of built this idea that there was a movement big enough to begin to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. Within five years, we were able to put 400,000 people on the street in New York. We were able to start these fights around fossil fuel infrastructure. We were able to start the divestment movement, which now is about $8 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios. So we were able to build this movement out of very little. And the reason was always this psychological insight that people needed to sense that there were enough other people like them to give this some opportunity of succeeding, because then they’d be willing to invest their hopes in it.
Not so much their…you can get people sometimes to invest their time and, but really to get people to invest their psychological, their emotional hope in the idea that maybe they could, that’s a hard thing to do. People don’t surrender that easily.
P: And I think what’s interesting about that is it’s also hard to do in 2019 because I’m thinking about Gandhi, I’m thinking about Satyagraha, the whole movement there…it was visible with every march, that you were part of something.
When you’re composting or changing the lightbulb, it’s not visible in the same way.
M: Yep, I think that’s very true.
P: So I think someone who has a commitment to such a big issue the way that you have both politically, ethically, spiritually, tactically, environmentally, all of those things, educationally, you’re going to have probably a different relationship to failure than other people do.
What is the failure that you’ve had that has taught you the most?
M: I think about failure all the time because to be in love with the world around you in the 21st century is to confront daily the fact of failure.
M: And I kick myself many times a year for not having figured out much earlier that we needed to be engaged in a fight and for organizing and for wasting.
P: You mean—
M: All these years writing books that weren’t going to move the needle when I should have been going to jail or whatever else it was in the years before we got going as a movement because that cost us time. Just to open the scientific journals on any given week now is to be confronted with the epic failure.
But I try to keep reminding people all the time that there’s failure and then there’s failure. It’s a big failure to have let the planet warm up two degrees Celsius. It’s going to be a failure of an entirely different magnitude to let it up warm up four degrees Celsius.
And though it’s not as inspiring a call as, like, I have a dream or something, to say, let’s keep the planet from warming another two degrees. It’s actually probably the most important human challenge that our species has yet faced.
P: So I know that so much of what you’ve written about has been read by people as a kind of conscience, and I’m wondering at the same time as you’re a conscience as immediately as soon as you step out into the public world, and you’ve written really eloquently about this, you’re also inevitably involved in questions of hypocrisy.
So how do you manage that and how do you think about those questions in your own life? I’m sure you are constantly getting emails about, well, do you still drive a car? Well, do you fly in an airplane, etc., etc. Talk to me about that.
M: The part of this work that I’ve taken on is to help in the building of big movements. I think that that’s how, if we have any chance, that’s a necessary part of this. So I don’t worry that much, and I never have, about if I get on an airplane to go off and organize people. I understand, I’m not a dummy, I understand that there’s a contradiction at some level, you’re burning fuel, but I can do the math too.
I mean we organized the fight against the Keystone Pipeline, and I had to be on an airplane a bunch to do it. And the result is that we’ve kept a pipeline that would have carried 800,000 barrels of oil a day out of the ground for a decade and in the process touched off campaigns against virtually every pipeline and fracking well and coal mine and oil poured on earth—by any mathematical calculation, it’s carbon well spent.
We live in the world that we are trying to change. And that’s that. That doesn’t mean that one should live irresponsibly. I mean, you’ve seen our house, it’s covered with solar panels, which I’m very proud of, but I don’t try to fool myself that that’s how we’re going to stop climate change. At this point, the only way that we can do it is not through individual action, important though that is, but through individuals deciding to become a little less individual and joining together with others in movements large enough to make some difference.
P: That’s a very important part of our generation’s adult life is learning how to do that.
We didn’t necessarily learn how to do that when we were kids. But I do think that there’s this very interesting shift over the last 30 years about the relationship between individual responsibility and massive scale change, so let me put it the following way. As we grew up, we got all excited about the fact that we could compost and we could do even work locally to ban plastic bags.
So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about individual work and climate change.
M: I wrote as you said, the first book about climate change. And at the time, I was 27. My theory of change was people will read my book and then they will change.
P: I’m sorry for laughing.
M: Yes, well, it turns out it doesn’t work that way. People did actually read the book, which is rare enough.
P: And they did change?
M: Well, not really. I mean the world did not start to shift. So my response to that was to write more books, have more symposiums, give more speeches, all of which are important because they’re necessary to winning the argument, okay?
But what it took me a long time to realize was that winning the argument is nowhere near enough. We’d won the argument about climate change. Within five or ten years, the world’s scientists had come together in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and did a magnificent job, a job that will be saluted by historians of science for centuries.
