Transcript for Bill McKibben — The Moral Math of Climate Change

December 10, 2009

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, Bill McKibben on "The Moral Math of Climate Change." He authored the first popular book on climate change in 1989 and is one of the most insightful figures of our time on ecology and life. We'll explore his perspective on knowledge we can trust as we orient our minds and lives to changing realities of the natural world.

Mr. Bill McKibben: The negotiation that's underway, we think is between China and the U.S. and the EU. It's really not; the real negotiation underway is between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. We're going to have no choice but to adapt, whether it's gracefully or in violent and ugly fashion to that demand of basic bottom line of the planet. But I think that we retain the capacity to do it in elegant and graceful ways.

Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.

I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, with Bill McKibben, we seek perspective, both factual and moral, on human responsibility in a changing natural world. McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book on climate change for a general readership, in 1989. "Only in the disappearance of nature as we have known it," he warned, "may we finally realize how essential it has been to human civilization." Yet it's hard to know how to orient our minds and our lives to a sweeping scenario like this and to the constantly accelerating data on global warning that comes at us daily. So we'll seek foundational knowledge we can trust that Bill McKibben has gathered in two decades of being ahead of this curve, and we'll explore the evolution of his moral imagination and his action from a focus on personal responsibility to a sense that what might save the planet would also renew the skill of neighborliness and the meaning of human community.

From American Public Media this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, Bill McKibben on "The Moral Math of Climate Change."

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Bill McKibben is one of the most insightful and esteemed figures of our time on matters of the environment. He's a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and the founder of 350.org, a global climate campaign named after what scientists deem the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. Bill McKibben's books and essays of the past two decades have both shaped and mirrored the way our cultural perspective has developed as we've come to see the human affect on the environment as part of the whole picture of life and lifestyle. From early writing on ecology, he moved to an interest in local economies, consumer culture, neighborliness, and family size. He's written that "how well we control our numbers, our appetites, and the efficiency with which we satisfy those appetites … are the battles for our time, as morally compulsory as the battles for civil rights or against totalitarianism."

Bill McKibben grew up in Toronto and suburban Boston and went to Harvard. He edited the Harvard Crimson and then landed a coveted job at William Shawn's New Yorker magazine. I wondered, as we began to speak, how he then came to move to the mountains and publish The End of Nature when he was still in his 20s. From this vantage point, writing The End of Nature seems to have crystallized a change in the entire direction of his life.

Mr. McKibben: Indeed, and like all changes it happened both quickly and slowly. I had been writing "The Talk of the Town" for The New Yorker in my early 20s, so the most urban job you could imagine.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Exactly.

Mr. McKibben: At the same time, I wrote a long piece for The New Yorker about where everything in my apartment came from. And, you know, I traced back to the oil wells in the Amazon, because Con Ed was buying a lot of Brazilian oil because it was low in sulfur, and I was in uranium mines in the Grand Canyon seeing where they got the uranium for the Indian Point nuclear reactor, and on and on and on. And these were in the days where there were really long pieces in The New Yorker, and by the time I was done, I sort of found myself thinking in a new way about the physicalness of the world. How completely dependent even — or maybe even especially in Manhattan — one was on the actual operation of the physical world even though it's very easy in New York to convince yourself that you can, you know, just mint money and ideas out of your head, you know, without any help at all.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: I'd grown up in the suburbs, which are sort of a device for making sure that you never notice the natural world. And so when I quit The New YorkerThe New Yorker got bought and they fired Mr. Shawn who'd been the editor for 40 years — and in what seemed at the time like high principle, I quit The New Yorker and I moved up to the Adirondacks because I had no money and it was cheap. The Adirondacks are the great wilderness of the American east. And I fell in love with that landscape in a really, really deep way and therefore, it was all the harder to read the sort of initial scientific papers about climate change which were coming out in the mid- to late '80s. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Ms. Tippett: When you went there did you know that you were going to pursue some of these insights you'd gained in that piece?

Mr. McKibben: No. I had no idea what I was going to do.

Ms. Tippett: But that's what came to you.

