‘Our achievements are beyond anything we had a right to expect’

Stephen Lewis talks to one of the world’s best-known environmentalists, the founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, about the fierce struggles and successes of the environmental movement

More than 20 years ago Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, regarded as the first book on global warming written for a general audience. The term itself hadn’t yet been coined, and at that time, in 1989, talk tended to be more about the greenhouse effect, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer.

A majority of the world’s scientists now confirm that the predictions that Bill and others made are coming to pass: rising temperatures and sea levels, melting ice shelves, more floods and hurricanes, water shortages, acidification of the oceans, deforestation, species extinction, peak oil…

Things have now gone so far that Bill recently wrote: “The planet on which our civilisation evolved no longer exists.” We have, he believes, damaged the fertile Earth, which has sustained us for thousands of years, to such an extent that it will never fully recover. He calls our new planet Eaarth – the title of his latest book. It’s a place where humans might still be able to live but only at a much lower level of consumption and with less reliance on fossil fuels.

Such a bleak view could lead to despair. Indeed, in his preface to Eaarth he wrote: “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.” So how has he remained positive and is there hope?

Influences and philosophy

Bill first became environmentally aware at a young age. “My father was a great outdoorsman, and so I spent my boyhood hiking,” he explains. “As a young man I moved to the wilderness of the Adirondacks and around the same time, I discovered the great writing of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. They helped move my mind in the same direction as my body.”

The nature-writing lineage in America influenced Bill’s own work, “which traces back to Henry David Thoreau and to giants like William S. Burroughs, John Muir, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold,” he says. As an activist he has sought to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi, while his personal beliefs as a Methodist have also been important, “especially the injunction to love one’s neighbour.”

Failure and success

Drawing on this background, Bill is a relentless environmental campaigner. One of his primary targets has been ‘big oil’ and the subsidies that support it, which he views as inherently wrong and unfair. “Why on Earth should taxpayers be supporting the richest industry on the planet?” he asks.

Last year Bill was a prominent figure in the campaign to stop Keystone XL, a planned pipeline to take oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands, to the United States. He was even arrested outside the White House. Victory was claimed when President Obama blocked the building of the northern US section of the line, pending a review. But in April this year, under pressure from energy lobbyists, the president approved the southern section.

“Why on Earth should taxpayers be supporting the richest industry on the planet?”

“This is at best a temporary victory, which is all environmentalists ever win,” says Bill, “but this may be more temporary than most. The fossil fuel industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on TV commercials to sway public sentiment and intimidate politicians. Frankly, I don’t quite know how to counter that, but we’ll keep trying.”

The greatest success of the environmental movement so far is, he says: “Cleaning up the air and water after the first Earth Day; and making people realise that modernity was not an unqualified success, that there was some tarnish on the shine.”

The 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit however, was “a turning point for the worst. The richest and most powerful countries made it abundantly clear that they weren’t going to take strong steps to address the question before us.” He continues: “We’re losing, so far, the battle to slow global warming, which is the greatest problem, environmental or otherwise, we’ve come up against.”

People power

Bill continues to fight. And his greatest success – the phenomenal 350.org, started by Bill and a group of his students in 2009, offers much promise. Taking its name from the 350 parts per million that NASA scientist James Hansen believes is the sustainable level of CO2 in the atmosphere, 350.org is an internet-based, grassroots network that Bill hoped would spur an international movement around climate change.

It has done just that. “What we’ve managed to achieve is beyond anything we had a right to expect,” says Bill. “We’ve organised 15,000 rallies and demonstrations in every country but North Korea – CNN called it the ‘most widespread political activity in the planet’s history.’ We’re not yet a match for the power of the oil companies, but we’re getting a little closer every day.”

“We’ve organised 15,000 rallies and demonstrations in every country but North Korea”

Bill believes that individual lifestyle changes are not enough to tackle climate change, and so citizens need to collectively and actively demand a change in government policies and business practices. “We’re not going to solve the climate change issue one household at a time. What we need is a law, national and international, that puts a cap on carbon and raises its price.”

350.org was the catalyst for Connect the Dots, a worldwide day of action on 5 May 2012 where people voiced the connection between extreme weather and climate change.

“For years the fossil fuel industry has been trying to spread disinformation and they’ve had the money to do some damage with that strategy,” says Bill. “But it’s like cigarettes and cancer – eventually everyone makes the connection. Now, most people have seen seriously weird weather, and we smashed the record last year for the most billion dollar weather disasters. What we found out on 5 May is that people in every corner of the planet are noticing the same thing – people are putting a human face on global warming… turning the abstract into the very, very real.”

Despair or hope?

The climate change movement allied with 350.org has grown spectacularly, and although Bill says it can be difficult to remain positive – “Sometimes I do despair, which seems normal and maybe proper,” – he pledges to keep on battling. “We have no other choice.”

Throughout the world, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people doing what they can to live more locally and sustainably, says Bill. He sees this “all over the place.” He adds: “It’s a slow curve but it’s steepening. Last year, for the first time in 150 years there were more farms in America, not fewer. That’s the happiest statistic I know.”

So should we remain positive? “It’s a beautiful planet,” says Bill, “and we get to be involved in the epic fight to keep it that way. What higher inspiration than that?”