Few people have done more to sound the alarm about climate change than writer and activist Bill McKibben. He’s been doing it since 1989, when he wrote his first big scary book on the topic The End of Nature. Thirty years later, he’s still at it, and climate change is even scarier. The result is the book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Out? In many ways it’s his darkest book yet, drawing on even more scientific evidence while investigating new threats, like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Outside editor Chris Keyes wanted to know, is there any hope at all? The answer is, yes, there is a scenario in which our species actually makes it out of this mess. Keyes caught up with McKibben at his home in Vermont to talk about it.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Interview with Chris Keyes.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): It's a big claim, but it's probably accurate to say that no American has done more to sound the alarm about the dire consequences of climate change than writer and activist, Bill McKibben. His first book on the topic, The End of Nature, was published in 1989 about a year after acclaimed climate scientist, James Hansen, famously testified before a Senate committee to warn of the looming threat of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The End of Nature has been called the first book on global warming for a general audience. It's heavy and alarming. McKibben has never been one to sugarcoat the apocalyptic nature of the issues we face, but the book also contains a fair bit of hope. Back then there was still an optimistic belief that world leaders could rise to the occasion and take steps to solve the problem before it was too late.
30 years later, McKibben is back with a sequel called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out. If anything, it offers an even darker depiction of what we're up against. Instead of hypotheticals, he draws on the real world, unprecedented disasters mankind is enduring on an escalating basis and he's unflinching and pretty convincing as he connects these events to not just climate change, but the obfuscation and denial of the facts that have defined the last three decades of the global warming debate. What's more, with the rise of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, McKibben has two new potential threats to wrestle with that make him all the more pessimistic about the future of humanity. So yes, Falter is a frightening read, but also an essential one, and it does offer some hope, pointing to two recent advances --the rise in effectiveness of nonviolent direct action and solar power -- as the keys to a scenario in which our species actually does make it out of this mess. Outside editor Chris Keyes caught up with McKibben at his home in Middlebury, Vermont, where he teaches Middlebury College and leads the anticarbon campaign group 350.org.
Chris Keyes: Before we talk about a lot of the stuff that you wrestle with, including climate change and technology. I want to ask about that subtitle, “Has the human game begun to play itself out?” How did you settle on ‘game’ as a metaphor and what exactly is the game as you define it?
Bill McKibben: Well, Chris, that's actually a really good question and one that I wrestled with a long time. The original title talked about the human project, but I found myself unable to define what the human project really was. Because I don't think in the end that there is one beyond continuing, beyond keeping going. I think that there are ways to tell whether we're playing this game of being human more artfully or less. To me, the more people that are living with the more dignity-- don't mean the more people in terms of numbers, but the more that people live in dignity, the better we're playing the game. But I don't think there's any end to it, or there shouldn't be. And that's what troubles me. I think that some of these junctures we now approach threaten to end that game that's been going on and quite beautifully and quite tragically and quite powerfully for eons.
Keyes: Another thing you talk about a lot in the book is this idea of leverage and I'm going to quote you here. “We're simply so big,” -- meaning the human race-- “moving so fast that every decision carries enormous weight.” You use that term to kind of put our particular age into context. So why do we have more leverage than before and why should it concern us?
McKibben: Well, part of it is, as you say, there are a lot of us and we're using lots of resources and moving quickly. And so things that we decide to do as a species have enormous affect. Everybody wants to drive a car and, then, all of a sudden the ocean is 30% more acidic than it was. But the real leverage that I talk about the most in the book is the way that a tiny, tiny group of human beings perched at the top of the world's most powerful economies have managed over the course of just a couple of decades to push us in a series of irrevocable directions that are promised enormous tragedy that'll play out over tens of thousands of years. I mean these are the Koch brothers, biggest oil and gas barons in the world, who have pushed their ideological understanding to make sure that we didn't do anything to reign in climate change when we could. These are the Silicon Valley barons who seem willing to, through techniques like human genetic engineering, dramatically change what it means to be a human being without any particular guidance or buy in from the rest of us just as a kind of project of their own. Megalomania.
