What follows is a transcript for the podcast HomeGrown Humans - Bill McKibben - Climate Change - Hosted by Jamie Wheal
Topics include the following:
Climate Change and the Fossil Fuel Industry
Where Do We Come From, Who Are We, And What Do We Do Now.
Is Our Existing System Steerable, Or Is It Fundamentally Flawed?
How We Must Adapt To That Which We Can’t Prevent
When Is It Ok To Make A Stand, And How?
Climate Change and the Fossil Fuel Industry
Jamie Wheal: Bill McKibben is a noted environmentalist, author, educator and activist. He famously wrote the book, the seminal End of Nature, three decades ago. Most recently, his book Falter is actually exploring what it might mean for us to come to the end of our civilizational rope and what do we do next and what do we do now.
He is the founder of 350.org, a global grassroots movement for environmental advocacy, justice and divestment from Petrocapitalism. And in general, one of the hallmark leaders of the environmental movement of the past several decades.
Bill, it's an honor to have you and thank you for joining us on HomeGrown Humans.
Bill McKibben: Well, it's a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you for asking me.
Jamie Wheal: Fantastic. Well, one of the things in getting to review just your significant body of work and something that I appreciate so much about it is, how thoughtful and multipronged it's been. It's one thing to be an egghead in an ivory tower, telling everybody the way things ought to be in an ideal or perfected world. And then it's another thing to come down out of the tower and say, actually things need to happen here on the ground.
And then another thing, again, to have the kind of cultural savvy that you have shown, along with many of the other leaders of 350.org in actually rallying and mobilizing grassroots activities, and demonstrations and movements that ricocheted around the world. I think there was one of about a decade ago that might have broken the records for the largest scale mass demonstration in any one day.
So I'd love to just kind of hear what does that been like for you as far as bridging so many of those worlds, has that been just simply a natural and inevitable part of how you've seen life and your part in it, or have there been times where you thought, "Okay, I actually am called. I can't not expand my sphere of concern. I can't not just sort of step outside my particular lane to address this more comprehensively."?
Bill McKibben: Well, I very much began my work as a writer and that's still how I think of myself, primarily. I wrote the first book about climate change, a book called The End of Nature back in 1989, it's been a long time ago.
And when I began, I think I was thought this is a great story that needs to be told, that kind of journalistic impulse, but I wasn't [going 00:02:38] halfway through it when it became clear to me that I wasn't objective in the sense that, I knew very well I didn't want the planet to burn up, and so in that sense I suppose my work became changed shifted some, even then when I was 27 or 28. But it still took me a long time, and I kind of kicked myself for the number of years it took for me to realize that I should be doing more than writing books.
I fought, and I think most people fought in 1990s, that we were engaged in an argument and as we piled up more information and data and reason and so on, that eventually our leaders would do the obvious thing and try to head off what would be the worst thing that ever happened on the planet. It took me a while, too long to understand that I was operating under a misimpression. By the mid 1990s at the latest, the argument was over, the scientific consensus was clear and robust.
The argument was over, but that wasn't resulting in change. It turned out we hadn't really been engaged in an argument, we've been engaged in a fight. And the fight wasn't about data and reason, our fight was about what fights are always about, money and power. And so that's when my work shifted, again, to include much more kind of direct advocacy. I figured that we needed to figure out how to build some power of our own, and that's what we got to work with by starting 350.org.
Jamie Wheal: It's fascinating to me, this is one of the infinite ironies is that and then most recently with that Michael Moore documentary, you then end up getting tarred with the brush of being the fat green cats with the power.
Bill McKibben: Yeah, I mean that was simply wrong.
Jamie Wheal: Sure
Bill McKibben: So there's no... In the end, no particular way to respond to it other than to say, we've spent decades standing up to the fossil fuel industry, we've built this massive divestment movement, it's a $15 trillion now in endowments and portfolios for [food 00:05:24] divested from fossil fuel. And we've stood up as hard as we know how to the banks and asset managers and insurance companies that are funding that [movement 00:05:37].
I began 2020 going to jail in DC after sitting in at the Chase Bank branch nearest the capital because Chase Bank, JP Morgan Chase is the biggest lender to the fossil fuel industry, about a quarter trillion dollars since the Paris Climate accords, and so we were calling attention to that.
And sometimes those things work, and sometimes they work with some speed. In the autumn of 2020, Chase Bank announced that they were going to be Paris aligned in their lending policies. We don't know yet precisely what that means, and it wouldn't surprise me if more people have to go spend some time in jail to make them clarify it and live up to it and things, but it's a reminder that you actually can stand up to very large forces sometimes. Certainly, the fossil fuel industry is not what it was a decade ago when we began. At that point...
Jamie Wheal: Didn't you write that Oxford University has recently divested from fossil fuels as well?
Bill McKibben: Both Oxford and Cambridge have divest.
The Pope has called for divestment, the Queen of England began divesting this summer, the Republic of Ireland has divested all its Public Accounts, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, which is the biggest pool of investment capital on the planet, the city of New York's pension fund, the University of California system, its $90 billion endowment and pension fund, on and on and on and on, it's a very long and wonderful list.
