Bill McKibben: State of the Climate Action Movement
Journalist, author, and activist Bill McKibben, by all rights, should be an egomaniac. He graduated from Harvard, where he was the editor of the university's acclaimed Crimson. He moved straight on to a staff writer position at The New Yorker,...
March 29, 2023 | Source: Earth Island Journal | by Amy Westervelt
Journalist, author, and activist Bill McKibben, by all rights, should be an egomaniac. He graduated from Harvard, where he was the editor of the university’s acclaimed Crimson. He moved straight on to a staff writer position at The New Yorker, where he stayed for several years, eventually leaving on principle when his boss, editor William Shawn, was fired. He wrote the first book for a mainstream audience on climate change, The End of Nature, and has since written a dozen other books, all of which have been at least marginally successful. He is also the face of and the driving force behind 350.org, which has produced some of the most effective climate change activism campaigns ever.
And yet he remains a quiet, humble, kind person, someone who makes time for people of all stations, and who gives everyone credit for knowing something.
After 20-plus years on the job, he also still manages to be upbeat and passionate about battling climate change. During an early Saturday morning phone call, McKibben talked enthusiastically about how he got interested in environmental issues in the first place, what inspires and annoys him about the fight against climate change, and what keeps him going today.
Tell me about your early career, how you went from staff writer at The New Yorker to an environmental journalist – are these issues you were always interested in?
No, not really. I was writing Talk of the Town and had this very urban job. But for a variety of reasons I was reading stuff that would later be very important to me – most importantly Ed Abby and Wendell Barry. And I did a long piece for The New Yorker about where everything in my apartment came from. I followed the electric lines down to Brazil, where ConEd was getting low-sulfur oil, and up into the Arctic where they were buying power from a huge hydro dam in James Bay. I looked at all of New York’s water system, I followed the sewage lines, and on and on and on. By the time I was done I had a stronger realization – a much stronger realization – than I think I had had before of what a physical planet we live on. Even Manhattan, which seems like a place than can generate money and things out of thin air, in fact was exquisitely dependent on the operation of the physical world. And I think that came as something of a shock. And probably set me up for the reading I would do over the next couple of years of the early science on climate change. That story may have had something to do with why I took that reading as strongly as I did.
By that time I’d left The New Yorker. They’d fired Mr. Shawn and I had quit. And I’d moved up to the Adirondacks – in some measure because it was cheap – without quite realizing that I was moving into the greatest wilderness in the American East. And pretty deep into the greatest wilderness in the American East. I spent the next 12, maybe 13, years living there, extremely happily. It proved to be the place that I loved. But while I was reading all that early climate science, I was also having to grapple with the fact that this wilderness that I loved so deeply wasn’t quite as wild as I thought. We were already changing its weather and its meaning at some level.