Bill McKibben: beyond 350

Synchronised swimmers at Bronte Beach, Sydney, take part in the International Day of Climate Action on October 24. Photo

Bill McKibben is one of the world’s best-known climate activists and writers. He was the founder of the campaign, which organised more than 5200 protests in 181 countries on October 24.

CNN called the protests “the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history”.

The protest demanded urgent action on climate change. The number 350 refers to what climate scientists have identified as the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The campaign called on governments to act to bring the level down to below 350 parts per million. Today, the carbon level is 390ppm and rising — too high for a safe climate.

In 1989, McKibben also wrote the first popular book about climate change — The End of Nature. His new book, Eaarth, was released early this year.

He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler about Eaarth and the prospects for the global climate action movement


Q: In Eaarth you are critical of the idea of sustainable growth — the idea that the economy can continue to grow if it’s pushed in a green direction. So what’s the problem with sustainable growth?

From what I can tell, it’s just not possible to rip the internal combustion engine out of the machine and stick in a few windmills and have it go on as before.

Much of what we know of the modern world stems from the particular characteristics of fossil fuels. Absent those and it’s going to be very hard to do things in exactly the way we are used to doing them — including endlessly expanding the size of the economy.

We’re going to be dependent on fuels that are daily sunlight, not ancient sunlight-derived. Renewable energy is diffuse and scattered, not heavily concentrated. So I think the world is going to look different.

Q: In the climate movement in Australia, some campaigners say we should not talk about growth. The argument put is that if you talk about ending growth then you give a free kick to the business-as-usual crowd, who are always saying the greenies want to wreck the economy. How do you respond?

Well it’s a perfectly good argument. But both as a campaigner and a writer I feel burdened by the need to tell things as accurately as we know them.

And it doesn’t seem to have affected our ability to campaign. Three hundred and fifty parts per million is a very hard truth and an extremely radical number. And yet we’ve been able to build a much larger campaign around it than anybody has done about any other thing to do with the climate.

So maybe there’s some value in just stating things straightforwardly.

On ending growth, there is a section in the book that discusses the ways we can “manage the descent gracefully”. What do you think are the key elements of that which we need to grasp to communicate these ideas more broadly?

We have to really emphasise resilience, security, safety, stability: the things that are really difficult to square with endless growth.

And it’s a little easier to do this now that we’ve had the example of the financial crisis and some sense what this “too big to fail” thing is. So it’s tough news to realise that even more important things than the banking system — the energy and agriculture system — are too big to fail right now. That should spur us on to do some more work.

NASA climate scientist James Hansen has said there is a bigger gap now between the public knowledge of the climate science, and what is actually known about it.

That’s why I think it’s a good that the 350 thing exists both as a political movement and as a de facto science education project. It’s spreading what’s actually fairly high-level climate science at the same time as it’s trying to force some political change.

The 350 campaign was pretty big — it had thousands of actions and was probably the biggest climate action yet. As far as you are aware, has that sparked local organising that has continued since the December UN climate talks in Copenhagen?

Yes, happily it has. We can take no great credit for the whole 350 thing because basically it’s just a big potluck supper. We set out the dates and themes and everybody has just risen to the occasion.

So there are lots of places where, even though we were sort of figuring out what came next [after 350], people were already charging ahead. Every day an email arrives with pictures from around the world with the things people are doing.

And now that we’ve got this plan for 10/10/10 [Global Work Party], lots and lots of people are joining in. It’s going to be on the same scale and it’s going to involve a lot of different kinds of people, because it seems to be very appealing to people whose bent is more practical than political.

And yet, even if on that day they are putting up a solar panel, they will be engaging in an explicitly political act, because we will be using it to say: “We’re getting to work, now you get to work, political leaders. If we can do this, then surely you can do what, after all, your job was supposed to be.”

With the 10/10/10 campaign, are there any specific actions that you are suggesting?

No. We’ve suggested a bunch of different things people can do. But we have a kind of ecological view of the world: things are different in different [places].

For some it’s just geographical. In the northern hemisphere people will be harvesting community gardens, while in the southern hemisphere people will be planting them. There are places where nobody can afford to set up a solar panel, but they can afford to do some other kinds of things.

One of the problems of fossil fuels is that it has built an incredibly homogenous world. It’s tried to apply the same set of solutions to every place and every problem. So it’s fun to try to get away from that.

In your book, I was struck by a passage about the genesis of the Step it Up climate campaign in 2007. Some of the older campaigners with a history in the anti-Vietnam War movement said: “We’ve got to organise a march on Washington.” And you thought the climate movement couldn’t just repeat the strategies of past social movements. So the big marches are out, in your view?

No, in fact, we helped organise this big civil disobedience action in Washington last spring, where we shut down the coal-fired power plant that runs Congress. But, we’ve got a new architecture of the world and we’ve got to take advantage of it.

The internet is really interesting. It’s useless to use it to send people e-petitions or whatever — I think that’s not a useful strategy. But it’s incredibly useful to use it to organise things in the real world — and then use the web to make them larger than the sum of their parts.

It’s fun to watch people experiment with this — groups such as MoveOn or GetUp! are doing all kinds of interesting things. Some of them work and some of them don’t, and you get pretty instant feedback about what does and doesn’t work.