Mr. McKibben: Lick my wounds. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. McKibben: But what was overpowering was the sense that this wilderness, this wildness that I was falling in love with, wasn't going to be so wild anymore. The tone of that book was less fear than sadness because the big changes weren't yet breaking over our heads the way they are now. Then it was mostly the anticipation 20 years ago of what it would feel like to live in a world that meant something different. Not just a world that didn't operate effectively or easily anymore, but one that spiritually, psychologically, philosophically meant something different and something less than the one that I'd been born into.

Ms. Tippett: And this was — I suppose you were writing this in the mid- to late '80s, right? The book was published in 1989.

Mr. McKibben: It came out 20 years ago this fall.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. McKibben: That's right.

Ms. Tippett: And what I have learned — I think this is the first time that I'd seen this fact from your writing is though in fact what we might call the beginnings of the science of climate change had been around for 30 years, right? I mean, it was 1957 that those scientists at the Scripts Institution …

Mr. McKibben: That's right. They put up the first instrument up on the slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii to measure CO2 in the atmosphere. Until then, what had happened was people had assumed that the oceans were just absorbing most of it, but no one had ever bothered to find out. And in 1956, an oceanographer actually did the calculations and determined that, indeed, the oceans were already at saturation for CO2. It must be accumulating in the atmosphere. The next year, they put up that instrument and sure enough, it began to show quite quickly that the CO2 level was rising steadily in the atmosphere.

Ms. Tippett: And they spoke of what they described as a large-scale geophysical experiment, the likes of which had never been seen and they suggested also the likes of which might not be repeatable because it might have catastrophic consequences, right?

Mr. McKibben: We're living in that experiment now and it is the biggest experiment ever and the problem is that we live inside the test tube.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Mr. McKibben: You know, we can't sort of wash it out and start over again.

Ms. Tippett: We also have trouble seeing from inside the test tube, right? We can't.

Mr. McKibben: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: We can't. So, you know, and here's something — here's an image that you gave me, a visual image. You wrote, "In 1968, when I was a boy, Apollo 8 sent back the first pictures of our planet, that blue-white marble floating in space. Well, those pictures are as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. The planet doesn't look like that or behave like that anymore — there's more blue and less white, more cyclones swirling in the tropics. It's a different Earth; we might as well hold a contest to pick a new name."

I think that's a very helpful image because all of us who are adults now who've grown up, as you say, inside the test tube with varying degrees of awareness, we've all seen that picture but I don't think people have pointed out to us that that's not even any kind — that's not the picture we would see now.

Mr. McKibben: That's right. It's a planet like the one on which we lived, or whence we were born, but different now — different in profound ways. We're seeing substantially more rainfall with each passing decade because warm air holds more water vapor than cold. We're seeing, conversely, much more drought because as that water evaporates up into the atmosphere, it's parching places.

We have less ice not only in the Arctic but probably even more importantly the great glaciers of the Andes and the Himalayas are melting with enormous speed. I was in Benares, Varanasi, a couple of months ago. You know, that's the most timeless scene in the world. Hindu pilgrims have been arriving for thousands of years every day by the score to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. The glacier at the head of the Ganges we think now is going to be melted out by 2035. That timeless scene is going to go, and 400 million people who depend on that river are going to have to figure out some other way to water their lives.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Bill McKibben is describing a changing reality of the natural world on which there is broad, if nuanced, consensus within the scientific community. Only in a few nations, notably the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia, is there politicized debate about whether climate change is actually happening. Though there is a passionate spectrum of viewpoints on its scope and on what to do about it, which is the focus in parts of the world that are feeling its most immediate effects.

This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2007 when he caught dengue fever, one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are spreading to new areas of the world, in part as a result of rising temperatures.

Mr. McKibben: There's an inverse, almost linear relationship between how much of the problem you caused and how quickly you're feeling the effects. I can remember going to the hospital in Dhaka and looking at this huge ward full of beds, a couple of hundreds beds, and people in every one of them just shivering away. And I remember thinking, "God, is this unfair. These people have done literally nothing to cause this. When the UN tries to measure how much carbon each nation admits, you can't even really get a number for the 140 million people in Bangladesh. It's just like a rounding error in the whole calculation.

