Responses to Bill McKibben

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, “Global. Warming.” We left off discussing Bill McKibben’s phenomenally popular article for Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” A week ago it had already been viewed 450,000 times, and shared 100,000 times.  As of this writing, the article has over 4000 comments.

It’s a very good article, and I highly recommend it. McKibben discusses the sobering facts from the latest research and data.  He quotes the chief economist for the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol:

“The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist. In fact, he continued, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.”

McKibben comments: “That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

After lamenting that “we’re in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction,” McKibben then outlines the need for a new strategy.  Trying to change individual lifestyles with twisty lightbulbs doesn’t work, and will not make a decisive difference in time.  Neither does lobbying political leaders to get them to initiate needed changes.

McKibben states,

A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy put it, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.” And enemies are what climate change has lacked…Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.

Is McKibben right? Is he outlining a new, more effective way to combat climate change? Is this where we should be directing all of our collective energy, toward the fossil-fuel industry?

One response to McKibben that I greatly appreciate is by Nicholas Arguimbau, and posted at Energy Bulletin: Bill McKibben is Wrong, We Must Not Forget that “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us.”

Energy Bulletin is no ‘Rolling Stone,’ and this article has only had 3226 reads so far, but for me this piece really hits the mark. Arguimbau write of McKibben, “He is a great man with a great mind, but I’m not sure, and I don’t think he or any of us should be sure, that he has chosen the only or most important ‘enemy.'”

The concerns are that McKibben “dismisses John Q. Public,” and tells us “that he won’t ask us to change our lifestyles for the sake of global warming,” because individual actions will not make a decisive difference, and we don’t have time for that kind of slow culture change.

Arguimbau argues that mainstream environmental leaders “have never, ever  asked their followers in a serious way to conserve.”  He says that we really have no other choice:

if we could reduce our emissions by adopting alternative fuels, the presently nonexistent ultracheap batteries, solar-electric cars, solar-electric home-heating furnaces, whatever, we wouldn’t have to change our lifestyles too much. But is that going to happen in four years? Of course not. It is absolutely impossible. We’re not talking mere political or practical or economic infeasibility here. The technology isn’t there. The infrastructures aren’t there. The capital to make it happen isn’t there. It absolutely cannot happen. So we have no choice. As [McKibben] says himself, “Time is precisely what we lack.”

Arguimbau points out, “Mr. McKibben makes a radical change to the Earth Day 1970 poster and call to arms that was “the rallying cry for a generation of environmentalists”, Walt Kelly’s immortal quotation from Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Instead, says Mr, McKibben, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is Shell.”

Interestingly, like McKibben, Arguimbau turns to the IEA for support, quoting the industry respected World Energy Outlook report of 2011, which states the obvious:

“The most important contribution to reaching energy security and climate goals comes from the energy that we do not consume.”

Finally, this passage from Arguimbau really got me:

A … campaign now against the private oil industry would create some embarrassment in limited locations, but would it cut emissions? No, because the emissions reductions must come from us the consumers, won’t come until we change our lifestyles, and won’t come out of a campaign that promises to leave lifestyles alone.

And to return to the moral question, we are by far the ones with the ties that matter the most. We give the industry, both public and private, trillions of dollars per year. We ARE their profits. We are their raison d’etre.

Can we say that WE, who are the means by which the industry profits, the means by which it creates the poison, the means by which the poison is distributed to do its damage, do NOT “have ties with those who profit from climate change”? That is a lie. And it is a moral issue. This writer discussed at considerable length why it is a moral issue in “A Greeting For 2012: Looking Back At Durban And Other Progressive Failures, And “Occupying” Ourselves”, and will not repeat.

Another response to McKibben comes from one of my favorite bloggers, Sharon Astyk: Do You Have to Believe in Climate Change?

Astyk supports Arguimbau’s post, so does not repeat that material. She points out how easy it is to become politically and ideologically polarized. She points out that “pure scientific reasoning has never ever been the grounds for the general public’s take on anything, almost certainly never will be…”

Even among those who believe in human caused climate change, “the vast majority believe not that they should personally transform their lives, but that SOMEONE ELSE, probably the government, should do something about climate change.”

