Ahead of his upcoming book talk in Silicon Valley, veteran environmentalist (and Palo Alto native) Bill McKibben discusses the uncomfortable truths surrounding global warming.
When it comes to the big picture regarding the crisis of climate change, few writers have covered the issue as long or as thoroughly as Bill McKibben.
Thirty years ago, McKibben published The End of Nature, which is widely considered to be the first book on global warming written for the general population. In the years since — as sea levels have risen alongside government inaction — his writings have merged into activism: founding the international environmental organization 350.org and even spending three days in jail during protests over the Keystone XL Pipeline. McKibben’s new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out, is an 11th-hour alarm bell over the now-dire threat climate change poses to the planet. It is a book which combines his talents as an international journalist with his urgency as an environmentalist activist.
We caught up with McKibben ahead of his talk at Kepler’s Books this weekend to discuss climate change, Silicon Valley and how often he feels the need to just bang his head against the wall.
You’ve written so much over the years on many facets of the environment and of environmental activism…how is this book different?
You know I wrote my first book about climate change [The End of Nature via Random House Publishing] 30 years ago this year, and at the time it was still a distant threat, almost an abstraction, you couldn’t go take a picture of it. Now it’s daily life for hundreds of millions of people every day. California is a place that people think of as the most idyllic, golden paradise and now people look over their shoulders ten months of the year for the forest fire.
And of course, in California there are a lot of cameras. In the rest of the world this happens without people noticing quite as much. At the moment people in the south of Africa are still digging out from a cyclone described as the worst disaster in the history of the Southern Hemisphere.
So that’s the difference: A — we’ve moved into a world where climate change is a dominant force, and B — we’re forced to grapple with the fact that our governments have done next to nothing to deal with any of this. And that’s the other thing that couldn’t have been predicted 30 years ago — I was naive enough to think our leaders would respond. And now I’ve come to understand that if we want that to happen we need to push them pretty hard.
Was there a point or particular moment over the last 30 years when you began to feel like we were just tangibly missing the window of opportunity on an appropriate response to climate change?
Yeah, it took me much too long to figure out that we weren’t in an argument, we were engaged in a fight and that the fight was about money and power.
I think for me the emotional turning point came about 15 years ago during a trip to Bangladesh, which at the time was undergoing its first big outbreak of Dengue Fever— a mosquito-borne disease that is spreading rapidly as the temperature warms—and there were lots of people dying there … And I remember looking at all the lines of people stretched out on cots in emergency clinics and my main thought was— damn, this is unfair. I mean, if you take the 180 million people in Bangladesh and try to measure the amount of carbon they admit, it’s basically a rounding error in the global calculation. And so it kind of forced me to think that we better step up our game and try—before this gets any crazier—to slow it down in the country that produced more carbon that any other.
We’re here in Silicon Valley and there seems to be a sort of lingering hope that technology and perhaps human ingenuity will simply save us in the end, and I wonder what your take is on that in terms of wishfulness versus the hard reality of the situation?
The odd truth is that the engineers have really come through. They have delivered a literal miracle: in the last decade the price of a solar panel has dropped 90% and now the price of a battery is following down the same cost curve. It means that if we wanted to do something about climate change we could.
Part of the book describes being in very remote parts of Africa where there has never been electricity, but now solar panels are cheap enough that entire villages are lit up over night. This is Hogwarts-style stuff — you point a sheet of glass at the sun and out the back comes light and information. So those technologists have delivered us the miracle technology. Now we have the job of making sure that sun and wind power are built out. The problem is not that they won’t be eventually — they will, because they’re free—but if it takes 50 years then that world that we run on sun and wind will already be a fundamentally broken world. So our job is to speed up the pace at which that happens, and that’s why we build movements, because climate is the first timed test that we ever wandered into. So when I despair, that’s what I despair about — can we do this quickly enough?
Ten years ago it seemed that Silicon Valley companies—with their wealth, innovation and altruistic mission statements— could potentially counter the Exxon Mobiles of the world. Do you still see potential for that?
At the moment, most of the [tech companies] seem in bed with those guys. There’s actually a really interesting movement under way at Amazon in which 7500 employees have signed a letter to management trying to get them to stop using their cloud services for oil companies to find more oil. That would be important.
Far more important would be if these companies used their incredible lobbying muscle to make some waves about climate change. But they don’t. They spend it worrying about things likes sales tax. Not only that, I’m afraid at this point social media has become a pretty powerful way for spreading insanity about all manner of things…including climate change.
But in very blunt terms for both Silicon Valley and the big oil companies, isn’t environmental catastrophe just bad for business?
You would definitely think so, but it would require someone to think more than three quarters ahead. In Silicon Valley and most of these places no one has the bandwidth to think ahead for more than a minute.
So in a rational world? Yes. But in a rational world it wouldn’t fall to 16-year-old school children boycotting classes and old guys like me going to jail, but we don’t seem to be in a particularly rational world, so that seems to be what it requires.
With that in mind, it’s certainly easy to point fingers at huge companies, but what about effort and change on the level of the individual?
Everybody should do the obvious things that they know about, but they shouldn’t think that they’re making a real dent in the problem by doing so. My house is covered with solar panels, I’m proud of that, but I don’t fool myself that we’re stopping global warming by doing that. Global warming is a math problem and at the moment the math is so out of control that the only real hope for individuals is to become slightly less individual and join in the movements that perhaps are large enough to shape policy that will get us to where we need to go. That’s why we build things like 350.org, this big global climate campaign, because we’re not going to do it one Prius at a time, because the math is the math and it requires concerted society-wide action.
The good news is that it doesn’t require everybody. If you can get 5 or 10% of the population really engaged in this fight, that’s enough.
Don’t you think we’re seeing something in that vein with the recent student climate strike?
I think it’s fantastic. I think Greta Thunberg is a great hero. And what they’ve been calling for recently is for adults to back them up. So I think there will be a call before long for adult strikes too, and we’ll need everybody at all those futuristic office campuses there in Cupertino and wherever to walk out the door, for a day anyway.
Our job now has to be to disrupt business as usual, because it is literally business as usual that is doing us in. Just getting up every day and doing the same things we did yesterday is not a recipe for getting out of the worst crisis we’ve ever been in.
You know I’m usually inclined in an interview like this to conclude by asking the author for their level of optimism. With you I’m more curious if you just bang your head against the wall all day long?
No…well, once in a while.
Look, it’s obviously a bad scene and there is obviously no guarantee at this point that even if we do everything right that it is going to be enough because the physics of climate change is daunting. But, the better science indicates that if we do everything we can, we may still have a narrowing — albeit closing — window not to stop global warming, but to keep it from getting so out of control that we can’t have civilizations like the ones we are used to. Even if we’re only changing the odds a few percentage points, the stakes of this wager are so high that it’s worth more than my time and anybody else’s.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Kepler’s Books hosts Bill McKibben in conversation with Michael Closson, Sunday April 28th. For full event info click here.
Bill McKibben’s new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? is available via Macmillan Publishers.
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