Keyes: And so some of this you wrestled with in your first book on the topic, The End of Nature, which came out in 1989 and I know that it was 30 years ago, but as best you can, put yourself back there. What was your mind frame when you were writing about climate change then? And what did you think would happen?
McKibben: Well, that's something I think about a lot because of course I've spent the last 30 years in that fight as a writer and as an activist. I thought when I was 27 and writing that book that we were in a world of trouble and I knew that the power of the status quo was enormous and would make it difficult to change. It did not occur to me a) that the fossil fuel industry would carry out a calculated 30 year campaign of why to preserve its position and b) that the political systems of the world, maybe most importantly the American political system, would prove so dysfunctional that they'd be unable to take any serious action on the greatest challenge that human beings have ever faced.
Keyes: Yeah, and I think that gets into some of what you were wrestling with back in 1989 -- at least for the average person, a lot of the effects of climate change were in the realm of the theoretical, and we were told what would happen eventually. Now we're dealing with that in our daily lives, our daily existence, there's really nobody that can say that they can't feel the effects in some capacity. And others who feel it in terrible ways, whether it's those mega fires or sustained heat waves or more powerful storms and ocean acidification. So in some senses is the terrible tragedies that we're now living through now in some ways good for the fight because people are kind of being shocked into being awake?
McKibbens: Well, it's not good. It's not bad. It's just reality. It's where we are. And it's what happens when you don't take action about something when you first find out about it. It's not that much different from someone finding out that they have breast cancer and deciding that they're not going to do anything about it, and waking up a couple of years later and what do you know it's metastasized. That’s the kind of horrible tragedy that we're living through now because we didn't take the clear and obvious actions we could have taken three decades ago. Now we have to deal with far, far more dramatic decisions to be made about what we're going to do. One of the things I have to try and kind of restrain myself from doing is saying, Oh, if only you'd listen to me when, because in 1989, there were a lot of small shifts we could have made that would have had enough influence to really change our trajectory
Back then a modest price on carbon say which any economist was already recommending would have, would have without us hardly noticing pushed us to go in a very different set of directions technologically, economically, socially. We wouldn't have solved climate change by this point because it's a massive problem. But we'd be well on the way to solving it instead of where we are now, which is pushing more carbon into the atmosphere every single year. And at this point, watching the physical systems that respond to that carbon beginning to offer a dangerous feedback of their own. We've lost half the summer sea ice in the Arctic now. That was a nice white mirror that reflected most of the incoming sunlight back out to space. And now we've got blue seawater that absorbs it. That means that the path that we must walk now is that much steeper. And you could multiply that example a thousand times.
Keyes: Yeah. And as you point out that there's been two other sort of major examples of threats on a global scale. One was nuclear weapons, which we continue to wrestle with today, but have some kind of systems in place to have avoided a full scale nuclear war. The other was the hole in the ozone layer and awareness around that came about right around the time awareness of climate change was starting to come out. Why were we so successful at combating that? What made that so much easier to tackle?
McKibbens: It was a much easier problem physically because the ozone depleting chemicals were a minor part, not the major part of our economy. And it was a much easier task politically because the industry in question the big chemical companies after a couple of years of the same kind of perverse and evil resistance decided that they could make money selling the alternatives, the various substitutes that have done all the jobs that we needed doing.
Now, the fossil fuel industry could have made the same calculation. They could have said, you know what? Since we know that this is killing us off, this fossil fuel, we better take our amazing cashflow and turn it very quickly into solar panels and wind turbines. And had they done that, they'd be in an important position in our energy economy going forward and we'd be much better off. They didn't do it because though they could have made plenty of money selling solar panels, they couldn't make as much money as they did selling oil. And the reason is obvious: once you've put the solar panels up on the roof, the sun sends you the energy for free. If you're Exxon and you've been used to everybody paying you a bill every month for oil for a hundred years, that seems like a stupid business model. And so they did everything they could to delay the advent of that business model.
Keyes: And something that you do a nice job of in the book, which I don't think I've seen a lot of places, was connecting the dots, and I think you said “global chaos” of it there before, which is we're now seeing climate change affect the world in ways that go beyond sort of these natural phenomenons that you just listed out, but this geopolitical instability. Can you talk about what we're seeing on the ground in countries where governments are destabilized as a result of this?