What they are happy to do is be politically angry at those who disagree with them – to categorize others as enemies of the future and themselves. The difficulty with this is that this incredible polarization has done no one any good – we are further now from making progress on climate change than we were five years ago – and with significantly less time to do it in. Feeling angry at the other side, organizing activities that only the left participates in and political opposition take more time than changing individual action, and are less productive in our deeply polarized US. At this point, climate change opposition has taken hold ideologically on the right, moderate right and most of the US center. Historically speaking, when the right, moderate right and US center agree on something, the left spends a lot of time tilting at windmills and it loses. As long as climate change is a politically polarized left-right issue, it is doomed to inaction.
– Sharon Astyk

So, what can be done? First, and here is where she refers to Arguimbau’s post for further discussion, is that rather than trying to get people to change a little at a time here and there (changing light bulbs), one of the most critical projects we can engage in is to convey “a way of life that people can aspire to and adopt collectively.”  In fact, Sharon has written one of the best books ever exploring this approach, called Depletion and Abundance. As reviewer Frank Kaminski put it, “she shows how rewarding life on her New Home Front could be, immeasurably improving our health, nutrition, sense of community and overall well-being.”

Second, she addresses the question that is the title of her post: “Do you, in fact, have to believe in global warming to do what is needed?”

She argues that if you keep the end in mind of where you want to get to, and shift the discussion away from one’s position on climate change, and towards those outcomes you want to see, there can be effective traction.

What I have found over the years is that on this ground, there are plenty of allies that cannot exist over one politicized single issue. Does that mean you can accomplish everything one would like to? No, almost certainly not – but in comparison to what we are accomplishing right now in terms of climate change (ie, nothing), it is possible to imagine making changes worth making in lifestyle, community, and at a host of political levels (smaller is often easier) if the ground shifts to other territory.
– Sharon Astyk

This reminds me of something said by David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture.

It’s about society reading signs around it that it needs to change, and that change is coming. We have all sorts of interpretations about why that might be. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to believe in climate change or peak oil to start to behave sensibly, to look after their own interests and the interests of their children and grandchildren.  An understanding of peak oil and climate change certainly helps to understand the complexities that are unraveling in the world, but I’ve argued quite strongly that it doesn’t really matter whether these crises are caused by geological climatic realities, or whether they’re caused by evil actors, or whether they’re caused by a God who is punishing us for our sins. It all means we’ve actually got to change what we’re doing.
So I’m sort of ambivalent about that issue of the first thing is to hammer into people that they’ve got to accept a particular explanation of what’s going on in the world. I don’t think that is necessary.
– David Holmgren, Gro-Action Interview, 2011

Although I probably won’t stop trying to get people to “understand the complexities that are unraveling in the world,” I think Astyk and Holmgren offer a much needed perspective.

Although the Transition Towns movement still places some importance on awareness raising around the issues of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability, it seems the real juice has been found in the aspects of the work that are about hands on practicalities and making meaningful connections with other people – building community. Rob Hopkins wrote recently, “I am thinking about calling the next book I do “The Thrill of Just Doing Stuff” because I think that is ultimately what it’s about.”

I’ve come across a number of articles over the past couple of years by environmentalists who say something to the effect of “what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, therefore we should change our tactics.”  And then they proceed to offer the same old tactics of protest and opposition.  As I said in the previous post, I support removing fossil fuel subsidies, and protest and opposition has it’s place.  But what if we were to actually put some major effort into creating the world we do want, rather than just opposing what we don’t want?

In a recent interview, Richard Heinberg summed up the essential steps that are needed:

Relocalize
Reskill
Conserve
Share
Build Resilience

He pointed out that Transition Initiatives are re-envisioning how communities work, and how life can be better without fossil fuels. He noted that friends and neighbors are our most important assets, and that working with friends and neighbors to create community resilience can be more fun and more effective than working alone.

Sounds like a good plan to me.

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4 comments on “Responses to Bill McKibben

  1. Angela says:

    Hey David, you wrote…..”I probably won’t stop trying to get people to “understand the complexities that are unraveling in the world,”

    Great!, I love your passion and ability to bring together a ton of info from all sorts of places/people and highlight the thread that goes through them all and bring in much needed insight. I hope you keep doing what you do that is such a great service towards making the complexities more understandable.

    And what you say here: “Although the Transition Towns movement still places some importance on awareness raising around the issues of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability, it seems the real juice has been found in the aspects of the work that are about hands on practicalities and making meaningful connections with other people – building community.” I agree with the emphasis of hands on practicalities, and people connections. Not only do we need more of the actually making of a new way of living, people ‘get it’ more by seeing real life examples of it than by being talked into it. When people are ‘ready’ to understand a new way and to make change, they seek out information to support them….not the other way around. Then they naturally gravitate to people who are embodying, living, practicing the new ways so they can learn what they need.

    Thanks for this post!!

  2. […] my two previous posts, Global. Warming. and Responses to Bill McKibbben, I referenced an excellent recent article by Nicholas […]

  3. […] more defiant or desperate means – from McKibben campaigning against private oil companies (see my post here) to Klein calling for revolt (see my post here) to Jensen who claims that “the task of an […]

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