You know, the 4 percent of us in this country produce 25 percent of the world's CO2. It's not perfect epidemiology, but the moral math works for me. If there's a hundred beds in that hospital, 25 of them are on us.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And, you know, we've often talked in recent years, decades, about something called "compassion fatigue." I also think this is related but it's different. I think there is such a thing as outrage fatigue. Right? Because statistics like that and numbers like that, scenarios like that, are as prone to make people throw up their hands and say, well, then, you know, I can't do anything anyway. So here's your chance to say what you would like people to really know, the basic foundation.

Mr. McKibben: Sure.

Ms. Tippett: What can you get people to really hang onto and then build their imagination and their action from that?

Mr. McKibben: Absolutely. Look, let's do the 90-second course in climate science.

Human civilization has been around for 10,000 years. That's the period that scientists call the Holocene. The temperature has been very stable and the climate's very stable over that 10,000 years because the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere varied hardly at all. It was about 275 parts per million, give or take 10 parts per million. Stayed steady. Temperatures stayed steady. Civilization flourished.

Two hundred years ago, we learned to burn coal, gas, and oil. We start on the, in retrospect, quite radical project of digging up hundreds of millions of years' worth of biology, combusting it, and putting all that carbon into the atmosphere in one big flush.

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere begins to go up. At a certain point, we realize it's going to be a problem but we never know where the drop-dead line is. In fact, we really don't learn the answer to that question definitively until the summer of 2007. That's the summer that arctic ice begins to melt so incredibly rapidly. It's when we really look around and see things like how fast glaciers are going. It's the moment at which scientists that I've known for a quarter century who've always been worried and concerned suddenly are calling me in panic in the middle of the night, just saying this thing is out of control.

January of '08, compiling all that real-time data and combining it with the ever more sophisticated paleoclimate, historical climate data that we get from ice cores and things, our leading scientists begin producing a series of papers that converge on this number 350 parts per million.

Here's the bottom line in the abstract of one paper from a NASA team. And check out this scientific — it's pretty tough language for scientists.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: They said, "Above 350 parts per million, you can't have a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted." OK?

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: Everything we know about civilization and whether you date it from Eden or the Buddha or Shakespeare or however you define it, that's all 275 parts per million CO2. We're at 390 parts per million right now.

Ms. Tippett: Right. We're beyond 350.

Mr. McKibben: We're beyond. We're beyond. We're not like the guy who went to the doctor and the doctor said, "Some day, you keep eating like this, your cholesterol will be too high."

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: We're the guy who went to the doctor and the doctor said, "Look, I'm really surprised you're not having a heart attack already. You're in the zone where people do. You better try to bring it down fast and hope you get it there before the heart attack." And we're having the heart attack. When the Arctic melts, that's not a good sign. You know, we're beginning to see truly planet-scale effects of what we've done. And so we've got to rein it in.

The good news and the bad news is we know what we have to do to do that. We have to stop burning coal and gas and oil. It's not complicated. It's hard, though, because coal and gas and oil are the center of our economy and the center of modernity and, hence, moving away from them very quickly will require effort of a different scale than we've ever had to apply to anything before. The only even close analogy is the kind of industrial transformation at the beginning of World War II that we underwent, but this for much longer and on an even larger scale.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: If you found that Bill McKibben's four-minute history of climate change as helpful as I did, go to speakingoffaith.org and save the MP3 to your desktop or iPod to listen again or to send to friends and family.

I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today exploring the perspective Bill McKibben offers on "The Moral Math of Climate Change."

That bout with dengue fever, as McKibben tells it, was a tipping point that led him to move beyond writing and speaking out and into action and advocacy. He's currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded with a mission to build a movement that can, quote, "unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis, the solutions that science and justice demand."

On October 24, 2009, 350.org called a Planetary Day of Environmental Action and charted over 5,200 events in 181 countries.

Mr. McKibben: Let me just tell you a few stories about this work we've been doing. So we started this thing called 350.org, right, with six, six — seven recent graduates of Middlebury College where I'm connected here. And we decided to see if we could build a global movement. Each one of those kids took a continent, OK, and set out to organize it.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: And they went out and found people like themselves, mostly young people or in many cases people of faith, very concerned and willing to go to work. And in the course of 18 months, they built this — we built this network of people who wanted to take action. And it wasn't the usual suspects. People sometimes say, "Oh, the environmental movement is rich white people." When we had our big global day of action on October 24th, there were 181 countries where it happened, 5,200 events, and some of the biggest were in the most unlikely places.

