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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Bill McKibben in his office at Middlebury College.


The argument vs. the fight

Bill McKibben, environmental journalist, activist, and scholar, finds in Vermont a strong community — a saving grace when climate change becomes a disastrous reality

Joyce Marcel is a frequent contributor to and columnist for The Commons. A longer version of this story appears in the April issue of Vermont Business Magazine.


You’d think that after the 2016 presidential election, where climate-change deniers took over the levers of power, Bill McKibben would be hiding in bed with his head covered by quilts.

Or. at the very least, he would have lost his sense of humor.

But the 56-year-old renowned environmentalist, lecturer, author, journalist, Schumann distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College, Ripton resident, cross-country skier, and co-founder of the climate-change organization 350.org, has not slowed down his efforts to try to save the world from the danger in which it finds itself.

If anything, McKibben is busier than ever, writing and organizing resistance to the real damage he sees the new administration doing to the environment.

His next move? A big march in Washington on April 29 called the People’s Climate Mobilization.

In late January, I had a chance to interview McKibben in his office at Middlebury College, an office so filled with books that bookcases on all four walls are accompanied by large plastic containers of books stacked on the floor, one on top of the other.

Sadly, the day before we met, President Donald Trump had, with the metaphorical stroke of a pen, destroyed two of McKibben’s biggest successes. Trump revived the environmentally unsound, fossil-fuel-dependent Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

“Trump is moving with extraordinary speed, it must be said,” McKibben said. “There’s a sort of ‘shock and awe’ component to the whole thing.”

* * *

McKibben had already been a noted environmentalist for many years when, in 2008, he and a group of Middlebury students founded the worldwide environmental organization 350.org. This effort to protect the environment from the dangers of burning fossil fuels has put him into direct conflict with the largest fossil-fuel producer in the world, ExxonMobil.

By building a global grassroots climate movement that can, as the organization explains on its website, “hold our leaders accountable to the realities of science and the principles of justice,” 350.org has gone on to become a global nonprofit with offices and organizers in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.

It has produced rallies in every country except North Korea. It employs about 100 people worldwide, has “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of volunteers,” and operates on an annual budget of $10 million, McKibben said.

Much of that funding comes from the Rockefeller Family Fund, a leader in the fight against climate change. When people write about this, of course, the word they use most is “irony.” That’s because the Rockefeller family wealth comes from Standard Oil, the monopoly corporation that was split into 34 successor companies that over the years have spawned ExxonMobil.

And the irony of ironies — even more than having Scott Pruitt, the mouthpiece of Big Oil, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency — is that ExxonMobil’s most recent CEO, Rex Tillerson, is now the U.S. secretary of state.

For McKibben, the answer to Trump is organizing and more organizing.

“There are days when I think Donald Trump will be a good spur to organizing and getting people active and engaged and involved,” McKibben said.

“And there are days when I think this may be the final roadblock. The difference between climate change and the other terrible problems we face in a Trump era is that the climate one comes with a running clock.

“He can screw up health care for everybody, and it will be terrible for people who won’t have health care for the next four or five years, but it won’t make the health-care problem impossible to solve five years from now. Someone will be able to go back, and we’ll be able to have national health insurance like every other place on the planet.

“Climate change is not like that. If we let it get more out of hand, there’s no fixing it.

“The adversary here, in the end, is not other people and politics. The adversary here in the end is physics, and physics is an implacable adversary.”

* * *

McKibben comes from a journalism family, and his first job as a journalist, straight out of Harvard University, was one of the most coveted ones in the United States: writing for The New Yorker.

His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989 after having been serialized in that magazine; it has now been translated into 24 languages. He’s since written more than a dozen more. The last, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, was published in 2013.

He’s been awarded, among other honors, the Gandhi Peace Award, the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes called the “alternative Nobel”), and the Thomas Merton Award. He’s been awarded honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities. He has a woodland gnat named after him.