And what it means is that in thousands of places around the world, I mean it's not like I did this, people took up this fight and made it local and made it effective. We did our best to help everywhere we could but that was kind of the best thing about it, not everybody has a coal mine in their backyard, not everybody has a pipeline that's going to go through their neighborhood but everybody has proximity to some pot of money, a pension fund, a university endowment, the church fund, so on and so forth.
And so on all those places people have spent the last decade making this fight and making it really powerful.
Jamie Wheal: I think I remember you doing some very nice journalistic writing kind of the back of the envelope calculations as to, "Hey, what tar sands? What oil deposits and reserves are still here?" Basically, the leave it in the ground movement or call to action. I just think that was such a novel and straightforward way of communicating where we are in the carbon game, can you just unpack that for a little bit, and how did that come to be, and what sort of likes as it [where 00:08:31]?
Bill McKibben: Very indebted to a group in London called Carbon Tracker Initiative, a little consultancy in London. In 2012, published a small report, and they did a good job of doing something that people should have done long ago, they simply added up all the carbon, the big oil companies and things had in their reserves, the stuff they told banks and shareholders they were going to dig up and burn. And it compared that number with the amount of carbon scientists said we could burn and have any hope of staying on a working planet, and what do you know there turned out to be five times as much in the former category as the latter.
That is to say, if the business plans of this fossil fuel enterprises were carried out, there was no drama about what the ending of this story was going to be. Once we had that data, it sure changed the way that we thought about those companies. I remember sitting with my dear friend Naomi Klein, who would also read this report and we said it reminded, because we talked with each other, it reminded us of the way that some big corporations and banks have become kind of Rogue villain actors during the last years of apartheid in South Africa, and how there have been a massive divestment movement been very effective.
And so we thought perhaps that the time was ripe to do something similar around big oil. We didn't anticipate when we started that it wouldn't grow as big as it is growing, it's clearly now the largest anti corporate campaign of its time that there's ever been, but we knew that it was necessary. And the oil companies are not what they were, instead of being the biggest companies on Earth, Exxon is not even the biggest energy company anymore. Its market cap is now smaller than NextEra Energy, which is a solar and wind company based in Florida.
Jamie Wheal: Oh, wow.
Bill McKibben: We've made progress side by side with the great work done by engineers. They've dropped the price of solar and wind 90% in the last decade. And at the same time, we've been assailing the fossil fuel industry from the other side. Attacking their ability to expand, to build pipelines, to find capital, and caught in this pincers movement, the fossil fuel industry is in real trouble now.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, that's... No, I want to juxtapose that because on the one hand what you've just shared feels like a very powerful and important story of grassroots mobilization, citizenship participation, us having a voice and all of us together being able to make a difference.
And then on the other hand, I've heard you muse out loud in your writings and those kind of things of the incredible stack deck, you even just where you would sort of mea culpa yourself, you say, I thought we were in a basically a meritocratic conversation, I thought this was about the best ideas and the right data winning but in fact there were meaningful thumbs on the scales here.
And that we're not in a dialogue, we're not in a conversation, we're in a war, and given the extreme factionalization in the democratic west and in particular in the United States, that notion of wartime footing where I no longer extend to the other the same right and dignities, the same due process, the idea is just take out the enemy at all costs. We have become dehumanized to each other, and on the other hand, the evidence is suggesting that the hour is increasingly late on the environmental front.
How do we balance maintaining or repairing some form of civil discourse in a place that it's fraying at the seams on a lot of stupid places as well, let alone the absent of mission critical ones, and yet also acknowledge the urgency of what I'm hearing you say is, in fact a wartime footing, how do we pass this?
Bill McKibben: Well, one easy way to parse is to take out the phrase, at all costs. People have been exceedingly wise about understanding the importance of non-violence as the foundation of movement building. I've written that the two great technologies of the 20th century were the solar panel, and the nonviolent mass movement. That technology that comes to us from the margins, from the suffragists, from Gandhi, from Dr. King, from million others whose names we don't know, is a tool for the small and many to stand up to the mighty and the few, and so those are the kinds of movements we built, they're not violent in any way.
And I think that the hard variable here is the one that you describe, which is time. Most movements count on the fact that eventually they will win. As Dr. King often said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Sadly, the arc of the physical universe is fairly short and appears to bend toward heat. Were seeing in real time, an extraordinary change in the living planet that we inhabit. We have compared with 30 years ago, half as much sea ice in the Arctic, we have dramatically altered the ocean chemistry, we may have lost something like half our coral reefs.
We've seen tremendous changes in the way that water moves around the planet, we get much more evaporation and hence drought in other areas and with it, obviously, colossal fire. Once that water is up in the air, it comes down and we get in wet areas vastly increased flood and deluge. All those things have happened with a one degree Celsius increase in the temperature, we're on track to increase it three or four degrees Celsius, unless we get our act together very, very fast.
