Haunted by Bill McKibben
Bob Wells | May 10, 2010
Most mildly sentient Americans are reeling from the collection of calamities that confront us. But none, arguably, is basic and apocalyptic save one: climate change. Honorable mention should probably go to human greed. But climate change is about losing the whole game: human habitability of our planet.
Thus, he comes to our town, Bill McKibben, telling a Boulder audience what we’d darkly feared but hoped wasn’t so: that climate change is already upon us. It’s heralded by an arctic that is “melting like crazy”; it’s “happening in one system after another”; it comes at us with “deluges and downpours like we’ve never seen before.” And, his terrible summary: “It’s a different planet. … It’s as if we’d gotten into a spaceship and traveled to a different place.” And an equally terrible literary allusion, to the Bhagavad Gita‘s passage, famously murmured by Robert Oppenheimer as he watched the first atomic bomb: “We are become as gods, destroyers of worlds.”
The writer as activist
Then, summarizing from his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben spoke of the need for action, and of the action he’s taken, spending only 70 days out of the past year in his rural Vermont home, the rest of the time, traveling, speaking, joining environmental actions — ironically, he noted, “on the road nonstop, spewing carbon behind me.”
Most famously, McKibben’s recent activism has focused on the group 350.org that, in turn, has seized on the scientific finding that life as we know it is vaguely sustainable only if we can get the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million (it’s now at about 390 and rising at about 2.5 ppm per year, McKibben said). The scientific data and their implications are, for McKibben, “horrifying,” but “that number is what we decided to organize around,” in part because “Arabic numerals transcend linguistic boundaries.” On Oct. 24, 2009, demonstrations focusing on that 350 number were held in 5,200 cities in 181 countries (including Boulder, as was reported here). It was the largest organized political event in human history.
From Copenhagen to 10/10/10
Then there was Copenhagen, where the failure to aggressively act on climate change left McKibben feeling “some toxic combination of sad and angry.” But the more than 350 young people who’d accompanied him there said no, don’t give up, let’s go on. And they will, in Oct. 10, 2010 (that’s 10/10/10), when they’re organizing a “global work party” at which people worldwide will work on solar panels, bike paths, community gardens and more. These actions won’t surmount the challenge; but they may, he said, set an example to pressure politicians for legislation at all levels. The message to politicians: “If we can get to work, perhaps you can get to work also.” 10/10/10, in short, “is gonna be a beautiful day.”
Bill McKibben, reminding the audience that he is a reporter, confessed that he’s possessed with “a compulsion to tell the truth” (as he has done for years, it should be noted, in his books and in his articles for The New Yorker). McKibben — not the activist but the truth-teller — acknowledged that “there’s no guarantee that this is gonna work. … We’ve raised the temperature one degree and there’s another in the pipeline.”
This brings us to the conclusion of our little tale of a speech, in an echo-y church in Boulder, Colorado, on April 27, 2010. There’s no guarantee that taking action will reverse things in time, he says, but we should try. And maybe 5 percent of the population know who Bill McKibben is. The media can jabber on about a lot of things — in the case of television and big-circulation magazines, usually the dumber the topic the better. Yet Bill McKibben’s name is not a household word. Given the grave finality of the message he’s bearing, shouldn’t it be?