He’s married to the writer Sue Halpern, who is almost as prolific as her husband. They have a daughter, Sophie, who recently began producing podcasts for WGBH’s Frontline.

His accomplishments may sound daunting, but in person the tall, gangly McKibben is engaging, humble, accessible, gentlemanly, and the possessor of a wit as dry as a good white wine.

He is a master of irony — a necessary trait in his position.

“I didn’t have any sense of history when I was 9,” McKibben said. “But I did know I wanted to be a writer and follow [my father] into journalism. That was my work right through college.”

At Harvard, he got a job on the Crimson, the college’s daily newspaper, and he spent the next four years covering Boston politics. He graduated with a B.A. in 1982 and almost immediately afterward received a call from the legendary editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn.

“It was a fluke,” McKibben said. “Mr. Shawn called me up. I guess they decided they needed to hire someone, and I’m afraid Harvard was their frame of reference. They’d read stuff I’d written in the Crimson. Of course, I didn’t believe it was him when he called. I thought it was a prank and swore at him and hung up.”

Six months later, Shawn called back.

“I knew it was the same voice, so I didn’t swear,” McKibben said. “The mark of Mr. Shawn was that he was the greatest gentleman of all times. We became very good friends and spent a lot of time together. And somehow during the course of that time. neither of us ever thought it was necessary to bring up the question of why I had hung up on him the first time he called.”

McKibben, who was by far the youngest person working at the magazine, wrote the then-anonymous Talk of the Town section, which reported short pieces on events in the city.

At the time, he was hardly writing on environmental issues.

“The one rule then was you couldn’t write about anybody famous,” McKibben said. “So I had to spend four or five years learning the city inside out. Not its poshest precincts.”

“And I really loved that job and New York. I got off at almost every subway stop in the city at one time or another.”

* * *

One of McKibben’s last pieces for the magazine was a story about where everything he owned in his apartment came from — in unimaginable detail.

“I traced it back,” he said. “Where was [New York electric company Con Edison] getting its oil to run its turbines? I went to Brazil to look at that.”

The New Yorker “in those days had unlimited resources,” McKibben said. “I went up into the Arctic because Con Ed was getting power from the James Bay hydro dams — the way Vermont does now. I was upstate looking at the water system, which is one of the great wonders of New York.”

The piece he eventually wrote wasn’t strictly about the environment, “but for the first time in my life it showed me how important the physical world actually was,” McKibben said.

“I grew up in the suburbs, which are a machine for hiding the physical world. You have no idea where the water comes from or goes, or if there’s a river that’s been covered up. Same as New York City until you start investigating. But once you do, it’s very clear that even a city as mighty as New York is utterly dependent on the physical world.

“If it wasn’t for a huge aqueduct carrying water from the Catskills and the Delaware, New York would stop in a day. So I think that set me up, by the late 1980s, to start thinking more about the environment.”

In 1985, when the Newhouse organization Advance Publications bought The New Yorker, it promised to make no changes in personnel. But by 1987, the company had forced Shawn out. McKibben quit in sympathy.

“When they fired Mr. Shawn, I didn’t like that, so I quit and moved up to the Adirondacks,” McKibben said. “I didn’t really know the Adirondacks very well. I spent part of a winter there at a writer’s colony where I finished that story about where everything came from.”

“But I fell in love with the Adirondacks. I thought they were just fantastic.”

Eventually, McKibben found himself living in “an old ramshackle farmhouse grown into the woods” and fell in love with “the great wilderness,” which he described as “an extraordinary privilege.”

That was where he wrote The End of Nature, which he described as “the first book about climate change for a general audience.”

The influences on the wildly successful The End of Nature are, in part, his New Yorker story about where things came from — part the beauty of the Adirondacks, part his deep reading of the early scientific literature on climate change.

“I had a sense of how vulnerable all our arrangements were to changes in the physical world,” McKibben said. “And all of a sudden, the biggest changes in the physical world ever were coming at us.”

