Bill McKibben on Just How Scary These Times Are

The writer and climate activist talks about his new book 'Falter' and how the human race got itself into such a big mess

McKibben's new book, Falter, is on stands now. (Courtesy Henry Holt & Co./Nancie Battaglia)
Photo: Courtesy Henry Holt & Co./Nancie Battaglia

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It’s a big claim, but it’s probably accurate to say that no American has done more to sound the alarm about 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 was heavy and alarming—McKibben has never been one to sugarcoat the apocalyptic nature of the issues we face—but the book also contained 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.

Thirty years later, McKibben is back with a sequel called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play 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.

Falter is a frightening read but also an essential one. And it does offer some hope. I caught up with McKibben at his home in Middlebury, Vermont, where he teaches at Middlebury College and founded the anticarbon campaign group, 350.org. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which you can listen to in full here

On approaching the end of the “human game”: 
McKibben: “The book’s 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 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 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 quite beautifully, and quite tragically, and quite powerfully for eons.”

On the outsize impact our decisions make on the earth:
“There are a lot of us, and we’re using lots of resources and moving quickly, so things that we decide to do as a species have enormous effect. Everybody wants to drive a car and then, what do you know, all of a sudden the ocean is 30 percent more acidic. But the real leverage that I talk about the most in the book is the way that a 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 promise enormous tragedy that will play out over tens of thousands of years. I mean these are the Koch brothers, the biggest oil and gas barons in the world, who have pushed their ideological understanding to make sure that we didn’t do anything to rein 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.”

On what he thought would happen after he wrote The End of Nature in 1989:
“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 lying 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.”

On why we were so much more successful responding to the hole in the ozone than to climate change:
“It was a much easier problem physically, because the ozone-depleting chemicals were a minor part of our economy. And it was a much easier task politically, because the industry in question, the big chemical companies, 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 fossil fuel is killing us off, we better take our amazing cash flow 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 100 years, that seems like a stupid business model. And so they did everything they could to delay the advent of that business model.”

On oil companies’ early knowledge and subsequent denial of climate change:
“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. 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 Hansen had given his testimony in 1988 and the next day the CEO of Exxon had said, ‘You know what? Our scientists are telling us pretty much the same damn thing.’ No one would have said Exxon’s just being climate alarmists; everyone would have said, ‘OK, we’ve got a problem. We’ve got to get to work.’ But that’s not what happened. Exxon et al. made 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—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.”

On the power of nonviolent social movements:
“The rise of nonviolent movements shows how we can affect substantial change in societies by relying on each other’s good sense and good hearts. And this is not some soft-hearted notion. This is how you know the greatest empire in the world was forced out of India. This is how legal segregation was overcome in the United States. This is why we have gay marriage now. And it’s precisely that kind of shift in zeitgeist that will be required to deal with climate change above all crises.”

On creating a global movement:
“Myself and seven students at Middlebury set out with a 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. [Our group] 350.org has organized demonstrations and actions in every country on earth except North Korea. We spearheaded this fossil-fuel divestment movement. About a trillion dollars worth of endowments and portfolios have divested in part or in whole from fossil fuel. And we helped pioneer the fight against new fossil-fuel infrastructure. I sent out the call to people to come get arrested at the Keystone Pipeline in Washington. And that, against all odds, has been successful so far. 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.”

On the Green New Deal:
“I think it’s the first time that people have approached the climate problem with policy solutions that are anywhere near the scale of the problem. And I think that’s a very, very good thing. And I think that the Green New Deal’s 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 this problem, the more you feel of it. And I think it’s key that we keep that in mind as we try to deal with it.”

On the personal cost of resisting the fossil-fuel industry:
“For me, the cost has been much lower than it has been for environmentalists in other parts of the world. Every year, 30, 40, 50 people get assassinated for trying to stop some new mine or whatever. I’ve 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 psychological, not physical. 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, you know, 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.”

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