And that very, very fast is the hard part, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's climate scientists said in 2018 that if we hadn't fundamentally transformed our energy system by 2030, and they defined that as cutting emissions in half, then we had no chance of reaching those climate targets we set in Paris. So what I'm saying is, unlike other political issues, this one comes with a time limit. Physics and Chemistry are setting the boundaries here, and that influences the possible choice of strategies and policies and whatever. Winning slowly on climate is just another way of losing.
Where Do We Come From, Who Are We, And What Do We Do Now?
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Yeah. So in that description, so let's say the hour is late and the stakes are more, and what do we do now, and that in many respects is the central inquiry of this podcast series, HomeGrown Humans, is this where we have we come from and who are we and what do we do now, and... Go ahead.
Bill McKibben: So one of the important things to realize is that you really do get very different strategies depending on how much time you have. So let's say two things there, the first is to realize that the fossil fuel industry wasted 30 years of our time. We now know from great investigative reporting that companies like Exxon knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s, their predictions for what the temperature would be and [next 00:16:45] CO2 concentration in 2020 where spot on.
And they began doing things like building their drilling rigs higher to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was on the way but they didn't tell the rest of us, instead the whole industry invested huge sums of money in building the kind of architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that kept us locked in a completely sterile and pointless debate about whether or not global warming was real.
A debate that both sides knew the answer to 30 years ago, just one of them is willing to lie and that lie cost us 30 years. And as the climate scientists point out, it means we have to cram the work of four decades into one decade and that's going to be very difficult and what that means in terms of choices is, we have far fewer. [Wonderful 00:17:40] first impulses when faced with a problem like this, is to think about what individual actions we can take, how might we change our diet, or our home, or our mobility, or whatever it is.
Those are good questions to ask, we're talking today, my house which is covered with solar panels and that's how I'm able to speak back and forth with you, I'm proud of them. But I don't waste my time congratulating myself because I don't think that's how we're going to solve climate change. Given the time that we have, given the fact that we have one decade, not four, six or eight. Individual actions can't make the math work in time, we're going to need systemic political and economic change, which means in turn that the most important thing an individual can do is be somewhat less of an individual, joined together with others in movements large enough to make those changes on more fundamental level.
I tried occasionally to explain this to people by saying, it's important to screw in a new light bulb, but it's way more important to screw in a new senator, a new piece of legislation, these are the battles that we're fighting. It's why we set up 350.org, which was the first iteration of the kind of global climate movement, and why we've been so incredibly delighted to see the rise of Extinction Rebellion, of the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal of the high school and junior high school students, and the Climate Strikers, from Fridays for Future, everybody knows and everybody should know Greta Thunberg.
She's one of the great activists the world's ever seen it and one of my favorite people, but there's thousand Greta Thunberg's in all over the world, and 10 million followers of her, and that's the really good news.
Is Our Existing System Steerable, Or Is It Fundamentally Flawed?
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. As you're describing that, something that I hadn't seen in a broad scale critique until this year with the COVID, you're seeing in the Financial Times, you see the Economist, you're starting to see it in places that are the bastions of neoliberalism actually questioning the neoliberal orders, questioning late stage capital. [Nor is 00:19:58] as your friend, Naomi Klein will call it disaster capitalism, the idea that there's even more to be made as this thing goes off the cliff.
And what is your sense, I mean obviously, I live here in Austin, Texas. I've spent some time with John Mackey and was kind of around for the beginnings of the conscious capitalism movement with your neighbors, Ben and Jerry in the body shop and lots of those kinds of organizations. And I think that in the last 10 to 15 years, there's been that sort of sense of, "Hey, we can do well by doing good", that there are these opportunities within the markets to render capitalism more conscious.
And then on the other hand, there are just these, whether it's governance and fiduciary responsibility, whether it's the accumulation of tort law, where whether it's quarterly reporting and stock drivers there are certain inexorable drivers baked into the system, and again, John Mackey experienced this with Whole Foods, right? He had a minority stake in a private equity group, he had 8% of Whole Foods, and they were able to basically get them over a barrel on a potential hostile takeover, they had to run into the arms of Jeff Bezos just to save the company.
And you're like, "Oh, okay. So even some of the most iconoclastic, dug in principle folks making positive impact if they get... Do they just get all crushed in the [moral 00:21:18] of the machinery of capitalism. So I guess a question I have for you, and you're dealing with this with the divestiture movement, is our existing system, does it have the Buckminster Fuller trim tabs? Is this thing steerable or is it fatally flawed because of the tragedy of the commons and the other things that are baked into its physics?
Bill McKibben: I don't know. It's very clear that capitalism is the way we're practicing it at the moment doesn't work. You can tell because the temperature of the planet has gone up by a degree and half the Arctic's melted. So clearly, the idea that you can basically just let the system alone to do what it wants to and it will all work out for everybody is nonsense. That kind of laissez-faire capitalism clearly makes no sense, and it needs to be brought under tight control, real regulation.