McKibben has never again lived in a city.

“The privilege of writing a book that does well is getting to write more books,” he said. “And I published a bunch more books over the next decade or so while we lived in the Adirondacks.”

* * *

The Adirondacks may be wonderful, but they are also poor. McKibben and Halpern needed better schools for their daughter and began a long search for a new place to live.

Nan Jenks-Jay, the dean of environmental affairs and senior lecturer in environmental studies at Middlebury College, brought McKibben to Vermont.

When Jenks-Jay heard McKibben and Halpern were looking to move, she gently steered them to Middlebury.

“I introduced him to friends who had property in Ripton. I had known of Bill’s writing, of course, but, more than that, I knew he was a big friend of Middlebury’s environmental program,” she said. “He was very generous and thought we were doing good things. He was a kindred spirit.”

McKibben and Halpern built a house in Ripton and settled in.

“Ripton is as close to the Adirondacks as you can get in Vermont,” McKibben said. “Most of the land is college land or national forest land. I was so used by this point to wandering forever through the woods that I didn’t want to have to ask people’s permission to trespass.”

The Adirondacks may have fostered McKibben’s spiritual life, but Vermont gave him community, something he now believes might be the world’s only saving grace when climate change becomes a disastrous reality.

“We came because of the schools and things, but over time it became very clear to me that there was something very special in Vermont,” McKibben said. “I wrote a book once about walking from our home in Ripton to where we lived in the Adirondacks, and much of the book was a meditation on the differences between the two places.

“I loved them both. The huge wilderness and the wild of the Adirondacks is magnificent to me. But what I liked about Vermont is the strong sense of community. I’ve travelled all over the world, and been in many many places, and I think the distinctive thing about Vermont is the depth of that community.

“My guess is that it’s somehow related to Town Meeting and that tradition, although I don’t know for sure. But I do know that in a country where people know their neighbors less and less, that’s affected Vermont not as badly as other places.”

* * *

All this time, McKibben was slowly burrowing deeper into his life’s work. True, he was writing books, teaching, drinking beer, and exploring Vermont, but the biggest battle by far lay ahead.

“At a certain point, and it probably took me longer than it should, I thought that if we were going to solve the climate problem, another book was not the thing that would move the needle,” he said.

“Like most writers and academics, I think I was confused,” he continued. “I thought what we were having was an argument about climate change, and if there were enough books and data and studies and articles and stuff piled up on one side, our leaders would eventually say, ‘OK, you win. We must do something about this.’ That was a misconception.”

A vast body of research now shows that companies like ExxonMobil, which had a phalanx of their own climate scientists, knew about climate change decades ago.

Even while these companies adjusted their own internal business practices to take into account the changing climate — especially the effect that rising water levels would have on their offshore drilling platforms — they mounted a well-funded campaign to deny that it was happening.

What Exxon employees knew and when they knew it was revealed by two independent journalistic investigations, one done by student reporters at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and published in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, and the other done by a team of reporters from the website InsideClimate News. In different ways, Rockefeller Family Fund money was behind both of these investigations.

Because of these reports, we know that instead of working to stop climate change — or diverting their manufacturing to renewable energy sources — the fossil-fuel industry took a page from the campaign run by cigarette companies, which knew for decades that smoking caused cancer and funded campaigns denying the connection. ExxonMobil started doing the same thing.

“I think, in retrospect, it wasn’t an argument,” McKibben said. “We won the argument a very long time ago. The science has been clear for a very long time.”

Rather, he said, “It was a fight. And fights are always about money and power.”

“In this case, the other side was the fossil-fuel industry, and though they lost the argument, they were winning the fight. We weren’t making the switch off fossil fuels. So we decided to organize.”

* * *

A group of Middlebury students was already organizing around the concept of climate change, and McKibben joined them. Their first action was Step It Up, a march across the western part of Vermont.

