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“We Are Not Radicals”: Bill McKibben & the Importance of Environmental Awareness

Last night, a jam-packed McGuinn 121 had the privilege of listening to a talk given by Bill McKibben, an American journalist, writer, environmentalist, and activist. McKibben came to speak as part of BC’s Global Humanities Series, the Winston Center for Leadership, and perhaps most importantly, BC Fossil Free.

mckibben-cropWe have all heard the garb. We’ve seen the infomercials with polar bears stepping on cracked ice, seen videos of men who refuse to wear shoes sitting in trees to keep them from being bulldozed over. We all know about greenhouse gases, that we’re supposed to turn the lights off when we leave the room, refrain from 45-minute showers, and walk the extra few feet to throw our bottle in the recycle bin. We know all of this, but how much do we really know?

As someone who would refer to herself as environmentally conscious, and a student in an environmental and energy policy class, sometimes I smugly assume that I am aware of the extent of the global warming crisis that we’re in. But McKibben surprised me. His statistics, stories, accomplishments, and plan for the future simultaneously sobered me and lit a fire under my feet.

The Problem

In his talk, McKibben started with the problem. He presented a startling repertoire of unfriendly numbers. For example, 25 years. That is how long ago his first book came out, entitled The End of Nature. At this time, he noted, climate change was an abstract concept and a distant threat. Even he, the book’s author, had no idea what these next two and a half decades would bring.

That brings us to another number: one degree. The temperature of the entire planet has increased one degree since that time. It may not seem like much, he recognizes, but one little degree, for the entire Earth’s surface, adds up.

Here’s another number: 400,000. The amount of heat difference this one little degree makes adds up to the equivalent of the energy of 400,000 atomic bombs, at the magnitude of those dropped on Hiroshima by the US in 1945. It’s enough to melt 80% of the summer sea ice in the Arctic, to make the atmosphere 5% wetter, to increase our oceans’ acidities by 30% decrease our grain yields by 10%, to give Australia its twelve warmest consecutive months in recorded history. You get the picture. It’s shocking.

The Solution

In the next century, McKibben continued, this one degree will become 4 or 5 if the global community doesn’t change. And after sufficiently depressing the audience, McKibben began to present what can be done, and has been done, to change. This change involves two important realizations, the first being that it is not technology holding us back. It’s politics. Scientists may have won the argument, but they lost the battle. As example, he noted that Germany gets as much as 50% of its residential power from solar panels daily, joking “imagine if there were countries out there who had places like Arizona, California, and Florida.”

Students at the Five Colleges of western Massachusetts rally for climate change awareness.  Source: 350.org
Students at the Five Colleges of western Massachusetts rally for climate change awareness. Source: 350.org

And what’s keeping us from achieving a level similar to that of the Germans? At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical environmentalist, it’s the oil companies. These companies constitute the richest industry that has ever existed, and they are unstoppable in terms of money. “I’m no theologian,” McKibben added, “but these people have more money than God.” Since we can’t outspend them, McKibben suggests we use the currency of movements to initiate change.

Arguably, one of the best things about McKibben is that he isn’t all talk. He prescribed widespread movements as the cure for our problem, and got to work filling the prescription. Using an effective tactic, he went back to the numbers and pulled out an extraordinarily effective one: 350. The limit of carbon in the atmosphere that we must obey in order to avoid future catastrophe, he explained, is 350 parts per million. Currently we are at 400 ppm and incrementing that number by 2 each year. We need to get back to 350 at the very least, and quickly.

Armed with this knowledge, he got to work. With a group of students, McKibben reached out to activists worldwide and created a coalition of unprecedented size. In 2009, at least 5,200 demonstrations took place in over 181 countries, sharing the precious value of the number 350. McKibben showed the audience slides upon slides of all different kinds of people, from poor children in Haiti to women fully covered in burkas in Yemen. “Not your stereotypical rich white environmentalist,” he joked. It was the day of the most widespread political activism ever, and I had never even heard about it. That’s not okay.

The Opposition

The map of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Credit: The Washington Post
The map of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Credit: The Washington Post

There’s no doubt that we as humans are making progress, especially with the help from people like Bill. But we’re nowhere close to where we need to be. In the midst of all of these powerful numbers, things in America aren’t changing. Discoveries of new oil fields in Canada, new fracking technologies used to harvest natural gas and new ways to extract coal have given the US an energy boom in the past few decades (believe it or not). These discoveries are incentives against the changes that must occur.

One such example, which I’m sure we’ve all heard of, is the Keystone XL pipeline. This proposed pipeline would connect oil fields in Canada and the northern US to refineries in Texas and the Gulf region, and McKibben is its main opponent. The millions of barrels of oil extracted daily equate to tons and tons of carbon released into the atmosphere. In terms of parts per million, this one reserve alone could raise our number to 440 ppm. Just one oil field of many.

What We Can Do

This world can’t be changed one light bulb at a time, or even one person at a time, McKibben warned the audience. The problem with our world is structural and requires a massive overhaul. This is where we come in. Part of what brought McKibben to BC in the first place is the divestment movement taking place at universities and other institutes across the country; maybe you’ve heard of it. Everywhere, students and other constituents are calling for places, like Boston College, to take their investments out of oil interests and put them elsewhere.

Investing in oil companies, McKibben argues, is not only morally questionable- it’s economically questionable. Piled on top of the fact that you’re investing with people who are literally changing the planet as we know it for the worse, investing in oil is investing in a finite, controversial commodity. If places like BC divest their endowments, he conjectures, oil companies will at least be weakened, and will become susceptible to (dare I say it?) compromise.

625659_142792919234512_1411593015_nBoston College’s chapter of this divestment movement, BC Fossil Free, had a strong presence at McKibben’s talk. So far, a member of the group remarked, Boston College has been all but receptive to the group. It has been a model of the behavior we do not want to see. But I’m hopeful for the future, as is McKibben when he argues that having a prominent, Catholic institution as a divestment ally could push the entire movement far ahead. Though there is merit in making our campus a bit more environmentally friendly every day, advocating for divestment is the most effective way to enact substantial change.

“We Are Not Radicals”

I’d like to sum this little spiel up with my favorite one-liner of the night. Going back to that stereotypical image of the environmentalist, words like hippie and radical to come to mind. McKibben pointed out, quite eloquently, that radical couldn’t be a more incorrect classification of those calling for environmental reform. Environmentalists are fighting to preserve the planet as humanity has known it for the past few tens of thousands of years. They’re fighting to maintain constancy in the human condition, and what can be more conservative than that?

Instead, he assigns the term “radical” to those big members of the fossil fuel industries, and those who enable them. Wouldn’t be more correct to classify as radicals those people who are willing to change the temperature of the entire planet, with total awareness that they are destroying it in the process, to benefit their business? There’s some food for thought if I’ve ever seen it, and I’ll be chewing it over for a while to come.

Interested in getting involved?  Visit 350.org for more information, and attend BC Fossil Free’s informational session next Wednesday, October 30th at 7pm (location TBD).

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