My local hero and old friend, Bernie Sanders, who I've worked hard to [transport 00:22:25] keeps reminding us that there are countries on earth that aren't like that and he usually points to the Scandinavian countries, as an example. I guess their capitalist in the sense the we think about it, when you go there you give people money, and they give you stuff back, they have companies and those companies sell stock and whatever. But they're clearly not like our version of capitalism, they're heavily regulated and they exist in a framework that's more about serving the public good than about making people like John Mackey or Jeff Bezos or anybody else rich.
All these guys get in the... As I recall, John Mackey was working against healthcare for government health care, as they have in a place like Scandinavia. I have very little interest in a world that's about letting guys, encouraging them to become [vastly 00:23:41] rich, whatever it is they're doing, selling you high priced organic vegetables or delivering stuff overnight to your door or whatever. My work is about trying to bring the most egregious players in this under some kind of control, and given that the fossil fuel industry is doing more damage than any other industry on the planet, that's where I've concentrated my work over the years.
Jamie Wheal: So as you describe this when we're talking about not a dialogue, but a potential war, right, for the things that matter most, about the survivability and sustainability of this planet and then potentially wild and pristine natural places. The natural kind of outgrowth that you just came back from guiding courses for a couple of weeks in the Bears Ears and Escalante Canyons of Utah, so right there in the heart of the current public land battles.
And we actually spent a fair amount of time reading a lot of Gary Snyder poems and even some Ed Abbey, from The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire, those kind of [things 00:24:51]. I know both of those guys, and Wendell Berry, is it, What's it called? For the poets? No, what is his... The poem... [Golly 00:25:01], Mad farmers Manifesto.
Bill McKibben: Yes.
Jamie Wheal: Right, which is just prescient.
Bill McKibben: Yes. Wendell, and Gary and Ed Abby are great heroes of mine. And if you were there in Bears Ears, Escalante, one of the reasons you were there is because Terry Tempest Williams, their friend and mine worked so hard to make it real along with tons of other people, especially indigenous activists across that part of the world.
There's a huge counter-cultural force when [nature 00:25:36] writers are a great part of that, so are people in frontline communities who really dealt with the effects of abusive capitalism, so our indigenous communities around the world. These people are all at the forefront of the fight for climate justice, and at the kind of broader fight for a planet that works for us.
It's obviously not an easy fight because it's a bunch of writers, Navajo, and [pro-people 00:26:11], and so on up against the richest, most powerful corporations in the world. Happily, there's a lot more of us in numbers than there are them. Their weapons money, ours is creativity and spirit and passion, and the willingness occasionally to spend our bodies and go to jail.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, and as you're describing this I'm sort of almost kind of seeing a spectrum, right? A continuation and you talked about Extinction Rebellion, and Sunrise Movements and some others, I'm imagining that Deep Adaptation and Jem Bendell's work is on your radar as well. So on the one hand, you have folks that might take everything you've written absolutely to heart and say we're stuffed, there's actually no pulling out this [nose dive 00:26:56]. Therefore, this is effectively a hospice movement for humanity and that's Deep Adaptation [moves 00:27:03], right?
They're saying there's no point flailing or struggling this aircraft carrier, whatever, the Titanic's hitting the iceberg, take your metaphor, so let's make peace with it and let's become as alive and engaged as we can, without any false hopes of being able to turn this on [a dime 00:27:18]. And then you have maybe, and this is an arbitrary spectrum but then I'm imagine that there's the folks who take the Ed Abbey, Monkey Wrench and say, actually and in fact I wanted to ask you about this because is it powers recent book, Overstory, that won the Pulitzer, and I think I remember seeing you blurbing.
And that was actually part of why I read it. I was like, Oh, well, if Bill thinks this is an optimistic book, I'm going to plugged through it, right. And hopefully, I'll get a hit of some with an optimism but in that story there's that exact quandary for some of the main characters, and they decided in fact that that all growth, which will take half a day to cut down and took 2000 years to grow has to be protected, and that the asymmetry of value versus destruction justifies some Monkey Wrenching.
And then you have maybe your civil disobedience divestiture, that's kind of within civil society, you're kind of working within it, optimizing, you're basically agreeing to play nicely by the rules. Where do you see? How do we avoid?
We Must Adapt To That Which We Can’t Prevent
Bill McKibben: I think all these things are very useful, but I don't think that kind of play nicely by the rules is actually quite right. It's probably, work around things like divestiture probably represents the biggest threat at the moment to the way businesses usually is conducted, so I think it's really important. But I think that as always one's response to what to do at any given moment is more or less rooted in physical reality.
We're still at a moment when we have significant leverage over how high the temperatures going to get or obviously, going to be dealing with climate change, global warming, the greenhouse effect and it's obviously going to be painful and difficult, obviously going to be the biggest thing human beings have ever done. But there's a world of difference between what a two degree world would look like and what a four degree world would look like and that outcome still seems to be within our ability to affect.