McKibbens: Take as an example, just one example, cause it gets at the complication of all of this. Look at Syria. There were lots of things wrong with Syria. It's been a rotten authoritarian dictatorship for decades under the various members of the Assad family. But in the latter part of the last decade, it's suffered through a drought deeper than any drought in the history of once upon a time we called the fertile crescent there across the Middle East. And that drought made it impossible for people to farm. We think about a million farm families relocated in the course of a couple of years to the urban centers of Syria. And those were already stressed from the incompetent and brutal government that ran the country, but it could not cope with this influx. And so political scientists have said that was one of the key reasons that civil war erupted.
As civil war erupted, refugees began to flee by the millions; maybe a million of them reached Europe. And you see what that did to the politics of Western Europe, how completely destabilizing it was. And some of that destabilization probably floated across the Atlantic and helped explain the otherwise inexplicable Mr. Trump. Now, consider that every estimate from the UN and everybody else is that we can expect 300 million, 400 million climate refugees by mid century. Not 1 million like the case of Syria, but 300 or 400 times that. And then ask yourself how well prepared the world is now or will ever be to deal with destabilizing migration on that kind of scale. That's why even amidst the silliness of the Trump administration, the Pentagon keeps worrying about climate change because they know that instability is the single -- that people on the move are the single biggest destabilizing factor you could imagine.
I mean at this point we can't stop all of that. This genie is at least partly out of the bottle and it turns out it's a nasty genie that causes all kinds of problems. Our only hope at this point is to limit the scale of the damage. We're fighting desperately to stop climate change short of the level at which it makes it impossible to conduct civilizations like the ones we're used to having. And there's no guarantee we can still do that. If we can, it will require unbelievable exertion and commitment. We see some science of that starting to happen. The idea that people are talking seriously about this Green New Deal is a very good thing because the last time we had a crisis this size, it probably was the depression and it took change on this scale to begin to meet the challenge.
Keyes: And what do you think about the Green Deal’s specifics right now?
McKibbens: I think it's the first time that people have approached the climate problem with policy solutions that are anywhere near the same scale as the scale of the problem. And so I think that's a very, very good thing. And I think that its commitment to justice is a good response to the fact that climate change is the most unjust thing that people ever figured out how to do. The almost iron law of global warming is that the less you caused of this problem, the more you feel of it. And so I think it's pretty key that we keep that in mind as we try to deal with it.
Keyes: And I want to go back to a point that you were just making, which is I think obviously there's a ton of misunderstanding about climate change and misinformation out there, but one of the things I think that a lot of people still aren't aware of, or at least widely, is the idea that it's not just stopping climate change. It's really just stopping it to a point that is, as you put it, gonna leave us with a planet that's still habitable. Where are we on that continuum?
McKibbens: Well, we're not at a good place really in that continuum. We've gone a long ways already. And it's very hard to foresee solutions that happen fast enough to allow us say, to save the most endangered coastal cities. We've already got people who have lost their island nation, have to leave places like Micronesia because the waters are rising so fast. We've already seen intense disruption of lives in the far North where people once depended on ice that isn't there anymore. We've already seen crazy disruption of farming in Asia and Africa, the places where temperatures are most where people are most closely balanced and hence most vulnerable. So even at one degree Celsius rise in the Earth's temperature, we've caused dramatic change and there's more in the system. Even if everybody, Chris, met the promises they'd made in the Paris Climate Accords, the temperature of the planet would rise about three times that much, three degrees Celsius. And of course, everybody's not keeping those promises. The U.S. the country that's dumped the most carbon into the atmosphere of any nation has pulled out and is doing its best to sabotage an incredible effort to change.
Keyes: One of the scariest moments in the book is your talk about, something that I didn't know, which is that all the world's mass extinctions have had the same thing in common, which is an explosion in CO2 in the atmosphere.
