Author McKibben assesses current state of environmentalism, urges local consumerism

In his new book, "American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau," environmentalist Bill McKibben collects famous pieces of environmental literature -- pieces that reflect the growing and changing movement and that have inspired him in his advocacy. During today's OnPoint, McKibben discusses the book and assesses the current state of environmentalism. He gives his thoughts on the Lieberman-Warner climate bill and discusses several grassroots campaigns he is involved in that seek to spur individuals to act on climate change.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is environmentalist Bill McKibben. Bill is editor of the new book "American Earth: Environmental Writings since Thoreau." Bill, thank you for coming on the show.

Bill McKibben: Good fun, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Bill, your new book pulls from years of American writing on the environment and highlights some very well-known and not so well-known pieces written by environmentalists. How has environmentalism changed since the days of Thoreau?

Bill McKibben: Well, of course it's changed in many ways. Thoreau saw a lot of it coming. He was a man ahead of his time in a lot of ways. But in the years since, you know, over the next 50 or 75 years, most of environmental writing was about wilderness. And John Muir was the great paradigm, maybe, you know, father of the national parks, founder of the Sierra Club, that whole movement. In more recent years there's been an increased emphasis on things about community, about how human beings are going to make their way in the world without overwhelming it. And I think, at the moment, in this era of climate change, those have really risen to the fore. They are the central questions now.

Monica Trauzzi: And how did you pick the pieces that you're highlighting in this book? Are these the writers that you turned to as you were learning about environmentalism?

Bill McKibben: The painful part, of course, is the book is a thousand pages long, but it could easily have been 10,000. This is our great literature and so there was an immense amount to choose from. I tried to pick beautiful pieces, but also to concentrate on writers whose work connected very closely with the environmental movement, who gave birth to new…so, Muir or Rachel Carson or, you know, in our time, Jonathan Shell or many of the writers whose work translated very quickly into this rapidly growing movement.

Monica Trauzzi: Who in the world of or environmentalism today do you look to for inspiration?

Bill McKibben: Oh, my greatest guru maybe is the Kentucky farmer and essayist, Wendell Berry, perhaps our best writer in this country of any sort and I think the kind of elder figure of environmental and nature writing right now in America, a magnificent writer.

Monica Trauzzi: In a recent article you wrote, "We need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement, as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we're not going to best the fossil fuels companies and the auto makers and the rest of the vested of interests that are keeping us from change." Are all the elements coming into place now? Is that happening?

Bill McKibben: Let's hope so. I mean I'm doing what little I can. We launched last year this movement called Step It Up '07 and working with a few college students I organized about 1400 demonstrations around the country on global warming last year. And in this country we managed to get our message across. Our demand for 80 percent carbon cuts by 2050 became the centerpiece of both Obama and Clinton's energy and environmental platform and it's reflected in the Lieberman-Warner legislation making its way through Congress. Now, we're taking on the next most difficult question, which is how we're going to get the whole world behind this kind of climate stuff. We've just formed, the same crew of mine, has just formed a new group called, three, five, zero dot org, to launch a global grassroots campaign. The number refers to what the scientist Jim Hansen in particular is now telling us is the safe uppermost limit of carbon in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. A tough number, because we're already at 385 and, you know, we've got to cut back now if we're going to have some hope of getting there. So that's what I work on a lot of the time and I turn to writers like this for kind of inspiration and guidance about what worked in the past and what didn't work in the past. We've got one more bite at this apple, so we better get it right.

Monica Trauzzi: Are you talking, with, are you engaging countries like China and India?

Bill McKibben: Absolutely. We've got people, we're just launching it sort of at the moment, but we already, you know, have people. We're working hard in every place from Palau to Mongolia to China to India and all around this country. We had 350 bicyclists circling the Statehouse in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago and 350 surfers out on the break in Maui on Earth Day for a great aerial photograph and on and on and on. It's exciting to see if we can build the same kind of movement we managed to build in this country last year.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the Lieberman-Warner bill the bill that can set us on the right track? What's your take on that bill?

Bill McKibben: Well, look, we're in a state, in this country, of such wildly lowered expectations. I mean George Bush has set the bar so low that it doesn't take much to look good. Lieberman-Warner is better than it would have been if we hadn't had, I think, this kind of movement in the last year. It's not as good as it needs to be. It doesn't reflect the science. And the question is whether you try to enact it now and improve it later or whether we really push in this year, since I don't think George Bush is going to sign it anyway, whether we really push for something that reflects the science when the next Congress convenes.

Monica Trauzzi: How actively are you lobbying lawmakers through your different organizations?

Bill McKibben: Last year, after we did this Step It Up, we worked with a lot of other people to form this sort of grassroots American group called And they've really taken over most of the domestic work that I was doing. We're focused now on how on earth we influence these international negotiations that will conclude in Copenhagen in December of '09.

Monica Trauzzi: You've written a lot about taking everything back down to the local level, buying locally, really focusing on local efforts. Americans like stuff though, so how do you convince people that consumerism is not the way to go?