So one way of looking at this is to say, we obviously have no choice but to adapt to that which we can't prevent. That's clear, and millions of people are already having to adapt to a world in which their neighborhood catches on fire every summer, or where the sea level has already begun to rise or whatever. But equally, we have to make sure that we don't create, we have to make sure that we prevent a world to which there is no adaptation.
If we get up to a world that's three or four degrees warmer then we will not have civilizations that in any way resemble what we're used to and when we may not be able to really survive in organized form. So there's a world of work to be done in the short period of time were that leverage remains, and the question is how to make it most effective, how to hit hardest at the forces that are causing trouble, so that's how I choose what I'm doing on any given day.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, well and so some of my backgrounds in like mountain guiding and that kind of stuff and one of the risk parameters that we would always use is there's the objective hazards, literally what's out there in the mountains, rockfall, drought, avalanche etc. but there's also the subjective hazard, what is the strength and continuity at the team. So if you had two guys that have just come off, knocking down a bunch of peaks and they land at Mount Everest, ready to go when the weather's good, you like that they have a good chance of success.
If on the other hand you have a group of 20 and they're bickering and there's no orientation like you have to downgrade the likelihood of pulling off the high [thing 00:31:21], because of the combination of the objective and the subject. And if we just took the last three years or even the last nine months as 2020 with global COVID, what has been our dress rehearsal? To rally together as a global community around an existential threat, arguably a very manageable one, [You do have 00:31:42] quite discreet and how, to put it in technical terms we have thoroughly shot the [bed 00:31:48].
My question there is how does that inform and again with dwindling timelines, increasing consequences and spiking subjective [risk 00:31:59], meaning our inability to actually grow together, how do we navigate that?
Bill McKibben: COVID have been very interesting, it's obviously been the largest disruption to life in our lifetimes. I think you'd have to go back to World War Two, to have a kind of disruption in daily life on anything like the same scale. And a lot of interesting things resulted, one is that, though emissions fell of carbon dioxide, they fell less than you might have suspected, 8 or 9% at the peak, which is a reminder that there are limits to individual action here.
Most of this destruction is hardwired into our system and needs to be ripped out, so that's just a good reminder. But I think COVID's probably teaching us in the long run a few lessons, I hope it is. Who knows, I mean it may just be teaching us that we're just as a species, not very good at this point, and that given a kind of a national version of the marshmallow test, Americans at least failed spectacularly. Other countries did much better, but here are the things one should take away from it, one physical reality is real.
It doesn't matter if the president tells us the COVID to hoax, it doesn't care, it's setting the terms, if it says wear a mask and stand six feet apart, then do it. Second is reminder that speed counts, countries that gone on the job of flattening the COVID curve early did fine, Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand. Countries that wasted time and refuse to face reality, like the US are obviously in a world of hurt. And that's for February and March in COVID time substitute the last 30 years in climate time, same ridiculous refusal to heed scientific warning. Third thing most important, its deep reminder that solidarity really counts.
We've been spending our lives, many of us living in the kind of philosophical shadow of Ronald Reagan, who tried to teach us that market solved all problems, that government was the problem, not the solution. Reagan's famous laugh line was always the nine scariest words in the English language are, I'm from the government and I'm here to help. Haha, but that's not, I mean the scariest sentences in the language are obviously, we've run out of ventilators or the hillside behind your house just caught on fire, and you can't do anything about those with a market solution.
What you need are people working together with a government that's we've decided to give useful resources to, that's [competent 00:35:04] that takes care of that we work, governments just our way of saying working together. And so hopefully, those are some of the lessons that will emerge in time on this, but maybe not, maybe the lesson we'll just take is every man for himself, and if we do that then we're screwed on a number of counts going forward.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, I mean I'd love to actually kind of circle back on a couple of threads we've touched on already. And the first is just the obvious, what did you find inspiring about the book Overstory because in it, right, there's definitely there's one of the characters that is, he's a Vietnam vet, he dedicated his life to planting trees and then he realized that there's just those highway curtains that they leave a few 100 yard buffers of uncut trees but beside them are just clear cuts and spending a lot of our summers climbing and windsurfing things in the Pacific Northwest, I remember.
Just mountain biking into just wastelands of rubble and how dispiriting he found in the story and he had just the mono crop replanting versus a fully biodiverse forest, and particularly in the last couple of years I think in particular have been some of these, I think while intentions see a movement of like, if we can plant a trillion trees people, right, we can do this kind of stuff. So, in some respects I found that book as bare knuckles and truth telling as it could possibly be including even the sort of heroic futility of first type Monkey Wrenching and all of these things. What for you was the optimism? Where did you find and see hope in that story?
Bill McKibben: I mean I love the book in part because she's a beautiful writer.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah.