McKibbens: That's right. CO2 is the kind of thermostat that, and in the past it's been turned by volcanoes; by these remarkable outbreaks of volcanism that have consumed vast, vast coal and gas fields and sent CO2 concentrations skyrocketing in the atmosphere. Though never, we think as fast as we've managed to do. It turns out you don't need a volcano to do it. A V8 engine will accomplish the same trick and do it in rapid order.
Keyes: You talk about an incredible moment in the book: in July of 1977, an Exxon scientist named James Black, gave a slideshow to the company's leadership showing evidence of the greenhouse effect as it was known back then. And this was 10 years before NASA scientist James Hansen gave climate change testimony to Congress. So what happened in those 10 years? What was going on inside the oil companies in terms of their understanding of this problem and whether they were gonna go public with it or even try to try to address it in any way?
McKibbens: This is such a gross and disgusting story that you almost want to sort of send the children out of the room before you tell it. The oil companies knew everything there was to know about climate change. Look, these were the richest companies in the world. They had vast squadrons of scientists. Their product was carbon. They were determined to understand it and understand it they did. They produced by the early 1980s compelling accounts of how much and how fast the temperature would rise and rough estimations of just how bad the effects would be. And they were believed within those companies. Exxon began building its drilling rigs to compensate for the sea level rise that it knew was in the offing. People began plotting out their strategies for how they were going to drill in the Arctic once it melted.
None of those guys told the rest of the world what they knew. If they had, things would have turned out very differently. Imagine if Jim Hanson had given his testimony in 1988 and the next day the CEO of Exxon had said, our scientists are telling us pretty much the same damn thing. No one would have said, Exxon's just being climate alarmist. Everyone would have said, okay, we've got a problem, we've got to get to work. But that's not what happened. Exxon et al. doubled down, and started hiring the people that used to work at the tobacco industry or for the DDT industry or whoever it was, and they took as their task making sure that there was sufficient doubt about the science, that there would be no action. They caused a completely sterile and pointless 30 year debate about whether or not climate change was real. A debate that both sides knew the answer to from the beginning. It's just that one of those sides was willing to lie and, because of the effects, that will turn out to be the most consequential lie in human history.
Keyes: Were any of those industry heads called before Congress like you supposed, in that frame? And the reason I ask is I wonder because there's such a parallel with the tobacco industry in which you had a hearing where every leader of the tobacco major brands said that they did not believe or had no science to believe that nicotine was addictive. And then you had all this internal documentation showing that they knew all along. So I'm just wondering, were any of them ever called in a public forum where they were denying this?
McKibbens: No, the heads of the oil strip were not called before Congress because the heads of the oil industry owned Congress. One of our two political parties is essentially a subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry. And the other one's terrified of it. The Koch brothers, our biggest oil and gas barons, have poured far more money into our political system than any other force in history. So the idea that this system would hold them accountable turns out, sadly, to have been optimistic. And I was, I guess, optimistic in that sense too. It never occurred to me that there would be a kind of failure of democracy on this scale. But that's what the last 30 years have been.
Keyes: Yeah. I want to read another quote where you're sort of wrestling with the ramifications of this and this quote unquote “debate” that's been going on about climate change for 30 years. You say, “I've lived 30 years inside that lie, engaged in an endless debate over whether climate change was ‘real,’ a debate in which both sides knew the answer from the beginning.” And I was just curious, and you may blanch at this, cause I know all of this isn't about you, but how did you feel personally when you discovered that this debate you were having was essentially gaslighting?
McKibbens: Pissed off. When the news about Exxon came out, I realized what an incredibly important story was, but I also realized that all sorts of incredibly important stories disappear in 24 hours in our overheated news cycle, and I did not want this to happen cause I think it's historically one of the most important stories there ever was. So my small contribution to this was to make myself a poster board sign and go sit down in front of the gas pumps at the nearest Exxon station and close them down for an hour until I was arrested and taken away and it got enough coverage that a friend wrote me from Facebook in the day to say it had been the top story for half an hour until I was replaced by a video of a corgi barking at a miniature pumpkin. There were enough gestures like that to keep the story alive long enough for law enforcement to begin to take notice of it. I hope that's one story that never disappears. At the very least, we deserve to understand why it is that our kids are gonna live in a world far more impoverished than the one that they needed to.