Having won the argument, we were still losing the fight. And that’s because, it finally dawned on me, that the fight wasn’t about data and reason analysis, the fight was what fights are always about, it was about money and power, and there was another side in this fight, the fossil fuel industry, richest industry on the planet, that was going to win the fight, no matter how the argument came out because they had access to that money and power. If we were going to have a chance here, we need to build some power ourselves. History indicates that rarely, but on occasion, you can build movements of enough people of concern and conscience to match the money and power that goes with being, say, the richest industry on Earth.
We don’t know yet how this fight, and it is a fight, is going to come out. I mean, we’re still losing. Though we’re not losing as badly as we were a decade ago.
P: So you’ve talked several times in your responses to me now about spirituality and religion. And you’ve also talked about science. And I think, from my observations and the reading that I’ve done of your work, you’re motivated by both, you’re informed by both. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you are motivated religiously and how that has influenced the work that you do.
M: So I grew up just accepting church as a natural part of life, the way that most Americans did in our era. For me, all those sort of basic theological lessons about love of neighbor and things were drilled in fairly early into some part of my emotional core. That’s definitely informed my work around climate change and things for years because it’s the ultimate expression of disdain for one’s neighbor when you drown them, sicken them, make their lives impossible.
P: And I know you’re also committed to a nonviolent way of being in the world. So, talk to me a little bit about the relationship between anger and nonviolence because, I can see that anger is a very powerful tool for long-term commitment, such as what you’ve had, and non-violence is too, so, talk to me about the relationship between the two.
M: So I’m not a good, I mean, look, the people who developed this new technology, of nonviolence in the 20th century, and I think it was the greatest invention of the 20th century, were moral and emotional geniuses, who I don’t pretend to fully understand. Gandhi is one of the inexplicable characters in human history. Dr. King was the greatest man America ever produced, perhaps him and maybe Lincoln, but one does have to be an effective organizer, one has to figure out how to differentiate between anger and rage. We live in a world now where people troll constantly with the desire to provoke you into rage and, hence, rash reaction and things. One’s response to trolls has to be, no, I’m not doing that. But one does and one can’t let one’s self be consumed with anger, because otherwise you can’t just go on for a long time doing this. But, silly on the other hand to pretend or operate under the illusion that the world isn’t as it is.
P: I would say there’s something you can say you do or don’t have something in common with Gandhi. I think those of us who are committed to nonviolence, as I understand, is that you do have something in common with the Kings and the Gandhis. But the two things I would say you have in common, one is that commitment and the long-term vision but the other is Gandhi was fascinated by military strategy.
He was a strategist.
M: A strategist.
P: And so are you. You’re not fascinated by military strategy unless you’ve been doing some reading. I don’t know. However, you are a very savvy strategist and even though I think you know how to pull back as partly a way of learning how to be older and wiser, you also know how to pull back as a function of strategy and tactics. So I just would want to put that out there as something for you to think about.
M: Well, and I’ll tell you that even more than Gandhi, my great hero of the 20th century was the guy that they called the Frontier Gandhi.
Ghaffar Abdul Khan, Gandhi’s associate, this guy organized—devout Muslim—organized the greatest nonviolent army on the planet: 400,000 strong, the Khudai Khidmatgar, servants of God, who literally, when the British, with nobody watching because this was the darkest corner of the world, slaughtered them just stood up to be slaughtered some more and eventually drove the British even crazier than Gandhi did and drove them out.
And he, like Gandhi, was some mix of moral genius and superb tactician.
M: And the tactics that come with nonviolence are very interesting. They depend on the unlikely understanding that humans respond to weakness as powerfully as to strength and this is no—it should be no—great revelation to the Western world, given that the pivotal event of the Western world was the crucifixion which is the, sort of prototypical example of unearned suffering changing the direction of history.
But for 17 or 1,800 years, Christians forgot most of that. And it took the unlikely mix of Thoreau and Tolstoy and Gandhi to kind of sense for the first time the power of our own story in many ways.
P: Yeah, I think that’s such an important insight. So the power of our own story brings us back to college campuses. What I’m proudest of at Middlebury is we have the oldest environmental studies program and that I think has given us a certain kind of moral compass. We’re not the largest environmental studies program. We’re not the most influential.
And yet we’re the oldest.
M: You wanna know my couple of little theories about Middlebury and environmental studies? I’ll tell you if you like.