Bill McKibben: [Efficiently 00:36:57] written, but I think it was also important because I think it's the first piece of literature that manages to effectively take trees, and make them characters, to give them full life. I have lived my life surrounded by trees and I love them, there maybe the most obvious life form on our planet if you just were landing here from someplace else. And so if for nothing else I think Richard Powers did a fantastic job of kind of understanding that on a new and powerful level. I think it's one of the great books of our time.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, definitely, there were phases, there's one I think he just, they're just phrases in the offing like not even necessarily his punchline. There was one he was like they were as close and it might have been the man and the woman who spent the time in the tree stand and it says something along the lines of them being as close as two people could be without destroying each other. Just sort of like stop you in your tracks where you're like, "Where on earth did that come from?" And it was just straight out of his [head 00:38:15].
What's your sense? I want to go back because this is what I wrestle with and I have since I was young idealistic and passionate. But at what point and this is even been showing up in the George Floyd protests, some of the urban social justice [movement as well 00:38:32], which is you spoke a little about the Nordics form of capitalism, the peculiarities in the United States and I think we could kind of fill in the blanks that sort of a rugged individualistic hyper libertarianism is kind of into a definite [red 00:38:48] there.
At what point if ever is it okay to spike trees and put sugar in the gas tanks of the bulldozers and actually take a stand against the mechanized destruction that are [coming 00:39:02], or do you say that [we 00:39:05] never, and you take that you double down on that stand for the non-violence, and peaceful [protest 00:39:11]. How do you make sense of that?
When Is It Ok To Make A Stand, And How?
Bill McKibben: I mean I don't think at this point, it's a literary question not a practical one. Ed Abbey who gave us Earth First, The monkey wrench gang, and who I knew and well, who I really love, didn't envision salvaging the world through pouring sand in the gas tanks of bulldozers. You can't, it's very difficult if you choose the weapons of the other side to go into fight, taking up arms against the people in institutions that have all the guns is unlikely to be an effective strategy.
That's why other kinds of uprising are so useful and interesting, and why it's been so powerful to watch for instance, the movement that's sprang up in the wake of George Ford's murder this year. Of all the things anybody said in 2020, the most important was what he said as he was being murdered, "I can't breathe", and people can't breathe because there's a cop kneeling on their neck. Can't breathe because there's a coal fired power plant down the road, it's always the same communities. Can't breathe because COVID is filling up their lungs and that too follows the same [paths 00:40:54], race and class.
[Anything 00:40:57] else that can't breathe because there's too much wildfire smoke in the air and the authorities have told people to go inside and take their window shut. We can't breathe because it's gotten too damn hot. California this year, 130 degrees Fahrenheit Monday, the highest temperature ever reliably reported on our planet. The temperature that will travel large swaths of the planet in the summer in the decades to come unless we act very quickly.
All those things are a reminder that questions around justice are central here, the iron law of climate change is, the less you did to cause it, the sooner and the harder you suffer. And that's why the people in those frontline communities and indigenous communities have been at the forefront of this fight. That's why when we pull Americans, Latino Americans and black Americans are far more concerned about climate change than white Americans. That's why the rest of the world is trying to actually do something about this, and begin to move.
And so, that's the kind of movements we're going to need and they're going to have to be really big. There's no way for one guy with a bag of sugar to sabotage the industrial machine that's currently destroying our planet, though it makes for incredibly wonderful novel. The Monkey Wrench Gang, one of my favorite books there ever was but that doesn't mean that the sentiment behind is wasted in any way. Abbey was one of the great inspirers of people to build movements like Earth First that have done tremendous good in helping us stand up to exploitation of all kinds.
Jamie Wheal: Well, so let's play this through that kind of bring this up to the present, right, there's that sense of, I mean I know that you were active and engaged with the Dakota pipeline, and those protests and keeping doing the [level 00:43:13] best to, again to keep that oil in the ground, and there were some profoundly concerning investigative journalistic pieces that were written after that or around and about.
There were certainly reports from many of the folks that we know that were on the ground with drone surveillance, with WiFi signal jamming, with the interruption of journalistic activity, even potentially with the spraying from planes of various chemicals, etc. So definitely Nixonian dirty tricks at play and then even some reports of some former private military contractors that had been active in Iraq, then coordinating across [by 00:43:56] state agencies, with state police, with National Guard, with other folks and [writing 00:43:59], basically opposition briefings on the insurgents that are happened to be US citizens.
And I would imagine you came across this once and because it's right in your neck with [words 00:44:09] but I think there was a young woman from Williams College maybe, it was definitely it was one of those New England schools, and she ended up having, what she claims, what bystanders claim was a flashbang grenade or something thrown in her direction that maimed her hand. Her exit to definitive medical care via ambulance was blocked and the bridge was like six to eight hours, but then the official report was that she'd been carrying a pipe bomb or a propane canister and she in fact was a domestic terrorist, and... Go ahead.
Bill McKibben: It was terrible scene there, and the forces of repression were immense and the courage of people in standing up to them was immense. And it was a powerful example that when people stand up like that they're capable of capturing the imagination of the country, the key moment I think in many ways, the first key moment was simply that people decided to take a stand. And it was small number of Indigenous women leaders that Donna Allard and others that did really got things going. But the key moment in the standoff was the day that the private security guards hired by the oil companies, [sicked 00:45:29] German Shepherds on peaceful protesters.
