November 2011 interview at Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington, D.C. (1:58)
June 2009 interview (20:40)
Click the audio players to hear my two interviews with Bill McKibben a renowned writer, educator, environmentalist and founder of 350.org, which is an international campaign dedicated to creating an equitable global climate treaty.
My most recent interview with Bill was at the Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington, D.C. in November 2011. Our previous interview was in 2009 shortly after the release of his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
If there is one individual who can be credited with building the U.S. climate change movement to the level of influence it has reached today, it is Bill McKibben. In addition to being an author and journalist, McKibben has been a tireless environmental and climate activist. He is the author of 13 books and is a frequent contributor to various magazines including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion Magazine, Mother Jones, The New York Review of Books, Granta, Rolling Stone, and Outside. He is also a board member and contributor to Grist Magazine. Bill wrote the first book on global warming 20 years ago called The End of Nature. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Click here to download the interview. (To download, right click and select “save link as…” or “save target as”).
Edited 2009 interview transcript:
Earthgauge: What is 350.org?
BM: 350 is the most important number in the world. James Hansen at NASA produced a paper saying that any amount of carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed or to which life on earth is adapted. We’re already past 350 – we’re at 387 – and rising, which is why the Arctic is melting; it’s why Australia is on fire; it’s why we’re seeing historic floods and so on.
Our organization, 350.org, is planning is a huge global day of action all around the world on October 24, six weeks before the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen. It’s going to be the biggest day of environmental action the world has ever seen.
Earthgauge: What does the 350 ppm target mean in terms of the emissions reductions that will be required?
It requires that we stand on the brakes and throw this whole system into reverse. Not a gradual braking to a halt but a squealing U-turn. It basically means weaning ourselves off fossil fuels by the middle of this century and we have to leave most of the coal in the ground.
I wrote the first book about this twenty years ago called The End of Nature, which isn’t particularly cheerful, but even then we didn’t understand quite how quickly we were going to need to move.
Earthgauge: Some scientists now think it is too late to stop global warming. Do you think that 350 is a realistic target and that we still have time?
BM: It’s as realistic as we make it. It’s not that we’re going to stop global warming. We’re not. The question is whether we’re going to stop it short of some civilization-scale challenge or not, and that’s an open question that will be decided in the next few years.
Earthgauge: What needs to be done for us to get to 350 ppm?
BM: The sine qua non is to get a price on carbon fast. If that price is stiff enough, then hopefully that will put market systems into action and we’ll see a large scale and rapid mobilization of resources. We also need quick investments by governments in clean energy research and direct regulation of some carbon sources like automobiles.
Earthgauge: How have we become so reliant on fossil fuels and why have we completely failed to address this problem so far?
BM: Because fossil fuels are incredibly cheap and incredibly powerful. That’s why we’re rich in some ways and we’re reluctant to let go. And of course there are also incredibly powerful vested interests that make unbelievable amounts of money. Exxon Mobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money. Hence the need for organizing.
Earthgauge: Would you agree with Thomas Homer-Dixon when he says that change of the magnitude we require happens when we are galvanized by some kind of crisis or systemic breakdown?
BM: I think we have that now. What does it mean when the Arctic, which has been frozen for millions of years, melts? What does it mean when the government of Australia says they’re not going to call it a drought any longer because drought implies it might come to an end some day? We’re in that breakdown.
Earthgauge: What would the implications of a post-carbon economy be for the tar sands in Alberta?
BM: We’ve got to leave coal in the ground and we’ve got to leave unconventional oil in the ground. The ecological cost of extracting that stuff is simply too high for the planet to bear. It’s not going to make Calgary oil executives happy but on the other hand it’s going to give Athabascan native people some chance of holding on to those landscapes where they have been for thousands of years.
Earthgauge: How can people get involved with the international day of climate action on October 24?
BM: 350.org is not organizing events directly so it’s really an opportunity for people to think creatively and get involved with initiatives that are already being planned or to start their own, large or small. And 350.org is the hub of all this. You can find out what is already being planned in your community, get ideas for events and find tips on how to organize.
We just passed the 1000 actions mark and we are now getting near to half the countries in the world participating. We need many, many more so go to 350.org and register an event. If there isn’t a rink someplace in Canada with 350 hockey players on it, I’ll be disappointed. There’s really not a moment to waste.
Earthgauge: One thing I think we can say for sure is that getting to a 350 world would fundamentally transform our society. In your last book ‘Deep Economy’, you did talk about what a low carbon economy might look like. Could you give us some of the broad contours of this?
BM: There’s no same answer for every place on earth. Every place would be different but I think we can say that we would be able to recognize communities moving in the right direction because they have an increased reliance on local food. We’d see more home grown energy, more solar panels, small windmills, local ownership of energy technologies, which will be good for all kinds of reasons. We’d see an increasing dependence on local communities for soft commodities such as music. In the States, the fastest growing part of the music economy is local live performance and festivals. I find that really encouraging.
Earthgauge: You’ve discussed many of the problems of our economic system that is based on the growth imperative, which is the primary economic objective of most governments. If not growth, what should be the objective of our economic system?
BM: Maturity. Our growth spurt is over and it’s time to face up to the bitter and sweet truth that every individual faces when they stop growing, when certain opportunities are foreclosed and when they settle down to adulthood.
Earthgauge: You say in ‘Deep Economy’ that “a single-minded focus on increasing wealth has driven our ecological systems to the brink of failure without making us any happier.” So how did we screw up?
BM: Our assumption has been that more is better and up to a certain point it is – if you have absolutely nothing. But past a certain point, money buys isolation. Every bit of data shows that Americans are considerably less happy than they were 50 years ago. But it’s possible to fix this. We need stronger communities. It’s also why we need to do the big political work now, such as with 350.org and elsewhere, to drive that change quickly because we’re up against the wall.