(This is the first of a two-part series on New York Times bestselling author-activist Bill McKibben’s visit April 17 to Nevada County, CA and to Ananda College, where I teach. In Part 1, we look at McKibben’s message to spread the disturbing news that global warming is not only accelerating — but that its terrifying offspring, wholesale climate change, has been born.)
I was an environmental activist in the 1980s and early 1990s. I marched, fought for forest preservation from Reagan-era logging of redwoods and Douglas firs, participated in clean ocean campaigns, quit eating meat for environmental and health reasons, wrote many articles, and absorbed the vital works of Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams and others. I also performed public relations work for EarthSave, the group founded by Baskin-Robbins ice cream heir John Robbins to confront the unhealthy, dangerous way food is mass produced — particularly in the meat and poultry industries. Want to know why Wendy’s, McDonald’s and others stopped cutting down Amazon rainforests to graze their hamburger cows? Or why free range meat, raw milk, organic produce and farmers’ markets – the ways of every generation up to those born post-FDR – started to regain a foothold in this country? Thank EarthSave, in part. We made a difference.
During this time, in 1989, a young East Coast writer with as much fire in his belly and anger over the nation’s fossil fuel and agribusiness approach as me — far more, as it turned out — wrote the first book on global warming. In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben warned of the consequences if we didn’t take major steps to slow our fossil fuel consumption and reduce our carbon footprint. That book launched McKibben on a lifelong mission with his pen to call attention to the slippery slope on which we were sliding, away from a perfectly balanced atmosphere and environment that has hosted civilization for the past 10,000 years, and toward an abyss we are now seeing through the tremendous storms, droughts and earthquakes of the past few years.
How have we done? Well, let me put it this way: While talking briefly on Tuesday with McKibben, a bestselling author and the world’s foremost environmental journalist, I brought up his latest book, Eaarth. The front half of this book reads like the movie script of The Day After Tomorrow — only it’s all true and scientifically verified. I said to him, “It’s really a shame you had to write Eaarth. I felt like I was reading the worst-case scenario of everything we were warning people against 25 years ago … and they just blew us off.”
Welcome to the way it is. Or, as McKibben says, “The Earth we live on now is not the same planet that has sustained civilization for the past 10,000 years.” On Tuesday night, at a sold-out gathering at Miners Foundry in Nevada City, Calif. that included his host and mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet/essayist Gary Snyder, and California Gov. Jerry Brown, he put it another way while receiving a warm welcoming applause: “It’s a great pleasure to be here. Probably greater for me than it is for you after what I’m going to tell you.”
McKibben was brought to the area by Ananda College and the Yuba Watershed Institute, which co-sponsored the special evening. The main forces, who deserve great credit for organizing McKibben’s visit, are Nischala and Nakula Cryer of Ananda College, and Gary Snyder.
Earlier that day, before students and faculty at forested, bucolic Ananda College, McKibben also had a few things to say. I’m going to spend the rest of this blog sharing a few of his comments and insights, and then devote the next blog to his organization, 350.org, and steps we can take collectively moving forward.
Four things struck me about McKibben: He is a gentle, thoughtful, caring man with a wry sense of humor to go along with one of the most serious messages anyone has ever delivered on this planet. He is extremely dedicated to what he is doing; he has been home very little in the past five years, going from Bangladesh to China, Europe to all pockets of the U.S., to call us into action to save ourselves. He is humble and unpretentious, absent of arrogance. He is a Harvard graduate and Sunday school teacher who lives in a rural Vermont community, not the sort of person the media and a certain political element would associate with “environmentalist.” In fact, if ever there was a man more reluctant to step into the ring and take up the fight …
But fight he is, delivering the most important message in the world, in my opinion: because his message is the present and future of this world. Talk about the ultimate purpose for an award-winning journalist and writer to undertake!
Here is the message, boiled down to five basic premises:
1) Global warming. This is not, as Rick Santorum tells us from the depths of the sand, where his head is buried, “made up by scientists.” Nor is it just getting underway. It is game on. The planet’s temperature has risen 1 degree, with more increase expected. With each degree of change, the world’s grain harvests reduce by 10%. In a world where the population is now 7 billion and expected to max out at 9 billion mid-century, that’s a scary proposition. In fact, as McKibben notes, the words “global warming” are becoming passé. It’s time to wrap our brains around a new term: “climate change.”
2) Climate change isn’t the clarion call of future doomsayers. We are changing, right now. “It’s happening much faster and much harder than we would have thought,” McKibben explained. “We have 40% less summer ice in the Arctic than we did when most of us were in school, when kids like me saw the Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ photo, and the oceans are 30% more acidic. Just in the last two years, we had extreme floods in Pakistan, where 20 million lost their homes, the tornado outbreaks in the Midwest and South that killed hundreds, and the drought in Texas, which killed half a billion trees. Plus, in my home area, Hurricane Irene dumped more rainfall in one day than any other day in the 250 years we’ve been keeping weather records in Vermont — and broke the all-time record not by a millimeter, but by 25 or 30 percent.
“This is the exact thing climatologists said would happen if the earth warmed up — and now it’s warmed up by 1 degree because of human consumption.”