And the pictures of that were enough, they were so reminiscent for instance of the pictures from Birmingham in 1963. They awakened the conscience of a nation, and in particular of the Obama White House, and within a couple of months Obama had withdrawn the permit for that pipeline. One of the great tragedies of Trump's election was that we lost a battle I think we would otherwise have been able to win.
Jamie Wheal: Carry out.
Bill McKibben: It was unbelievably great organized by Native communities, almost entirely 300 Native communities represented in Standing Rock, which is no easy feat because the politics of Indian Country is as diverse and sometimes divisive as any other politics, but people came together in a profound way, and did the job. And then, as with many other things, the insane election of Donald Trump was enough to overturn immense amounts of good work.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, and something that chilled me when it happened and then I became doubly, triply concerned after reading some of those reports of the kind of the private militarized state coordinated responses was back in 2011, right. Obama also passed that suspension of habeas corpus, the ability for extrajudicial drone strikes on American citizens acting on foreign soil in a terrorist capacity.
And as soon as Dakota pipeline happened, I thought, Oh dear God like, actually all you would need is an aggressive attorney general to interpret Indian land as foreign lands which is convenient, [company 00:47:24] we're going but technically true, and to tag American citizen protesters engaged in Eco terrorism, and you suddenly had a complete suspension of civil liberties. Now this is not wild conjecture, that's...
Bill McKibben: There's a lot of people I think who would take it, the designation of Indian land as foreign land might be regarded by many as a really good step up. People are demanding sovereignty over those lands, understand them not to be under control in the same way that other parts of the country are of the government in Washington. So maybe that was one good result of everything that went on in Standing Rock, I think it advance those arguments about sovereignty a good deal, help people understand why that's an important part of the future.
Jamie Wheal: So that's I guess my question is like, oh wow those dominoes are teetering like fast forward three years, five years, six months, who knows, right. Where the intensity of environmental protests become more and more pronounced, the inevitability of more agitated, more extreme elements like sort of the Bogeyman of Antifa meets [first 00:48:52] has a baby.
That those activities, even if it's [agent 00:48:56] provocateurs doesn't really matter, it will be just part of the social discourse. How do we avoid those forms of designations, those forms of tripwires because what I'm hearing you say is the whole idea of, it must be nonviolent protest that's one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century.
Bill McKibben: I think that nonviolent protest is more effective and I think there's now large amounts of academic research to back this up, that it works better. It doesn't always work, and it's not easy and the forces arrayed against those are always strong but there is something very powerful in that work, and many sure felt it at Standing Rock. I don't know if you were there, It was a place of prayer above all else. That was what was mostly going on there, day and night. And that was the force of the wall forces is animating that work.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah and I think you might have been alluding to Erica Janowitz work at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, right. The idea that three and a half percent of the population is often sufficient to make large scale societal change and that online protest is roughly twice as effective as violent protest, that's obviously become one of the articles of faith for Extinction Rebellion, for Sunrise Movement, for lots of others, and it's potentially really inspiring.
And on the other hand, I have also heard reasoned critiques which is saying, "Hey, that may have been true in the 20th century for a couple of reasons. One is, folks were standing in line for the right to sit on the bus, but the bus still had a full tank of gas and oil and it was going to get to its destination on time. Were more like trying to assemble Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as this thing sails off a cliff."
So the idea of like the meta systemic collapse, being different than simply insisting on a seat at the table, and a right to participate in kind of the neoliberal promise. And then the other is obviously who was that most effective appealing to was often societies that had high espoused ideals, like American the civil rights, like Britain, even in its decolonial unwinding, not Nazis and fascist. And if you marched peacefully in the streets of Berlin, Hitler might have just said, "Thanks very much. We're just going to run you over with Panzer tanks."
So those two things, the idea of meta systemic intersectional collapse being a trickier thing, and or the appeal to higher authority, does it only work when at least espoused values align, and we're simply calling the powers that be into account to the better angels of our nature versus saying, we don't even have the same angels.
Bill McKibben: I suppose you we may find out. There may be people who rise up violently and whatever, we'll find out how well it works. It's not going to be me, but maybe someone.
Jamie Wheal: Well I'd love to kind of bring this full circle back to your lived experience, because there's a couple of pieces that really intrigued me. One was you describing me [heytex 00:52:35] me has work on Flow and obviously an organization I'm a part of the Flow Genome Project, we spend a lot of time in that space. And how, cross country skiing, distance running, you basically said you had to take a break from the pressures of saving the world and I think there's that great E.B. White quote, the author of Charlotte's Web. And he said, "Every morning I wake up torn between the desire to save the world and the desire to savor it."
And I realized in fact the savoring has to come first, because if I didn't do that part there'd be nothing left to save. So, and I also attracted, I think you've written about your own Christian Methodist faith and also written about the book of Job, and the sort of this nature of ongoing suffering. So how did those two aspects of your embodiment and movement and in through nature, and your relationship to deep abiding spiritual truth especially I'm imagining in regard to suffering in service. How are those kind of percolated through your standard, and your thinking?
