BRATTLEBORO — When Vermont author and climate activist Bill McKibben last visited town on Jan. 15, he was looking forward to marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
Before that milestone would take place on April 22, the words “coronavirus” and “pandemic” would dominate the front page. The biggest marches of the spring would end up protesting police brutality and systemic racism, not the climate crisis.
And the event for which he was to be a keynote speaker - the Strolling of the Heifers' Slow Living Summit - went from being an in-person gathering downtown to a virtual gathering on Zoom.
McKibben, the co-founder of the global environmental advocacy group 350.org, spoke to the summit from his home in Ripton on June 4. He said that we are “living through the most interesting, trying, and different times in our lifetimes.”
But in the process, he said, we learned several things.
First, he said, “reality is real,” and “physics and chemistry are non-negotiable.”
And COVID-19 reminds everyone that biology also falls into the same category of being non-negotiable, McKibben said.
McKibben, who wrote the first best-selling book on climate change, The End of Nature, in 1989 and has written numerous books and articles about climate change since then, said the initial federal response to COVID-19 echoed the federal response to the climate crisis.
South Korea and the United States, he said, reported their first respective cases of coronavirus on the same day - Jan. 21. The difference, he said, was that South Korea quickly started testing for the virus and shut down nearly every activity in the country, while the U.S. waited several weeks before responding.
“We wasted all of February,” McKibben said, and the U.S. “ended up with the worst of all worlds, economic disruption and enormous trauma.”
The federal inaction, he said, has contributed to nearly 110,000 Americans dying of COVID-19 and unemployment levels that are the highest they have been since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Recognizing the non-negotiability of reality “is going to help us deal with the overarching crisis of climate change,” he said.
Moving faster, and harder
It might seem odd to say so at an event called the Slow Living Summit, McKibben said, “but sometimes, speed matters.”
The same sort of lack of initial speed and urgency that made the COVID-19 pandemic worse in the United States is also making the global climate crisis worse.
With climate change, McKibben said, the United States squandered the last 30 years, “and now we have to go harder, and faster, than ever” to keep the planet from becoming uninhabitable for human life.
“We have to compress three decades of progress into one,” he said.
But the good news, he noted, is that the global economic shutdown brought on by the pandemic has reduced carbon emissions by as much as 15 percent and some people in the world “breathed the first lungfuls of clean air in their lives.”
But 15 percent is only a fraction of the reduction that is needed to ensure the planet's temperature doesn't rise further.
“The basic running of the world takes about 85 percent of the carbon we're burning,” McKibben said. “That's why we need to take out coal, [natural] gas, and oil and replace them with clean energy.”
And right now, he said, solar energy is the cheapest and cleanest way to generate electricity, with the costs dropping by 90 percent over the past decade to the point where it is cheaper than coal, oil, or natural gas.
In the process, it is bringing the benefits of electrification to parts of the world that had yet to see it.
McKibben describes the biggest lesson from the current crises in our nation in three words: “social solidarity matters.”
For more than four decades, he said, the prevailing view has been that the marketplace, and the individual pursuit of individual wealth, can solve our economic and social ills.
That hasn't worked out that well, he said. However, he's optimistic that “the opportunity for change is greater than it has ever been” and that change will be led by today's young people, who are on the front lines in the climate change fight, as well as the struggles for racial and economic justice in America.
He singled out the Sunrise Movement, a group of college students that started out trying to get colleges to divest their portfolios of fossil-fuel stocks and ended up drafting what is now known as the Green New Deal. The new global movement began protesting the inaction toward the climate crisis nearly two years ago, when then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg began her lone weekly vigils in front of the Swedish Parliament.
“It's their futures that are on the line,” he said of the current generation of young people.
But the older generations can't sit back and let them do all the work fighting for a better world, he warned.
“Our job is to solve these problems together,” he said, “and solve them speedily with steadfastness and courage.”
A virtual summit
For Strolling of the Heifers Executive Director Lissa Harris, moving the conference online and offering speaker panels via the Zoom online videoconferencing service rather than in person, both offer new opportunities for networking by participants.
“Many of our speakers are already moving to an online platform for their presentations, so this decision seemed like a natural course of action,” Harris told The Commons in April.
The Slow Living Summit continued this week with a variety of workshops and meet-ups - all online.
McKibben approves of the Slow Living Summit's migration to the digital realm this year. Working from home and videoconferencing have become ubiquitous since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, but he said that the adaptations in business routines have helped to reduce carbon emissions.
“There's something to be said, even without a pandemic, for learning how to do more via things like low-carbon Zoom,” he said.