Bill McKibben: "Being green won't solve the problem"

The writer-turned-activist on leading the leaderless climate movement

Published September 15, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

  (Time Books/Steve Liptay)
(Time Books/Steve Liptay)

A self-described “average 51-year-old book author with a receding hairline” turned “unlikely and somewhat reluctant” activist, Bill McKibben these days is something of a rock star.

McKibben first stepped into the climate scene with "The End of Nature," his first book and one of the first to bring climate change to the public’s attention. More recently, he founded, an international activist organization. In the course of 25 years, he’s gone from writing for the New Yorker to being a major player in a recent feature published there, which argues that his work “successfully made Keystone the most prominent environmental cause in America.”

His new book, “Oil and Honey,” is in large part an account of this new role. It’s bookended by two major events: a protest at the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline that he organized, and at which he proudly got arrested, and a national tour promoting his fossil fuel divestment campaign. Running counter to the campaign narrative is McKibben’s relationship with a beekeeper named Kirk, who lives, he writes, at the opposite extreme. Running a local honey business, Kirk lives off the grid, and never even goes on the Internet.

McKibben spoke with Salon about protests, beekeeping and how the climate movement has finally grown up. The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

The way you approach climate change has completely changed course since you first wrote "The End of Nature." Then, you were bringing attention to the issue, but you were reporting on it. Thirteen books later, "Oil and Honey" is the memoir of an activist. Can you talk a bit about that transformation?

Everyone believed, 25 years ago -- at least I did -- that people would see there’s a problem. That if scientists and the rest of us really explained to policy leaders what was going on in the world, then they would take care of the problem. I mean, that’s how the system is supposed to work, right? You identify a problem -- the biggest problem the world’s ever faced, potentially -- and people go to work and do something about it.

I know I thought that’s what would happen, at some level, and I know that that’s what all the scientists trotting up to Capitol Hill year after year thought. But at a certain point it just began to dawn on us, or many of us, that it wasn’t working. And really the reason it wasn’t working was the incredible power of the fossil fuel industry, based in wealth. They presented an almost insurmountable obstacle, and we certainly were never going to outspend them. So the hunt was on for the other currencies we might work in. The only ones that anyone could think of was currencies of movements: numbers, passion, spirit, creativity, occasionally spending one’s bodies. And I guess with 350, and the Keystone fight, and the divestment battle that we’re in now, that’s one of the places from which they came.

It’s funny, because I write about the environment, and I feel like a hypocrite when I drink out of a plastic water bottle. You got to the point where you had to be arrested on the White House lawn for this.

Well, I don’t know that I feel like a hypocrite anymore. I mean, I fly all the time, or I have for the past few years as we’ve organized 350. But this is a systemic problem. It’s going to be solved or not solved by a systemic solution. It’s past the point where we’re going to manage to do it one light bulb at a time. The roof of my house is covered in solar panels. When I’m home, I’m a pretty green fellow. But I know that that’s not actually going to solve the problem. So a lot of people have to get on the train and go to Washington to be in protests.

You write in the book that you’re not very comfortable taking on the role of an activist. But you also say that the real radicals are a different group entirely.

Whenever anyone challenges anything, the powers that be try to paint them as extremists, or radicals, or whatever. And I think that’s actually nonsense. I think if you look at, say, Occupy, which is held up as the most radical thing going, or whatever, well to a large degree what people in Occupy are asking for is a system that works somewhat the way we were told in civics class it did: where everybody had some say in how things came out, and just because you have a ton of money doesn’t mean you get to dominate everything.

In the case of climate, it’s very clear who the radicals are. If you’re the CEO of an oil company, making a huge fortune by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, then you’re doing something so radical that nobody in the ‘60s would ever have thought of it. I remember reading once that in the ‘60s, people got really scared, because Abbie Hoffman or someone pretended he was going to dump LSD in some town’s water supply, and get everybody out of their minds as a prank. What Exxon does on a daily basis is a million times that, and it’s going to last for a million years. It’s just craziness.

So I don’t buy that anyone thinks you’re a radical for standing up for this. And the people that came to get arrested at the White House? They seemed as normal to me as it was possible to be.

How so?

Well, they were incredibly diverse. They came, I think, from all 50 states, and there were a wide range of ages. When I wrote the letter to ask people to come, I said I don’t think it should just be college kids, because in our economy, maybe an arrest record is not the best thing on your résumé when you go out for a first job. But past a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you? We didn’t ask people how old they were, but we did ask who the president was when they were born, because we wanted a sense of what era people were from. And the two biggest groups came from the FDR and the Truman administrations. A guy was arrested on the last day with a sign around his neck that said, “World War II Vet, Handle With Care.” Most people were in ties and dresses. It couldn’t have been a more normal group of people. Scientists, students, preachers, businesspeople, retired people, just people who understand that the climate fix we’re in is truly dire. And one of the many things it means is we’ve got to leave the carbon that’s in the ground in the ground. It’s just so crazy to go open up vast, more fields for exploitation.

I wrote an essay a few weeks back about how this is largely a leaderless movement. The thing that’s really impressed me in the last six months is just the degree to which this movement has spread out. I wrote an essay on this a few weeks back. It looks to me the way we’d like the energy system to look: millions of solar panels on millions of rooftops, not a few big power plants someplace. And the same with the movement – it is the most open-sourced, spread-out, horizontal, beautiful sprawling thing. Which is precisely what it’s going to have to be because standing up to the fossil fuel industry, which is such a protean, sprawling thing itself, will require that kind of movement.

The New York Times just published an article about’s divestment campaign, in which administrators are arguing that having stocks gives them influence. They say they can sway oil companies toward better practices from the inside --

Yeah, this seems like exactly the same article that people were using when they didn’t want to divest from South Africa 25 years ago. It’s theoretically a good argument, but they’ve been theoretically doing it for 25 years, right? And it hasn’t worked at all.

In fact, the big oil companies have gone in the opposite direction. Ten years ago, BP was talking about being “beyond petroleum.” In the last three or four years, they’ve sold off their wind and solar divisions. That’s just an excuse for inaction. These are not people who are serious about engaging this issue.

Happily, there are lots of boards of trustees and politicians who are. And we’ll convince the rest of them over time the old-fashioned way. It will just become clear that students, faculty and alumni at colleges, and voters in various cities, and parishioners in churches and synagogues, just don’t want to be involved and invested in this mess.

Do you see that as something that’s more symbolic, or do you think it could have a real economic impact?

I think it’ll have its real economic impact, oddly, through symbolic action. We can’t bankrupt Exxon. But we can politically and morally bankrupt them. We can’t bankrupt them financially in the short run – they have lots of money. But we can reduce their political power dramatically. When the United Church of Christ, the oldest Protestant denomination in the country – it traces its roots back to the pilgrims – when they say, we don’t want to be invested in these guys, involved with these guys, that counts.

When Nelson Mandela got out of prison, one of the first foreign trips he took was to the U.S. He did not go first to the White House, he went first to California, to say to people, thank you for your help in overcoming apartheid. We obviously liberated ourselves, but we couldn’t have done it by ourselves.

Back to the book, one of its core ideas is the tension between localizing and globalizing: Should we all be out protesting at the White House, or should we retreat to subsistence agriculture? Do you think there’s a happy medium there?

I think it’s sort of summed up in the physics of the problem. We have to adapt to that which we can’t prevent, which means all our communities are going to have to start thinking hard about how they secure food and shelter in a difficult world. We certainly learned that lesson in Vermont as Hurricane Irene swept through. So for me, the most hopeful part of this whole book is all the stuff about Kirk and his bees, and new ways of doing some of this stuff -- and the power and beauty of it.

At the same time, the trouble we see already was caused by raising the temperature one degree. If we raise the temperature four or five degrees Celsius, which is what the scientists tell us we will do if we keep on our current path, then it doesn’t matter how organic your farm is – it’s still not going to work. You can’t grow food if it rains every day for 30 days, or if it doesn’t rain at all for 30 days. Then you’re just stuck. So I think the mantra is: “Adapt to that which you can’t prevent, prevent that to which you can’t adapt.” Kirk was working hard on the adaptation part, and I was doing my best on the prevention side.

How are Kirk’s bees doing?

This was not a good year for honey, because it was very rainy and wet in the early part of the summer. But I just talked to him yesterday, and the queens-rearing business is going well. It’s good that he has a business that stands on several different legs, but he was disappointed in the honey crop.

So the honeybee die-off hasn’t been affecting him?

Compared to what could be going on, exactly right. You really should see how beautiful … I’ve got to say, I was just mesmerized learning about bees. There’s just something about the fact that they manage to be both wild and sort of domesticated at the same time, in a way that no other creature I can think of is.

What about you? Do you plan on staying in the activist role for much longer?

I think this movement has many, many leaders, so I’ll be happy to help if people do good things. But the young people I started 350 with were 21 and 22 when we began. Now, at 28, 29, they’re the most accomplished activists I know. They don’t need much help from me – they’re really fantastic at what they do.

I think it’s important to realize that I’m not essential to it. That’s kind of an odd thing to say since I’ve written a book about it, but for me, the most important realization I had – I almost ended the book there -- was when I got up on the stage at this big climate rally in D.C. in February, which was the biggest thing of its kind ever. And the only thing I could think of to say was, “I’ve always wanted to see what the climate movement was going to look like, and now I have.”

By Lindsay Abrams

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