Apocalyptic fires. Droughts that kill 500 million trees. Diseases like mosquito-borne dengue fever that kill thousands. Pine bark beetle infestations that wipe out tens of millions of trees in the Rockies. Floods that put 20% of entire countries underwater and break 250-year-old records. Earthquakes growing bigger and meaner (In early April, one year after the cataclysmic earthquake in Northern Japan, there were two 8-point quakes in Indonesia and a 7-point quake in Mexico — on the same day). Tornadoes not forming in isolated cells, but by the hundreds. Rain measured not in inches per season or month, but by the hour. Fifteen thousand high temperature records broken in U.S. cities and towns in March – as part of the warmest global winter in history.
Welcome to our new climate. And the really scary part? “It is very important to remember that this is just the beginning of climate change,” McKibben said.
3) When the carbon dioxide concentration in the global atmosphere reaches 350 parts per million, according to the world’s top climatologist, NASA’s Jim Hanson, we will permanently alter the atmosphere that created the life forms and civilizations into which we were born. Guess what? Will is now: the current concentration is 393 ppm, and rising two ppm per year. “We’ve taken hundreds of millions of years of biology buried under the earth — plankton, plant life, dinosaurs — and spewed it into the atmosphere, most especially in the past few decades,” McKibben said. “That’s what’s causing the problem. It’s effects show in a matter of days as extreme weather events, but also over a little bit slower pace, such as the steady rise of sea levels.”
The 350 number is what McKibben and seven Middlebury (VT) College students took in 2008 as the name for their organization to call attention to global climate change and act on it: 350.org. Citizens of every country except North Korea actively participate; in fact, in 2009, they led a total of 5,100 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN later described as greatest single political action ever taken in the planet’s history. Much more on this vital work in the next blog.
4) Hydrology. This is the scientific study of how water moves through the atmosphere. The math is simple: the warmer the air, the more water evaporates and populates the atmosphere. After seven days, it has to come down — and it’s coming down, hard. “We’ve loaded the dice for droughts and floods, and we’re seeing both in epic proportion,” McKibben said.
5) It’s Time to Act. If we don’t act on a global as well as individual and community level, bad will become catastrophic. It already is, in many countries. Deniability is not an option; the science is irrefutable. As McKibben puts it, “Some of our greatest support comes from third-world countries and places like Pakistan. They get it. They’ve been swept out of their homes.”
In every sinister story — and unfortunately, we’re all participants in this sinister story right now, entitled “Survivability and Sustainability” — there is a culprit or an antagonist. McKibben minces no words in identifying that antagonist, the one industry that has single-handedly altered the course of the planet — the fossil fuel industry. “While scientists have been warning politicians in one ear, the fossil fuel industry has been bellowing in the other. Their 20-year effort to make sure absolutely nothing changes has been very successful. It’s hard to go up against them; last year, Exxon made the largest profit in the history of money.”
In this part of the discussion, he brought out some good news — temporary though it may prove to be. McKibben and 350.org undertook massive action to stop the entire Keystone Pipeline from being built. They won their fight by two Senate votes last November — but only after enormous activism and education, a few nights in jail for civil disobedience, and forming a five-deep human ring around the mile-long perimeter of the White House — with people carrying signs that contained President Obama’s own words from the 2008 campaign, a reminder of what he said he would do to protect the environment and fight climate change.
At issue? The oil beneath the tar sands of Northern Alberta, Canada. When McKibben discusses it, a horizon of realization opens up that you won’t find in any of the countless TV commercials Exxon, BP and the others are airing. “The tar sands hold the second largest pool of carbon on earth. Only Saudi Arabia’s oil fields are bigger. If you take the damage the gold rush people did to the mountains in the Sierra Nevada foothills (in the late 19th century), and multiply it by maybe a billion, you will see the incredible amount of earth they’ve moved to get to maybe 3% of Alberta’s available oil. The amount of earth moved is more than the combination of what it took to build the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal and the 10 largest dam projects on earth. If you don’t believe me, go to Google Maps. It looks like a giant scar on the face of the planet — and it costs more in orders of magnitude than the oil is worth.”
That led to one of McKibben’s most provocative comments — one that rolls right into my long-held disdain for this country’s ridiculous “liberal” vs. “conservative” labeling of divisive dialogue. If only people would look at the etymological roots of these words, see what they really mean, and examine their lives … well, that’s another subject. Which is why I loved the way McKibben used words like “extremist” and “radical,” a way that might surprise you:
“If you really think about it, the true radicals are those who work at oil companies and make the decisions to keep drilling and drilling some more. If you’re willing — and eager — to get up every day and change the chemical composition of the environment in a way that is extremely harmful to your fellow human beings, that’s never been done to a civilization, then you’re a radical.”
As for where I stand? This blog is my first action in awhile outside my own lifestyle, community interests, and poems and essays. I’m back in the ring. This planet and its people are far too important to waste — and that’s what is happening. Thank you, Bill McKibben, for reigniting the fire.
(NEXT: More from Bill McKibben’s talks, a closer look at 350.org and future community building, and what you and I can do, right now, to help slow down climate change).