“We started at Robert Frost’s old writing cabin and walked up to Burlington,” McKibben said. “It took five days, and by the time we got to Burlington there were about a thousand people marching. And as you know, in Vermont that’s a sizable crowd.”

The Burlington Free Press said the next day that this might have been the largest demonstration that had yet taken place in the U.S. about climate change.”

If Vermonters were so engaged, then why wasn’t the U.S. government?

“That’s when it dawned on me why we were losing so badly,” McKibben said. “We had all the things you would need for a movement. We had Al Gore. We had scientists. We had engineers. We had policy people. The only part of the movement we didn’t have was the movement part. So we decided to see if we could build, somehow, some of that movement.”

Step It Up was born of McKibben’s idea that instead of going to Washington for one event, why not have actions happen all around the country?

“So one day the next spring, about eight of us managed to organize about 1,500 demonstrations, many of them small, in every state in the union,” McKibben said.

“It was effective,” he continued. “The day after the demonstrations, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who were engaged in a presidential primary campaign, endorsed this goal. So this kind of organizing was effective.”

McKibben and the students then decided to organize on a global level, and 350.org was born. (The name comes from the research of scientist James E. Hansen, who wrote in 2007 that the safest upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 350 parts per million.)

It was a project that faced huge ambitions as well as difficulties.

“But Middlebury came in with some built-in advantages,” he said. “Mostly, [the college] has this great tradition of languages. We had easy access to people who would be able to translate what we were doing. So when we launched the website 350.org in 2008, I think we were translating everything into 14 languages. No one had quite tried anything like this.

“And again, we took as our first organizing focus a big global day of action. In 2009, we had something like 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries simultaneously.

“CNN said it was the most widespread day of action in the planet’s history. Not the biggest, because some of the actions were small, but the most widespread. They were everywhere. It helped launch a climate movement.”

* * *

Over the next few years, 350.org produced many more global actions, but McKibben decided that more confrontation was needed “to pick up the pace.”

By 2011, 350.org had started a stock divestment campaign and a fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which was planned to run from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska.

“Both of those involved money and business in very profound ways,” McKibben said. “The Keystone fight, which we may well lose with Donald Trump in office, we won for five years. Even if we lost, it has served to launch widespread opposition around the world to pretty much every new fossil-fuel piece of infrastructure.

“The Keystone Pipeline was the first battle like that that Big Oil had ever lost, even temporarily. And demonstrating they were beatable proved to be important in helping spur lots of other people to work. We’ve seen many great victories since then.”

One large-scale victory was a widespread focus on renewable energy. In the U.S., spurred by President Obama’s subsidies, wind and solar grew exponentially. In Vermont, solar panels on houses and huge fields covered with sun flower-like panels are commonplace.

“Even a decade ago, renewables were still an expensive alternative instead of what they are now, the increasingly obvious and rational choice,” McKibben said. “Increasingly, we stick with fossil fuel not out of reason but out of the power of the fossil-fuel industry to keep its business alive.”

Why didn’t the fossil-fuel industry switch to renewables?

“They should have,” McKibben said. “They knew all about climate change 40 years ago. I think they didn’t because a) their expertise is in fossil fuel, and that’s what they’re set up to do. And b), if you think about it, although there’s plenty of money to be made in renewable energy, it’s probably not as much money to be made as there is in fossil fuel.

“The business model, if you’re Exxon, is unattractive. Once you’ve got your solar panel up on your roof, what do you know? Your power arrives for free! If you’re Exxon, that’s a crappy business model compared to [a customer] having a new tankful of something arriving every month and writing [the vendor] another check.”

The divestment campaign was an effort to convince investors to dump their fossil-fuel investments.

“It’s all of a piece,” McKibben said. “Part of the economics is driven by the fact that increasingly, investors realize this is not the future. [...] At this point, it has persuaded endowments and portfolios worth about $5 trillion to divest in part or in whole in fossil fuel.”