Bill McKibben: Well it's been important in my life to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible, partly because it's where I'm most comfortable, and probably because it's a good idea I think to surround oneself with things that are bigger than one. It's hard to be altogether too full of yourself, if you've been out under the stars or out in the woods or whatever in the course of the day, so I find that useful in lots of ways.
And I do find the Gospels, for most radical and bracing stories I know. They're very hard. The idea that one is to love one's neighbor, that the point of the world is to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and house the homeless [sometimes 00:55:00] it's a not exactly what most of the forces in a high consumer society telling us at any given moment, but it's good.
Well, for me it's been a good mantra to hold on to. But that's just my lived experience, the good thing is there's people with many, many other lived experiences, and we share a planet, and lots of us are learning how to work together and use things from lots of different directions, and that's what to me a movement [mean 00:55:48], it's so much fun.
It's really good to have... Look, we don't know if we're going to win this fight, but 10 years ago we didn't know if there was going to be a fight before we're going to be able to assemble the forces to even make a fighting time to take these guys off. And now we know that, now we have the [sun 00:56:08] without force, there is going to be a fight and that at least is important to me. It would have been really sad to go over this cliff just blindly, not realizing that what we were [doing 00:56:23].
Jamie Wheal: And that triggers for me that notion, and Wendell Berry also has a deeply Christian perspective on his ecological stance and weirdly, right, that notion of stewardship if you go all the way back to Genesis, seems to somehow have been decoupled from at least what is the most visible expressions of Christian faith in America [today 00:56:52], it's almost as if this sort of sense of like driving big ass suburban roll [coal 00:56:57] and have lots of kids.
Bill McKibben: Maybe, but the most... I think the most, probably the most radical environmentalist on the planet at the moment is the Pope. The [dot 00:57:11] see is encyclical from five years ago now. Is the most thorough critique of modality that we have, truly powerful document. So there's lots of different angles to come with all these from, and that's good.
Jamie Wheal: So yeah, I guess my final question will be like let's come full circle back to this notion of the nonviolence you talked about King and Gandhi, and actually just in doing the research of my next book I came across this beautiful vignette about Howard Thurman, he was with a sort of mystic, civil rights activist who was one of the mentors to King, and many. And in fact in the mid 30s, he was the first African American Ambassador to go to India. He's the one that sat with Gandhi and was deeply, deeply moved and then came back and took Satyagraha, the truth force and then re-language it as soul force.
And at least in the telling that I had heard, that until that point nonviolence was a tactic of the civil rights movement, it was don't piss off the bull commerce world or we end up with our skulls caved in. So be nonviolence such that we have a chance to keep on doing this, and that Thurman really brought that transmission of it being the central and unwavering spiritual principle, such that by the time King is giving his I Have a Dream and we shall meet physical force and so forth to rise in majestic heights that that then became this transformational philosophy.
So, in this day and age and this is what I wrestle with because it takes a Gandhi, it takes a Thurman, it takes a King, it takes some person of rare, commitment, and integrity to be able to ring that bell so that others can hear and say, "We don't succumb to hate, we don't degrade pettiness, we don't go with the knee jerk of an eye for an eye." And yet, particularly in our contemporary social justice movement, and we saw this in examples in Portland and elsewhere, which is radically anti-nomi and then sometimes aggressively leveling in its tendencies.
It has beauty there, the grassroots element, the contribution of otherwise silenced or marginalized voices, all essential and yet there is this sense of, and no one's going to be the boss of us. So how do we reconcile accessing and tapping into soul force which is arguably a rare and somewhat Christic capacity with the grassroots slash mob. How do we find what is exceptional and all of that without, or maybe we still need to defer to some of us?
Bill McKibben: I don't know, I don't have any good answer to this. With the big mass movements that I've watched people have done a great job of working nonviolently to accomplish enormous things, to stop pipelines, to weaken huge corporations, and I think there are enormously powerful leaders right now.
Reverend William Barber, Greta Thunberg, on and on down a long, long list of people, young and old on every continent, from every tradition of every race who's really done a spectacular job of taking these ideas that we first started learning about from Gandhi's, and King's and bringing them forward.
And my guess is they'll play a huge role in the future, assuming there is one. One thing that worries me as I've said is that the variable that's most daunting and difficult is time, and dealing with that's going to be hard. But that's why it's been a pleasure to spend some time with you, getting to talk about this and I'm grateful for you asking me.
Jamie Wheal: Absolutely. Well Bill, I mean again, deep and sincere thanks for leading the way on so much of this and modeling what it means to both live a life to be a person of letters of activism and teaching. And time and again through this conversation you've shone the light on to the many, not just the one.
And I think as far as an embodying what does collective leadership look like, where really the leaders job is merely to sign posts, and to boost the signal of the many. I think you've done a phenomenal and inspiring embodied example of that, so thank you so much for joining.
Bill McKibben: I leave you to say and thank you for your work and on we go.