Bill McKibben: Much of the last book, my last real book, a book called Deep Economy," was on this topic. We think we like stuff. The interesting, sort of new development in economics in recent years is the ability to measure more directly how happy people are with their lives. And the news is not good. I mean the number of Americans who are very happy has gone steadily down for 50 years, even as our accumulation has gone through the roof. And I think that the problem is that we are busily trying to meet nonmaterial needs, affection and respect and status and all of that, by buying stuff, which turns out to be an extremely inefficient method to do it. And instead, I think we're starting to see what comes next, this sort of wave of, you know, farmer's markets, the fastest growing part of the food economy in this country. Probably because we like buying the good food, mostly because when people go there, the studies find, they have 10 times more conversations per visit than they do at the supermarket. It's a different experience. If we're able to get energy pricing right it will drive that move towards localization quickly. You know, right now, people go to the farmer's market out of the goodness of their heart or because they want good food. If we changed the ground rules so that carbon wasn't free, it would also make extraordinary economic sense not to be shifting every bite we eat 1500 miles before it reaches our lips. So I think that's what the world after fossil fuel looks like and I think it's a much sweeter world than the one we inhabit now.

Monica Trauzzi: At the front of every newspaper in recent weeks has been news about a food crisis and a lot of people are pointing fingers at the ethanol industry for being a major catalyst in the high food prices that we're seeing at the grocery store and around the world. What's your take on the food to fuel issue and does all the negative press surrounding ethanol make it harder to convince Americans that alternatives and new technologies are the way to go?

Bill McKibben: Well, it might. It would be a shame if it did since it wasn't really ever environmentalists who were backing corn-based ethanol anyway. I mean it was Archer Daniels Midland. It's preposterous SOP to industrial agribusiness. It doesn't make any sense in energy terms. We're going to consume a third of the country's corn crop to produce what, 4 percent or something of our transportation fuel? We're driving food prices up around the world at the same moment that global warming is depressing yields from heat wave and drought. I mean it's a perfect storm of bad ideas. And it's one of the reasons why I think that in the last few years environmentalists are starting to become much more market minded. I think most of the people I know would be happy if Congress put a stiff price on carbon and then stepped back and let the market pick winners and losers. I don't think there's any way that any neutral market, without insane subsidies, would ever have chosen to turn corn into gasoline. I doubt the market is going to choose nuclear power as the cheapest option out of all of those. It might and it wouldn't kill me if it did, but I don't think that's what's going to happen.

Monica Trauzzi: What do you think is going to happen?

Bill McKibben: I think that money, once there's a carbon price, will flow with great rapidity to energy conservation and efficiency and we're going to find remarkably quickly lots of people stepping up with schemes about how to finance the retrofitting and conversion of the whole built environment in this country for energy efficiency. The stream of savings to be realized, especially with oil at $120 a barrel, is enormous and we just need that kind of ground rules that will happen once we have a cap-and-trade, stiff, cap-and-trade law there.

Monica Trauzzi: Some people would argue that you're part of this larger sort of Inconvenient Truth machine and that this type of action might be good for the environment, but not so good for the economy. And we're seeing many reports coming out these days pointing specifically at Lieberman-Warner and saying it's not good for the economy. So, do you take those arguments into consideration? And what's your take on ...

Bill McKibben: Sure.

Monica Trauzzi: ... the economic impacts of all these environmental movements?

Bill McKibben: The real question is, the first real question in any real sense is what's the economic impact of not doing enough about this, OK? And there's not enough money in the world to deal with global warming if we let it get out of control. I mean Nick Stern, the British economist, estimated last year that we're talking World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression rolled into one. Yeah, it's going to come at a cost. There's no question about it, replacing the central part of our economy, its reliance on cheap fossil fuel, with something else is going to be an enormous deal. It's going to cost some people some money. If you own a coal mine it's not a great idea. But it's going to make some people some money too. If you know how to do windmills or whatever else, you're going to be sitting pretty. To me, the question is entirely about whether or not we're going to step up to the historical challenge of the moment. You know, it's depressing to watch John McCain get up and say, "Let's have a gas tax holiday. That's my solution for dealing with our energy woes." And then to see Hillary Clinton say, "OK, that's a good idea. I'm there." That's such old-style, old-fashioned thinking that we better quickly get away from it.

Monica Trauzzi: And you're supporting Senator Obama?

Bill McKibben: I am. I have been the last six months, because, as I say, I'm working hard on these international dimensions of this stuff and I think he's probably poised better than anybody else to rehabilitate America's image around the world pretty quickly.

Monica Trauzzi: So, you're confident that the problem is solvable?

Bill McKibben: No. I wrote a book about all of this 20 years ago called "The End of Nature." I'm not convinced it is solvable. We may have gone too far. The rapid melt of Arctic ice last summer was sobering and scary. It was literally off the charts. The news two weeks ago that methane is now accumulating quickly again in the atmosphere seems to be confirmation of what a lot of us had feared, that the melt of permafrost in the boreal north and the release of methane from beneath it is now underway in a big way. I'm not at all convinced that we're going to turn it around. If you were a betting person you'd say the odds were against it. But I'm committed to try. We've seen more political movement in the last year than we've seen in a long time and this new thing that we've set up is our best attempt to push this system harder and see if we can really make it respond on the scale it needs to.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. We're going to end it right there on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.

Bill McKibben: Thank you Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines