Roots to Renewal

Episode Two: A Conversation with Environmental Activist Bill McKibben on Climate and Citizenship

March 25, 2021 Hawthorne Valley Season 1 Episode 2
Roots to Renewal
Episode Two: A Conversation with Environmental Activist Bill McKibben on Climate and Citizenship
Show Notes Transcript

Sponsored by Tierra Farm | Music by Simon Frishkoff

In this episode, our Executive Director Martin Ping had the chance to sit down with environmental activist Bill McKibben to talk about the daunting crisis of climate change and the important work of citizenship in facing this challenge. Bill's 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. A founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement. 

2:20  What inspired you to write End of Nature?

4:20  I knew the minute I started learning about it [climate change] in the 1980s, that this was, trouble with capital T… and so beginning a long time ago, some kind of mix of journalism and activism, became my life.

4:53 Now we've built these large movements and they're at the point of really being able to challenge finally, the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry. 

5:50 So there are days when my answer to this question has nothing to with whether we’re going to win or not. It’s simply how much trouble can I cause the bad guys today, that has to be enough reason for getting out of bed and doing the work… 

6:30  Dr. King used to say at the end of his talks, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice.’ Which I think translates to, this may take a while, but we’re going to win. The arc of the physical universe is short and it appears to bend toward heat, and unless we get it solved really soon, we will not get it solved. 

7:04 Nobody has a plan for refreezing the Arctic now that it's mostly melted. So that makes it daunting, but it makes it all the more beautiful that people are willing to join in this fight.

7:41  We think agriculture is about 18% of emissions around the world…, the good news, although it's, you know, the science is still tentative in a lot of ways, and we don't really understand all of it are the indications that regenerative agriculture could pull a lot of carbon out of the air and that treating soils correctly, would be very, very helpful. 

9:30 We're past the point where we can make the math work one vegan dinner at a time, one Prius at a time. And so I keep saying to people, and I think the most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others in movements that are actually big enough to make political and economic change, because that's what has to happen if we make we're going to make the math work.

11:20 The work of citizenship largely gets done after hours and on weekends. And it’s crucial to making the world work.

11:40 The people that move me most watching this are young people…Everybody knows Greta Thunberg and everybody should...but the really good news is there are 10,000 Greta Thunberg's - junior high and high school students, and there are 10,000,000 people following them.

12:10 I sense, a real eagerness among older people to come into this work too. To make the third act of their lives about the kind of legacy that they're going to leave behind. 

·        https://350.org

·        https://www.billmckibben.com 

·        Join our email list: https://hawthornevalley.org/contact/sign-up/ 

·        https://www.instagram.com/hawthornevalley 

·        https://rootstorenewal.buzzsprout.com/ 

Heather Gibbons (00:00):

Welcome to Roots to Renewal Hawthorne, Valley's new podcast. I'm Heather Gibbons Hawthorne, Valley's marketing and communications director. As we mark our 50th anniversary this year, we thought podcasting would be a great way to share not just our story, but the stories of our friends and contemporaries from across the globe who dedicate their lives in purposeful pursuit of meeting the ecological, social and spiritual needs of our time. Roots to Renewal is made possible by the generous support of Tierra Farm, a family owned, environmentally conscious manufacturer and distributor of organic dried fruits and nuts. Learn more at tierrafarm.org. In this episode, our executive director Martin Ping had the chance to sit down with environmental activist and modern day superhero Bill McKibben. His 1989 book "The End of Nature" is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and he has gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org,

Heather Gibbons (00:58):

the first planet wide grassroots climate change movement, which has organized more than 20,000 rallies around the world. He spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline and launched the fastest-growing fossil fuel divestment movement. In 2014, Bill was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the alternative Nobel. The Schuman Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Foreign Policy named Bill McKibben to their inaugural list of the world's 100 most important global thinkers. We are humbled and grateful that he took the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.

Martin Ping (01:38):

Brother Bill, how are you?

Bill McKibben (01:41):

It's been a long year, but compared to what other people have dealt with in 2020, no complaints.

Martin Ping (01:46):

This is how I feel. You know, looking at celebrating and reflecting on our work over the last 50 years, clearly there was something in that time that, you know, led us on our path, which intersected at some point down the road and our life's work, which certainly intersects in many ways. And so I'm very interested in what was going on around that time, that really informed Hawthorne Valley's origin, but also in a way set my own destiny. So it brings me to like this original question, which is where do you connect early parts of your biography to what inspired you to write your seminal book that started to wake all of us up to our climate situation?

Bill McKibben (02:29):

Well, you know, I had a curious path. I was, thought of myself very much as a journalist and very much as an urban person. My first job out of college was writing the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker. I spent a lot of time writing a long, long story for the New Yorker about where everything in my apartment came from. So I was down in Brazil because Con Ed was buying oil from Brazil and up in the Arctic because the huge hydro dam at James Bay was providing electricity to the city and out in the Grand Canyon where they were mining uranium for Indian Point and following the water tunnels, upstate on the Catskill and the Delaware, you know, out with the garbage barges in the harbor and so on. And Martin, what it did was teach me when I was 23 or 24, that the world was a more physical place than I had understood.

Bill McKibben (03:27):

And all of a sudden I sort of understood that even in Manhattan, it was exquisitely dependent on the proper operation of the physical systems of the planet, that it was a pretty delicate mechanism. And I think that very much set me up when I was 25, 26 and was reading the earliest science on climate change to understand in a way that perhaps other journalists and academics and things didn't. That it represented a very grave threat. I knew the minute I started learning about it in the 1980s that this was trouble with capital T. And at first I, you know, it was mostly as a curiosity of a reporter, like this is the biggest story around and I should be writing about it, but it didn't take very long to understand that I wasn't objective quite in the normal sense of things. Like I really cared about the outcome of this. I didn't want the planet to burn up. And so some kind of mix of journalism and activism became my life

Martin Ping (04:29):

I can imagine the position of being one of the early people to help awaken the general public to this. And then the mix of frustration that must come with that. That was 1989. And now it's 2020. And

Bill McKibben (04:43):

Every once in a while, I resist the impulse to say, oh, if only you'd listened to me, when things would have been a little easier, but now we've built these large movements and they're at the point of really being able to challenge finally, the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry. And that's always been the sine qua non known for making progress here. That's, what's kept us from reacting to the warnings we've gotten from science. And I think now we're at a point where we've got them on the run.

Martin Ping (05:16):

I'm always thinking back to the time we were in the room with Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry and paraphrasing badly Moyers asked Wendell, given what we're up against you think we have a chance, can we win this thing? And uncharacteristically quickly Wendell shot back, we have no right to ask that question; we just have to do the work.

Bill McKibben (05:35):

I remember that exchange. And I don't know whether you have the right or not to ask a question, but I'm not sure how much good it does. We're dealing at this point with the largest forces of physics on our planet. And we don't know whether we're out ahead of them enough. So there are days when my answer to this question has nothing to do with whether we're going to win or it's simply, how much trouble can I cause the bad guys today. That has to be enough reason for getting out of bed and doing the work. And I am always moved just by the sheer number of people who are willing to engage in this fight without knowing how it comes out. Usually in our other battles, people have been able to count on the fact that eventually they would prevail. Dr. King used to say, at the end of his talks, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, which I think translates to this may take a while, but we're going to win.

Bill McKibben (06:43):

The arc of the physical universe is short, and it appears to bend toward heat. And unless we get it solved really soon, we will not get it solved. This is the first time limited problem of this kind that we've ever come up against. Where if you just pass certain tipping points, then there's no going back, and we've passed some of them already. Nobody has a plan for refreezing the Arctic now that it's mostly melted. So that makes it daunting, but it makes it all the more beautiful that people are willing to join in this fight.

Martin Ping (07:17):

Well, here, you know, we're as tied into the global economy as everyone else. And clearly one area that we're involved in in a big way is agriculture. I'm wondering what you've been seeing as far as, um, the role of agriculture, both in the, adding to the challenge, and then also where you see promise in agriculture.

Bill McKibben (07:39):

Well, we think agriculture is about 18% of emissions around the world. The good news, although the science is still tentative in a lot of ways and you don't really understand all of it, are the indications that regenerative agriculture could pull a lot of carbon out of the air and that treating soils correctly would be very, very helpful. That's important news, and there's a lot of work going on around regenerative agriculture. And I'm very happy to see that. I think that people should not view it as a kind of silver bullet. You know, from your incredible work, uh, Hawthorne Valley, just how hard it is to change the practices, even of one farm. You know, one of the reasons that we'd go, I think that we go after oil companies is A, they're the single biggest part of the problem. B, they're incredibly powerful, but there aren't that many of them, we have a target list of like a dozen and if we can beat them, then we win.

Bill McKibben (08:44):

You know, in that field. The problem for me with agriculture is always scaling things. Hmm, billion farmers on this planet, their cultural practices are often deeply rooted, and it's difficult to figure out how you make big change fast. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try. And I think in this country, we have to think hard about how to use things like the Farm Bill, you know, the every five years as a lever. And there are some examples around the world of people beginning to do this scaling. The French government in 2015, passed a law that incentivizes farmers who increase the percentage of carbon in their soil. And it seems to be working to one degree or another. So it's really important work. We're past the point where we can make the math work one vegan dinner at a time, one Prius at a time. And so I keep saying to people, and I think the most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others in movements that are actually big enough to make political and economic change because that's what has to happen.

Bill McKibben (09:55):

If we are going to make the math work. To me, what it helps me understand is say, take a place like yours. You know, just one of the great miracles of, of we have the existence of Hawthorne Valley, just, you know, it's just, oh, wonder. And the most important work for my money that it's doing in solving this problem is, yes, all the sort of things you do nine to five as an operation that is responsible on the earth and things. But as I say that in itself, can't make a substantial enough difference in the time we have. So it's also your function as a place where people come together and join in other kinds of work, that it becomes a fulcrum, education and kind of hub for letting people also engage in this work of being a citizen. You know, one of the things that happened in this country was we got so good at defining ourselves as consumers, that we sort of lost track of the idea that we should be citizens too. And that work of citizenship doesn't have to take up all your time. And, you know, I mean, everybody's got work to do every day. And so it's really good to have really good work like what you guys do, but the work of citizenship largely gets done, you know, after hours and on weekends. And it's utterly crucial to making the world work.

Martin Ping (11:25):

It takes the long view, and it's one of the paradoxes of the work that, you know, when you're working in education, you're, you're really educating towards the future. And we hope that that will have some transformative impact.

Bill McKibben (11:39):

The people that move me most watching this are young people and there are now millions around the world. Everybody knows Greta Thunberg and everybody should. She's great. She's one of my favorite people. I love working with her, but the really good news is there are 10,000 Greta Thunbergs, junior high and high school students. And there were 10 million people following them, you know, just remarkable leadership. And now, and this is an area where I'm going to do more and more work. I sense a real eagerness among older people to come into this work, to, to make the third act of their lives, about the kind of legacy that they're going to leave behind. You know, we're the first generations who are almost certainly going to leave the planet a much worse place than we found it. And that's a pretty daunting idea. And I hope that we can summon a lot of older people to do this same kind of work that young people are doing over the next few years.

Martin Ping (12:43):

This is the universe I work in and the people I work with, and so that's what allows me to maintain this sense of hope. And that's different from a kind of false optimism and Baclav Havel has a beautiful quote about that, that I often refer to and it comes to this place of why we do the work. We have to do it with that sense of hope in spite of not knowing that we're going to win.

Bill McKibben (13:09):

Yep. Exactly right. Well, let me just say happy birthday to you all, I guess neither you nor I are likely to be there for the hundredth celebration at Hawthorne Valley, but that's okay. As long as it's clear that there are others to carry on, then it's fine.

Martin Ping (13:29):

Thank you. And, uh, closing our good friend Wes Jackson, if we think our life's work is going to be done in our lifetime, we're not thinking big enough,

Bill McKibben (13:38):

That's it well said, brother,

Heather Gibbons (13:42):

If you would like to help build a powerful climate movement, visit 350.org to learn what you can do in your corner of the world. For more information about Bill's work and writings, visit his website at billmckibben.com. Thanks for listening to Hawthorne Valley's Roots to Renewal podcast. We are an association comprised of a variety of interconnected initiatives that work collectively to meet our mission. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website at hawthornevalley.org. Hawthorne Valley is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization, and we rely on the generosity of people like you to make our work a reality. Special thanks to our sponsor Tierra Farm, who makes this podcast possible. We're grateful for their continued support and the support of grassroots contributions from listeners like you. To make a donation visit hawthornevalley.org backslash donate. If you'd like to support us in other ways, consider sharing this episode through social media or leaving us a review wherever you listen to this podcast. Thank you to Simon Frishkoff for providing our soundtrack and to Emma Morris for her amazing editing skills. Coming soon, conversations with Alfa Demmellash, co-founder of Rising Tide Capital, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to transform lives and communities through entrepreneurship and renowned urban designer and landscape architect, Herbert Dreiseitl.