McKibben, who literally wrote the book on global warming (The End of Nature, 1989), will be a featured speaker Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's Collins Lecture.
The 45-year-old writer recently published an essay in National Geographic that cited dire climate warnings, among them a recent prediction from NASA climatologist James Hansen that we have 10 years to turn things around or "face changes that constitute practically a different planet."
He spoke to WW last week about a march he helped organize across his home state of Vermont this past summer, the future of the environmental movement and its parallels to the civil-rights movement, and how impending disaster can drive otherwise nice people to look like serial killers.
WW: What prompted your five-day march last summer?
Bill McKibben: The horrors of the science that keep coming through and the speed with which things are rapidly getting worse, combined with my frustration about our compete political inaction, left me with the feeling of despair (a strong one) and an idea (a bad one.) I said, "Well, we should go to Burlington and get arrested at the federal building."
But cooler heads prevailed and you decided to march.
We went from Robert Frost's summer writing cabin, in the Green Mountains, 50 miles up to the waterfront on Lake Champlain in Burlington. By the time we got to Burlington we had 1,000 people—which made it the largest demonstration in Vermont in a very long time. And, also—and here's the somewhat pathetic part—made it, I think, the largest demonstration about climate change yet in this country.
What did it teach you?
This climate-change thing is a very odd movement. We have all the parts of a movement: the science, the economics, the policy analysis, the high-profile leaders like Al Gore, the arts, lots of funding from foundations. The only part we've never bothered to do is actually have the movement.
What keeps you up worrying at night?
In some ways, I should be immunized against despair just by length of exposure. I wrote first about this in 1989 and I was not very cheerful about it then—witness my title, The End of Nature. But the science of the last year, the last six months, has been really, really unsettling, if not panicking. The scientists I've spent 20 years talking to are calling me up now with a completely different tone in their voices.
Is global warming bigger than individual action at this point?
Absolutely. There's no way at all to come close to solving this problem without widespread political action.
So why should I even bother being "green"?
To show the kinds of good behaviors that we're talking about are more fun than the current way of doing things. Local food being one of the preeminent examples—and one of the places Portland is really educating the rest of the country.
Isn't there an argument to be made that violent resistance is an appropriate response when billions of human and non-human lives are at stake?
What can I tell you? I'm a Methodist Sunday-school teacher. So I'm just a wimp to begin with. That stuff [eco-sabotage, etc.] doesn't work, anyway. What does work is people willing to do the other, harder work of standing up and saying what they believe, acting on that and taking their lumps. I think that this demands every bit of the moral action and sacrifice as the civil rights movement.
By the way, what's up with the stern-looking picture of you that accompanies your August piece in National Geographic? You look pretty friendly in all your other photos.
It took many hours. Maybe I was just in a bad mood by the end. My daughter, who's 13, sent a note home from summer camp and said, "Someone showed me a picture of you from the National Geographic. You look like a serial killer." I was forced to agree. ( To see McKibben's scary mug, visit nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0608/voices.html. )
The Collins lecture is at 7 pm Wednesday, Oct. 18, at First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St. $10, $5 students. For more information, visit emoregon.org.
The event is titled "Earth on Edge: Choosing our Future."