Keyes: Another thing that you attempt to explain and try to understand why we've had this sort of 30 years of stasis on this issue, and you do a deep dive into sort of hyper libertarianism and the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Why has she been so influential and what have been the effects on this debate?
McKibbens: This is this leverage discussion we were having before. Ayn Rand is not a great political thinker. She might as well have been writing with crayon, but her ideas appealed to a certain kind of person at precisely the wrong moment in human history. Her greatest acolyte was Alan Greenspan who became, as chair of the Federal Reserve for two decades, probably the most important person in the world, arguably so anyway, and he made sure that we did not do anything to disrupt the kind of laissez faire dream of an unregulated economy that Ayn Rand had put forward. And that was precisely the moment when we desperately needed just that kind of regulation to try and reign in climate change.
Keyes: Have there been any other moments in these 30 years between The End of Nature and this book where you felt like the momentum had shifted, only to be wrestled away again and why that had happened?
McKibbens: There’ve been a couple of moments actually when it seemed like we might be getting close to actually taking this problem seriously. One was right at the beginning when Hanson testified, when I was writing The End of Nature, it looked for a moment like we might take this seriously. George H. W. Bush promised that he was going to fight the greenhouse effect with the white house effect, which was reasonably good rhetoric, but nothing happened. The Kyoto Conference came and went and it looked like the world had reached an agreement on modest beginnings, but the U.S.Senate was intimidated by the fossil fuel industry. Al Gore's movie in 2006, seemed to light a spark under people, but not enough of a spark. And too many of them turned to individual action and worrying about their light bulbs.
That's when we started to build a movement. 350.org was the vehicle we were using. Others were doing it too. And over the last 10 years, there's been steady progress in making that movement bigger and stronger and it's had some effect. It's the reason that the Paris Climate Conference went much better than the one in Copenhagen, which reached no agreement at all. There was no longer a possibility of coming safely back to the U.S. or any other country and just saying, sorry, we blew it. People had to reach an agreement and they did. And it was not a perfect agreement, but there was some momentum building. The election of Trump and his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accords has sabotaged a great deal of that momentum. And now we have to build it again, but we can. I don’t know if we can build it in time, but we can build it. And the great happiness of the last year has been watching the wonderful Greta Thunberg in Sweden launched these climate strikes that now have involved a million and a half children around the world. It's been watching the young people in the Sunrise Movement build this support for the Green New Deal. There were things happening. The race is on. When I'm pessimistic, it's just because we started the race very far behind. And the speed now with which we need to move is daunting.
Keyes: Then you throw into the mix some of the other major concerns that you bring up in the book. Specifically you turn to the realm of technology and artificial intelligence and gene manipulation. Why are those two so scary to you?
McKibbens: They represent to me this same possibility of technology so large and pervasive, so powerful that they overwhelm the human scale. In the same way that climate change in a sense ended nature, they represent the possibility of ending human nature as it were. And Chris, they're not anywhere near as far away as people think. Late last year a Chinese researcher announced that he had produced the first two genetically altered babies, the first two designer babies in history. It was a cruel experiment, it seems not to worked, which happily the scientific community is responding with at least a little bit of remorse, and now trying to put some brakes on this particular technology before it gets any further out of hand.
But the ultimate goal of the people in it is very clear. They want to produce superhuman human beings. And if they do, think about what it means for a second to be technology. If you go down to the clinic with your credit card and produce your first child with all the IQ and whatever else you can afford to put in her, and then you go back four years later for your second kid and technology is marched on and you can buy a much better upgrade, what does that make your first kid? I mean, that makes your first kid Windows 6. The absolute effect of turning anything into technology is making it obsolete. We have enough problems guarding human dignity on our planet as it is without making it possible for people to become obsolete. And for no reason. It's not like we need to be souped up, to win some enormous prize. The prize is instead figuring out how to continue on for another 10,000 years as the perfectly acceptable species that we could be.
Keyes: You helped found a 350.org and tell us the story of that. How did that begin and where are you guys now?
