Where Bill McKibben Finds Hope Amid the Climate Crisis
The environmental activist says surviving an existential threat like climate change requires honesty—and hope.
On a late spring day in Seattle, I went for a walk in my neighborhood to enjoy the long-absent rays. But a thought intruded not long into my walk: I needed to pick up an N95 mask before the wildfires started and the hardware stores sold out. That’s what had happened the previous summer when, on a few occasions, smoke from wildfires in British Columbia and eastern Washington blew in and made the city’s air quality the worst of any major city worldwide. Calling this the “new normal” falls short; every year, new disastrous milestones are passed. Not only are human deaths per year expected to increase by at least a few hundred thousand, but 1 million animal and plant species will be at risk of extinction.
And environmental activist and author Bill McKibben sees another kind of death. The climate crisis also threatens the “human game,” he writes in his new book, Falter, “the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life”—of everything humans have created. Thirty years after his first book framed climate change as a mainstream concern, McKibben assesses the scope and scale of the losses we face.
We talked about this existential death, where he still finds hope, and how to deal with loss this large.
Interview by Shannan Lenke Stoll.
Shannan Lenke Stoll: The tone of this new book is quite bleak. You spend a good portion describing gripping scenes of the death and destruction that’s already happening. Do we need to start being more honest about this crisis?
Bill McKibben: When we started 350.org, people said, “Maybe that’s too depressing a title because we’re already past 350 parts per million,” and so on. And I think otherwise. It’s like when you go to the doctor and the doctor tells you your cholesterol is too high: That’s when you finally pay some attention and begin to change. It strikes me that honesty is useful here.
If it was honesty without any hope then I wouldn’t have bothered writing the book. I’d just sit out on the porch and wait for the end to come. But there are things we can do. But we need to be honest about the scale and pace of the problems we face so that the scale and pace of our solutions have some hope of matching them.
Stoll: In terms of scale and pace, you describe how the losses that we’re facing are different from many other types of losses that we’ve faced before. But we have faced similarly existential crises before.
McKibben: Yes, and things that in many ways were harder to deal with. I mean, our grandparents and parents had to figure out how to deal with fascism in Europe in the last century. And that meant that they had to go kill people in large numbers and get killed themselves. And no one’s asking anyone to go kill somebody to solve climate change—just the opposite.
Stoll: What’s driving the inaction on the climate crisis, when those previous challenges were something that we were able to deal with?
McKibben: I think what’s driving the inaction is that, above all, there’s been a concerted effort of the fossil fuel industry. A 30-year campaign of deceit and denial and disinformation that fostered a completely phony debate about whether or not climate change was real, a debate both sides knew the answer to at the beginning—it’s just one of them was willing to lie. And that became the most consequential lie in history.
The alternate history on all of this is that in 1989 and ’88 after Jim Hansen testified that climate change was real, if the CEO of Exxon had gotten on the nightly news and said the same thing, no one would have accused him of being a climate alarmist. We just would have gotten to work. But we didn’t.
Stoll: What are the political and cultural conditions that made that possible? You describe an overarching ideology that arose at that time.
McKibben: The sense that—beginning in or really gaining ascendance in the ’80s under Reagan—that markets solve all worries and that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, there’s no such thing as society, there are only individuals. That kind of Ayn Randian [thought] made it very, very difficult to hold to account the people who were perpetrating that set of lies.
The answer [to that ideology] is human solidarity.
Stoll: Is there a particular loss that hits you especially hard? Because I live in the Pacific Northwest, for me it’s the loss of air quality due to wildfires.
McKibben: The loss of a reliable winter. That’s really, really hard on me. I love winter above all seasons, and it’s sad to see it shrinking and turning slushy. And the loss of a kind of sense of ease in the world around us is painful to me. As with climate change, we’ve seen things like Lyme disease spread, I see many, many people who are scared to let their kids go for a walk in the woods.
Stoll: The climate crisis isn’t all you write about in Falter. You also discuss technological acceleration, particularly with gene editing, CRISPR, and artificial intelligence. What’s the connection between the climate catastrophe and these technologies?
McKibben: I think that they’re also existential threats. You can make a case, and I try to, that they will mean the end of what it means to be human.
Stoll: You write about how, at its most extreme conclusion, this kind of technological acceleration is ultimately about beating death. You have a chapter about the literal search for the fountain of youth through technology. Could you say a little bit about that?
McKibben: Humans are the creature that knows they will die. That’s a big part of our psyche. And we’ve figured out ways to deal with it, religion being one of the most important and art another. But then these tech guys are so freaked out about it all that they’re willing to upend what it means to be human. If instead of being human, we’re just in a frictionless utopia, then there would be no need or place for [art and culture].
Stoll: When we publish this, the 2020 campaign will really be heating up. What’s the role of activists right now?
McKibben: Well, the first goal is not to get so enmeshed in the presidential campaign that it’s all we do for the next 18 months, because there’s other work that needs to go on.
Elections are important, but so is continued endless pressure on the fossil fuel industry, through things like divestment; so is the continuing opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure and fights like the ones over Keystone and other pipelines that go on every day.
Stoll: A lot of the activism is coming from the people who are most impacted.
McKibben: That’s absolutely right. The climate fight’s led by frontline communities, by Indigenous communities, and it’s because they’ve faced the most trauma. The groups in America demographically that care most about climate change by far are African Americans and Latino Americans. And it’s because they’ve seen the damage that gets done.
Stoll: How do we build solidarity back into the political system such that people who are really benefiting right now join in?
McKibben: There are people who are never going to join this fight, and they need to be beaten. That’s part of what politics is about. That’s why we fight so hard against the fossil fuel industry. But there are plenty of other people who have the compassion and empathy necessary to join with others in this fight. And so we need to bring them out of the woodwork wherever we can. That’s why it’s important that faith communities are involved in climate action now.
Stoll: One nugget from your book that I found helpful was a phrase that you used—“usefully naive outrage.” Could you describe what you mean by that?
McKibben: It doesn’t do much good for activists to be super cynical all the time. So, if great reporters discovered that Exxon’s been lying about climate change, it doesn’t do any good to say, “Oh, everybody would know that, of course, Exxon lies.” It’s much more useful to be—as one should be—outraged at those lies and communicate that outrage, that it’s not OK for important forces in our society to behave irresponsibly and immorally.
Stoll: Where do you see the greatest signs of hope?
McKibben: I think that, for me, movements are the great sign of hope. The fact that people are beginning to come together in numbers to stand up. I mean, the great dramas of human history often concerned the many and the small against the mighty and the few, you know, the Rebel Alliance against the Death Star. And that’s what we face when we face Exxon and Chevron and Shell and so on. And our only hope is to gather in numbers sufficient to change the zeitgeist, to change the sense of what’s normal and natural and obvious. And if we can do that, then we can win. It’s not easy, but there’s enough instances of it happening in our history to give it the best try one can.