* * *

There have been victories, large and small, in the climate-change movement. But, in the end, McKibben believes that all movements are a battle for the heart and soul.

“They’re about who controls the zeitgeist,” he said. “Right now, Donald Trump controls the zeitgeist and the levers of power. He’s going to do a lot of damage over the next few years. Most of the architecture of environmental protection that’s been patiently built up over the last 50 years is going to be wrecked.”

Trump has proposed a budget that guts the Environmental Protection Agency. He wants to cut 97 percent of the funding the government spends to improve the water quality in the Great Lakes. The budget eliminates funding for the NASA weather satellites that give us information on climate and weather.

“It’s abundantly clear by every study that’s ever been made that the return on investment for protecting air and water and climate are astonishingly high,” he said on TV. “We’re going to pay a significant price. And, of course, the only people who won’t pay a significant price are a tiny, tiny number of people who own the fossil-fuel assets that they’re determined to fully exploit.”

During our interview, McKibben pointed out that the administration of George W. Bush foundered not on 9/11 but on Hurricane Katrina.

“Electoral politics is always important, but it’s not what I do,” McKibben said. “But usually political candidates are less important than the context in which they run.”

The activist’s job is to change the zeitgeist, and that’s what McKibben is trying to do. He was immeasurably cheered by the Women’s March on Washington, which he attended, and he’s gearing up for a scientists’ march on Saturday, April 22 and a climate march on Saturday, April 29.

McKibben thinks the fight to legalize marriage equality is a good example of how to successfully grab the zeitgeist.

“The people who organized around gay marriage did a great job of it,” he said. “All the politicians that used to be against it decided they were for it. Five years ago, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama still were dead set against gay marriage. And now you’d think they invented the whole concept.”

But as an issue, climate change is different from marriage equality.

“It’s particularly hard because it has an abstract nature to it,” McKibben said. “Its worst effects happen in the future. And humans are not great at thinking very far ahead.”

“Humans are better than many big businesses, anyway. Big corporations think one or two quarters ahead, and that’s why they behave in many of the perverse ways they do. That’s why Exxon couldn’t bring itself to think 20 years ahead and know where they should have been.”

It took about a century for civil rights to become law. It took a century for women to get the vote. Is there enough time to stop or counter climate change?

“If it takes that long for climate change, then we’re in deep hot water — literally,” McKibben said. “People often ask me, ‘Where should I move to because the climate is changing?’ I always say, ‘Don’t worry so much about sea level. The most important thing is to find strong communities.’ And that’s why Vermont is a much better place to deal with climate change.

“When you think about America over the last 50 or 60 years, having neighbors is sort of an optional thing. You live in a suburban cul-de-sac someplace, and what difference does it make? Your neighbors could all die, and it really wouldn’t change your life very much. That’s not true in Vermont. We still have reasonably strong ties.”

Vermonters are used to taking responsibility for their affairs and working on problems together. The state proved that during Tropical Storm Irene, when people did what was necessary to rebuild their homes, bridges, and roadways, even if it required breaking a few laws along the way.

But, as McKibben pointed out, ”there’s not enough money on Earth to pay for the craziness that’s coming. Think of the economy of Vermont if we get Irene-scale events every few years. We can be as Vermont Strong as we want to be but, at a certain point, there’s not enough money to keep building the bridges again.”

So, in the face of a Trump administration, is he demoralized?

“I was in Washington for the Women’s March, and it was moralizing,” he said. “I was reminded that we can fight.”

“Whether we can win or not, we will see. But that’s the only answer I’ve got. Organizing. We’ve got to do more of that.

“Eventually Trump’s popularity will fade. One hopes when he eventually topples, he’ll take down with him many of the bad ideas he’s embraced, and it will no longer be OK for any politician to be a climate denier.

“However long he’s there, it’s going to be a long stretch for all of us. I’m 56 now, so the finish line is within some kind of sight. What scares me more is to think about my daughter.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #403 (Wednesday, April 12, 2017).

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