350.org, which took its name from what scientists said was the most carbon we could safely have in the atmosphere. 350 parts per million, a number we're sadly way north of now. 350.org started a decade ago here in Middlebury, Vermont with myself and seven students at the small college here where I teach sometimes. And we set out with the ludicrous goal of building a global movement. And partly because there was a kind of unfilled ecological niche, and partly because we had some beginner's luck, we to a surprising degree managed to succeed. We've organized demonstrations and actions in every country on earth except North Korea. We spearheaded this fossil fuel divestment movement. It's turned into the biggest anti-corporate campaign in history. We're at about $8 trillion now worth of endowments and portfolios that have divested in part or in whole from fossil fuel. And we kind of helped pioneer the fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure.
I set out the call to people to come get arrested at the beginning of the fight about the Keystone Pipeline in Washington. And that against all odds has been successful so far. More to the point, it's sparked opposition to every coal mine and frack well and oil terminal and things around the world. They don't get to build any of this stuff for free anymore. There's a fight every time. And we win a surprising number of those fights. So we're doing what we can to hold the fossil fuel industry in check. And every month we do it, the price of a solar panel drops another percent or two. And the odds of survival get a little better. The odds aren't all that great, but given the stakes of the wager, anything you can do to change the odds at this point is really, really important.
Keyes: And do you see any evidence on the part of the fossil fuel industry itself that these efforts are affecting them?
McKibbens: When you talk about the infrastructure stuff, the head of the American Petroleum Institute said in a speech a year or so ago to his peers, he said, we somehow have to stop the Keystone-ization of everything we're trying to do. And I confess my dark heart gave a little leap when I heard them say that. As to divestment, just yesterday there was yet another story, there've been a bunch of these in the last year, this one about coal executives meeting in Houston and they were saying we now find it almost impossible to raise capital for expansion of the coal industry because of this divestment stuff. There's so many people who have put us on a kind of blacklist and won't give us money. We didn't even really dare hope for that. When we started the divestment movement; we wanted to do damage to their social license and we have, but we've also now reached the size where we're making life more difficult for them. Shell Oil in its last annual report said that divestment had become a material risk to the company.
Keyes: And you have a foreword in the book where you talk about hope, which is the question that you get asked the most. And as I think you say, as a writer, you don't know anybody Hope. But obviously as you also say, you wouldn't write this book if you didn't have some belief that, even if the chances are slim, we can still find a way out of this. You also talk about being wary of bringing up the idea of even nonviolent movements or the idea of resistance because the cost. What has been the cost for you personally of being a resistor on this front for so long?
McKibbens: Look, for me, the cost has been much lower than it has been for environmentalists in other parts of the world. As you know, now, every year, 30, 40, 50 people get assassinated someplace or another for trying to stop some new mine or whatever. I’ve, as I've written about, had to deal with lots of death threats and things, but no one's ever taken a shot at me. So the damage has been the psychological, not physical. I've had the fossil fuel and history announced publicly that they were going to conduct what they called the biggest opposition research campaign outside of a presidential campaign on me and had people follow me everywhere I went with video cameras and dig into all my records. The good news for me, I guess is that I'm basically a bore, so there's only so much they can do.
No complaints from me, but I do know that this is not in a rational world how people should have to spend their lives. In a rational world, if scientists told you, here's the biggest problem we ever faced and engineers told you, here's how we get out of this problem, then we would just do it. It would not require people devoting their entire lives to trying to figure out how to move systems enough to ward off this kind of peril. But we don't live in a particularly rational world. And so be it. We'll do what we need to do. At this point I just hope that we can have it happen fast enough.
Keyes: Bill, I want to thank you very much for talking to us.
McKibbens: Chris, a real pleasure and thank you for your good work.
Frick-Wright: That's Chris Keyes talking with Bill McKibben. This episode was produced by Chris and Robbie Carver. Special thanks to Juliet Luine for recording help. It was brought to you by Bob's Red Mill, Coasta sunglasses and Spearfish, South Dakota. Eat Bob’s food, wear Coasta shades and visit South Dakota. Do all three and your life will drastically change for the better.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back in two weeks with a new Sweat Science.