So in that sense it’s a really interesting moment to try to be an organiser, because the rules are being rewritten in a lot of ways.

We wrote a little book after we did Step It Up called Fight Global Warming Now, which was a guide to activism and the way we do it. One of the things we came to believe is that it’s very hard anymore to get people to go join some organisation and come to a meeting every Tuesday night for the rest of their lives.

But, on the other hand, it’s in some respects easier to get people to dive into something with incredible intensity for a few months and lay aside their other life for a while and do what needs doing. And later they drop it and rest and go on.

There are different rhythms for things and its fun to try to find out what they are. But there is the ability now with social media and we’re trying to figure out how you make real political work out of Facebook and Twitter and things like that.

Sometimes you can’t do it, but sometimes you can really figure things out.

In the developing world, where the internet doesn’t look the way we are used to seeing it, SMS’s and other tools are really powerful tools for reaching out.

In some ways Eaarth is an extended discussion about the economy, about capitalism as it actually exists. But the term capitalism isn’t mentioned explicitly and it doesn’t appear in the index. In your view, is the market system itself, with its tendency to externalise its costs onto nature, an insoluble problem for creating an ecological society?

It better not be because, in the relevant time period that we have to deal with climate change, we are going to have markets.

Just in the same way that you could posit a world in which we all subscribed to a nature-based religion — it would be easier for us to make rapid change. But we’re not going to in the relevant period of time. We’re going to figure out how we work Islam and Christianity and [other religions] into making a green, peaceful world. And we were able to do a lot of this with 350.

We’re going to have markets. We’re going to have to regulate them powerfully. The idea of a kind of laissez faire capitalism seems to me discredited. By now, anyone who can see should be able to see that it’s been discredited by the financial crisis and by the ecological crisis.

So the first, most obvious step is making fossil fuels pay the price — internalising that externality — for the damage they do to the atmosphere. And when that happens, we’ll see how it responds.

There are no perfect solutions. And the biggest reason there are no perfect solutions is the time we have to deal with this means, by necessity, we’re going to be jury-rigging difficult systems.

Did you go to the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba?

I wasn’t there, but lots of people from our team where there. And everybody said it was sort of like what Copenhagen should have been. It was far more interested in the actual science and was very open to involving the people who have actually provided leadership on this issue around the world.

Among other things, Copenhagen was a disaster of complete disorganisation. It was as if the UN had not bothered to take seriously the idea that they were going to have a conference to solve the biggest problem we’ve ever faced.

Bolivia was by all accounts really good. I heard back from all kinds of people who said they had a great time. They felt it was serious, adult and mature. Which is funny because of the typical picture of the Latin American left as chaotic and romantic and whatever else.

Some of those strains were probably there, but it’s nothing compared with the romantic, fantastical nature of corporate sponsorship. Copenhagen was filled with this incredible corporate overlay. Coke had this huge “Cokenhagen” or “Hopenhagen” thing they were doing.

The Klimaforum [conference, which attracted thousands, and was held in Copenhagen as a grassroots alternative to the official UN-sponsored event] was pretty good. I mean it had its own overlay too, with too much speech-making at times. But it was good to see. They did a great job.

It was also good because in the second week [the UN] shut all the NGOs out of the conference hall and everyone just assembled down at Klimaforum. They did a good job of coping with this insane influx of people.

The concept of climate debt has been around for a while, but it was a big feature at the Cochabamba conference. There is a discussion to be had in the North about how we translate that. Do you think that repayment of the climate debt is a useful concept for the climate movement in the rich countries?

Yes I do think it’s useful. But the most promising thing about Copenhagen was that the developing countries didn’t give in right away — it was the reason why Copenhagen failed in a sense.

What they usually do is give in when the US says: “Here, we’re going to give you some money.” And they completely deserve 10 times more money than they were offered.

But what some of the developing countries were saying is that there’s not enough money in the world to make up for what’s going to happen to us. If I’m underwater, I don’t really care if you pay back your debts or not — I’m still underwater.

They kept saying: “We need you to cut emissions. That’s what you have to do.” And that’s the biggest debt that the west has to pay. Because unless it does, then forget it. There’s no adapting in any way to the changes that are coming, and the people that are going to get screwed first and hardest are the poorest people in the world.

Is the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico already having an impact on people’s ideas about fossil fuels in the US?

It is. It’s having two impacts. One is that kind of generalised mood that this spill is a yucky kind of thing, which is good. That’s what we should think about when we think about fossil fuels.

It’s a little hard because I keep writing pieces that say: “Look, as bad as this is, it doesn’t compare with the invisible oil spill that’s happening if you get that oil safety onshore and refine it and burn it in the gas tank. That does even more damage.” That’s hard for people to get.

The political usefulness of it is that for the first time Obama is a little vulnerable and exposed from his left. Two weeks before all this he lifted the longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling and promised everybody that now it was safe. We didn’t need to worry about it.

So maybe he’s exposed and we can use it to put some pressure on him to, in turn, put some pressure on Congress to get some kind of climate law. It won’t be a good climate bill, but there are some openings.

It’s been almost impossible to get around Obama from the left, which the healthcare people found out.

But we’re doing our best. We helped organise a march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington last week with this huge sign that said: “Obama. This is your crude awakening.”