P: Yeah, absolutely.
M: Middlebury was and is physically situated in the best place to think about these issues of any college campus in the world. I mean, within eyesight, we have the wilderness of Bread Loaf in the wilderness of the Adirondacks. In between we have the most productive agricultural valley in New England. Happily now, because of our great connection to the larger world through international studies, that’s been combined with a kind of understanding of many of the kind of justice aspects of this that are the other half of environmentalism.
The other thing that happened here—I’ve seen more college campuses than just about any human being on the planet—environmental studies programs are usually captured by the hard sciences. Sometimes captured by the policy side of environmental stuff. Middlebury’s great innovation was that it took very seriously the third part of this triangle and let the humanities be an equal partner. It produced a kind of synthesis, a kind of understanding among people who were graduating that was remarkable.
I’m always sad that they all leave Vermont right away.
P: Right, right, right.
M: But I understand that this is actually really important. Because there are great limits to how much of the world you can understand from Vermont too.
M: It’s a perfect launching pad, but there is a large world that then one needs to be launched into. And my hope always is that they’ll after 20 years decide to come back to Vermont.
P: And your latest book, Falter, when you handed it to me, electronically, so, you said this is a really grim book and yet I’m hopeful. And that balance of grimness and hope has been so much a part of what you’ve had to deal with in your work. So, tell me a little bit about the process of writing that book—you wrote it right after a novel.
M: It marks the 30th anniversary of The End of Nature. And when I introduced it at Middlebury in the spring I gave the first reading from it in the spring and the title of the talk was “What I learned in the last three decades.”
So much of it replicates some of this conversation we’ve been having. It begins with the very grim reality that we’re not going to stop global warming. At this point we’re playing for stopping it short of the point where it completely upends civilizations and it’s not at all clear that we’re gonna do that. I mean we’ve waited a very long time to get started and the physical forces on this planet now have a great deal of torque, a great deal of momentum.
M: And it tries to analyze why our political system was so uniquely unable to come to grips with it. And then it ends by trying to think about how we take advantage of the technologies that we now have. The technologies of nonviolent movement building and the technologies of solar panels, which the engineers have done a good job of making cheap enough to be the thing on which we could build the next civilization and somehow, if we’re lucky, the mix of those two things, movement building and solar panels, wind turbines, and things, might allow us if we moved really fast.
As Middlebury’s now moving fast that—2028 that was that’s the right time frame. I mean, that’s the time we’ve got.
P: Right, right.
M: If we did that, then there’s still some reason to hope some.
There are wonderful things going on in the world. The Green New Deal is magnificent.
P: Yeah, I wanted to hear your thoughts on that.
M: Almost everybody who’s doing it—there’s a group called the Sunrise Movement. They’re the alumni of the fossil fuel divestment movement on one campus after another. It’s a perfect example that many of the things that happened when you do something important, you can’t predict precisely what they’re going to be but you can count on them being useful.
P: Right, right so tell me a little more about what you find hopeful about the Green New Deal.
M: The Green Deal’s the first attempt to deal with climate change on the same scale as the problem itself. Since we haven’t done anything for 30 years, the problem has grown enormously large, okay? And the grim but relatively correct analogy is, having been told that you had skin cancer 30 years ago and having elected to do nothing about it, so the Green New Deal is a big deal. It is on the same scale as the New Deal in the Depression, which makes sense because at this point the climate crisis is on the same scale as the economic crisis that devastated America in the 1930s.
P: One of the things that I ask almost all of our visitors, and I ask our students and our faculty and staff in as many ways and occasions as I can, is, what’s your question? What’s the one question that you’ll never know the answer to and you’ll never get tired of asking?
M: The question that haunts me, that climate change asks over, and over, and over again is, was the big brain a good adaptation or not?
I mean it clearly gets us into, with climate change the perfect example, an immense amount of trouble. Will it allow us to get out of that trouble or not? My sense is that the answer to the question depends on, is the big brain connected to a big enough heart to let us figure out what’s actually important?
P: So thanks so much for coming in.
M: Thank you so much, Laurie.
P: I will see you on the mountain.
Hi. This is Erin Davis, producer of the show. Midd Moment is produced by myself and Juliet Louini, Class of ’18.5, with help from Chris Spencer. If you have a Midd Moment to share, a time when things came together in a particularly Middlebury way, share your memory on social media using #MiddMoment or record a voice memo and email it to us at email@example.com.
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