Is 350 the Most Important Number in the World?
My Conversation With Bill McKibben
Planet Green: You’ve noted that this award highlights your shift from writer to organizer. Can you tell us more about how and why you made that shift?
Bill McKibben: At some point it became obvious to me that we were losing badly in the global warming fight, and that one reason was we had no movement. All the scientific studies and policy plans on earth don't get you very far if there's no movement to push them. so we're doing our best to build that—too late and too slowly, but as best we can.
PG: Of your work, Derrick Jensen has said: “One of the problems that I see with the vast majority of so-called solutions to global warming is that they take industrial capitalism as a given and the planet which must conform to industrial capitalism, as opposed to the other way around.” How do you respond to this critique?
BM: It strikes me that the single biggest variable explaining the structure of the world today is the availability of cheap fossil fuel—that's what happened two hundred years ago to create the world we know, especially its centralization. I think if we can put a serious price on fossil fuel, one that reflects the damage it does to our earth, than the fuels that we will depend on—principally wind and sun—will push us in the direction of more localized economies. Those kind of changes have been the focus of my work as a writer in recent years
PG: So many people believe they’re already “doing their part,” e.g. recycling, using CFL bulbs, bringing their own bag to the grocery store, etc. How do we help them see ASAP that this isn’t even remotely enough?
BM: Well, I think we keep encouraging them to become politically active too, not instead. It's good to do what you can around your house; and our job is to help people realize that there are ways they can be effective in a larger sphere too. That's what movements are. And especially with climate change, the feeling that you're too small to make a difference can be crippling.
PG: The US Department of Defense is the world’s worst polluter, the planet’s top gas guzzler, and recipient of 53.3% of American taxpayer dollars. How does your work address this situation and the concurrent “untouchable” status the US military has among the majority of American citizens?
BM: I'm not sure it really does, directly. Indirectly, I think the biggest reason we have the oversized defense that we do is that we rely on distant and unstable sources of energy as the core of our economy. I remember one sign in particular from the early Anti-Iraq-War rallies I went to: "How did our oil end up under their sand?"
PG: Since 51% of human-created greenhouse gases come from the industrial meat-based diet, are you encouraging people to adopt a plant-based diet lifestyle?
BM: I've written time and again that industrial agriculture, especially factory livestock farming, is a bane—not only for its greenhouse gases, but for myriad other reasons. Interestingly, though, scientific data from the last couple of years is leading to the conclusion that local, grass-pastured, often-moved livestock, by the action of their hooves and the constant deposition of manure, improve soils enough to soak up more carbon and methane than they produce. (This would explain why, say, there could have been more ungulates on the continent 300 years ago than now without it being a curse to the atmosphere). So there may be hope for meat-eaters as well—but only if you know and understand where your dinner is coming from.
PG: Is there a question you’ve always wished to be asked during an interview? If so, please feel free to ask and answer now.
BM: I've...done a lot of interviews.
PG: What do you like to do when not engaged in writing, organizing, and activism? What inspires you outside of those realms?
BM: I like to be outdoors—ross-country skiing most of all, or hiking. That's why I live in the woods. And that's why it's tough to be on the road so much organizing. But I love the people, especially the young people, who are my colleagues.
PG: How can Planet Green readers connect with you and get involved with your work?
BM: By going to 350.org and signing up. We spent what little money we had on a website; it works in about a dozen languages, and we think it's pretty sharp.