Let me tell you a story about moral imagination.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: We organized a camp in Africa for young people to sort of learn to be climate organizers. Many of these kids had never left their country before. Most of them had never been on an airplane. But they came. They went back home and did amazing work.

So we didn't hear from the two sisters, 19 and 20, who had come from Ethiopia. We didn't hear from them for a couple of months because the Internet connection is no good in Ethiopia. It's hard. But we got a call about three weeks before our big day saying, "It's going great. Every high school in Addis Ababa now is studying global warming this fall because we've got this, we built this curriculum for them. And they're all learning about 350 and it's going great. We're going to have a big event." Then we didn't hear for another two weeks. The day before our big global day of action, we got a sort of panicked, giddy call from them saying, "Look, we've got 15,000 people in the streets in Addis Ababa."

And we got, you know, huge pictures from 300 rallies across India and 300 across China from mosques all over the Middle East.

One of the ones that really made me almost weep was along the shores of the rapidly dwindling Dead Sea. The Israelis made a giant human three. The Palestinians on their beach, an enormous human five. The Jordanians along their seashore a big zero. We got a plane up and got pictures of all three of them, making the point that we're going to have to work across borders of all kinds to try to make this sort of change happen.

Ms. Tippett: And you've written about cities where people are, as you say, living more lightly on the earth, where people have communally created different models.

Mr. McKibben: Yes. I spent a lot of time for a book that I wrote called Hope, Human and Wild. And so one was this city in Brazil called Curitiba.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: I don't think there was anybody particularly environmental there. They were mostly concerned with making life decent for poor people, average people. The mayor, who is an architect, took a lawn chair and put it down at the nearest bus stop to City Hall, and he sat there for a day trying to figure out why buses were slow. And what he figured out was that it was that moment that, you know, the 20 seconds it took to walk up the stairs, put your quarter in the box, and go sit down. He sketched and quickly had built this series of what they called tube stations, these elevated platforms across the city. You'd put your coin in and walk up the steps and wait for the bus and when it came the doors opened like the doors on a subway and you could get 20 people a second on and off.

So it was that mix of technological insight but more importantly, social insight.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: We're going to make the public more important than the private, that really worked. And what do you know? The result was that people really came to love living in that place. When he left office when he was term-limited out of office, he had a 94 percent approval rating. People would send delegations from other Brazilian cities saying, "Will you move to our city and run for mayor there?"

Ms. Tippett: You know, the story you just told reminds me of something we've come across as I've tried to talk to people about issues around environment and ecology. We did a program. We interviewed Majora Carter, who I'm sure you know …

Mr. McKibben: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: … has revitalized, created Sustainable South Bronx. And also Cal DeWitt, who I know you know …

Mr. McKibben: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: … because I've read you writing about him, who has been creating a sustainable environment and community in Wisconsin.

Mr. McKibben: Wetlands.

Ms. Tippett: In the wetlands. Right. In Wisconsin.

Mr. McKibben: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: So two very different places. We ended up calling that program "Discovering Where We Live" because it wasn't an abstract notion of environmentalism that changed these communities. It was in that kind of holistic approach to life and to shared life that then environmentalism becomes this lynch pin.

Mr. McKibben: Here's a statistic that I really like, OK?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McKibben: One of the things that everybody, all environmentalists and things to have been happy about in the last couple of years is this explosion of interest in local food. Right?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: Because, you know, and just for no other reason, it takes a lot less energy to move a tomato five miles than 5,000 miles. And not coincidentally, it tastes better. I mean, I traveled 2,000 miles yesterday. I know how I feel. That's also how the tomato feels.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Exactly.

Mr. McKibben: But the real reason that's so interesting that we like farmers' markets, I think, turns out to be they're different. Parasociologists followed shoppers first through the supermarket, then through the farmers' market. Everybody's been to the supermarket. You know how it works. You walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance. You visit the stations of the cross around the perimeter of the supermarket. You emerge with your items. That's it. When they followed people around the farmers' market, they were having, on average, 10 times as many conversations per visit. OK?

Cheap fossil fuel, you know, heated the planet. It made us rich. But it also, maybe most profoundly, made us the first kind of our species who've had no practical need of our neighbors for anything. We tell ourselves, you know, what a great chic thing we've invented, the farmers' market.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: In fact, that's how all human beings shopped for food until 50 years ago and 80 percent of the planet still does.

Ms. Tippett: Still does, yeah.

Mr. McKibben: No wonder it feels good. I mean, this is what we're built for.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Find other conversations that echo and build on Bill McKibben's ideas with Majora Carter, Cal DeWitt, and Wangari Maathai by subscribing to our podcast or reading our staff blog, SOF Observed. Also, check out the images we've selected after culling through thousands that 350.org gathered from around the world. Find links to all this and more at speakingoffaith.org.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, Bill McKibben on Job and climate change. Also, more on his correlation between strengthening human community and healing the environment.

Mr. McKibben: In the end, it's strong communities that are efficient, that replace consumptive pleasure with deep human pleasure, that allow us to imagine a future that actually works.

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

[Announcements]

Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

I'm Krista Tippett, today with Bill McKibben on "The Moral Math of Climate Change."

Bill McKibben has been ahead of our cultural learning curve on the environment since he left The New Yorker magazine for the Adirondacks and wrote The End of Nature in 1989. He's since written widely about the holistic challenges of human responsibility in a changing natural world, from population to planning to community. And he's founded 350.org, an international climate campaign that seeks solutions as he puts it, "that both science and justice demand."

I've followed Bill McKibben as an environmental expert for decades, but I was intrigued, as I began to read the sweep of his work preparing for this interview, by how overtly theological his reflection has also always been. There was robust participation of religious people and organizations in the October 2009 Planetary Day of Action organized by 350.org from students at Billy Graham's alma mater to women in hijab in Yemen.

Bill McKibben notes with pleasure that the Torah portion for that day happened to be from the story of Noah. He describes himself as a reasonably orthodox practicing Methodist, and he likes to tell of a pivotal moment in his own thinking when he read Stephen Mitchell's translation of the biblical book of Job and found a whole new way to think about God, humanity, and the natural world.

Mr. McKibben: Well, Job is, you know, of all the books of — certainly of the Hebrew Bible, for me by far the most powerful and interesting. Everybody knows the story. Job finds himself cursed by God. He's lying in a dung heap at the edge of town, covered with oozing sores. His flocks are dead. His family's dead. You know, he's in a world of hurt.

And his friends arrive to help him work through this, and he keeps lamenting what's going on and calling it unjust. And his friends keep saying, "Oh, no, no. You know, you sinned or one of your children sinned. This is how it works and that's why you're being punished." And Job, much to his credit, is not the patient Job of legend. He keeps demanding that God appear and explain why this thing has happened to him. And God finally does.

And I think the soliloquy that God delivers in the last three chapters of Job I think is the longest sustained speech that God gives anywhere in the Bible …

Ms. Tippett: That's probably true. Yeah.

Mr. McKibben: … Old Testament or New. And it's a remarkably interesting speech because it doesn't answer any of the questions that Job has set out. Instead, God gives this incredibly beautiful biologically accurate, crunchy, sexy tour of the physical universe. All the kind of interesting animals and, you know, and in very wild terms. You know, he asked Job, "Do you hunt prey for the lion and her cubs? Do you help the vulture find …

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Mr. McKibben: … carrion on which to feast?" "If you're so smart, you tell me, where do I keep the wind? Can you tell the proud waves here you shall break and no further? Do you know where the storms are, the warehouse for the storms?"

Well, you know, after listening to this for two or three chapters, Job basically says, "Sorry I asked." And sits down.

Ms. Tippett: Right. It is all about the majesty of nature. All the analogies there are about the natural world.

Mr. McKibben: The message seems to be, "Job, you're not the center of things." The sort of "your questions about justice and things are kind of puny. You're a small part of something very large and beautiful and that should be enough," and for Job it appears to be enough.

So the shocking part in reading it now is realizing that for the first time in human history we're no longer in the position Job's in. So now we just spit right back at God. You know, "Can you tell the proud waves where to break?" "Hell, yes. We think we're going to raise the level of the ocean a couple of meters in the course of this century." "Do you know where the storms are kept?" "Yeah. We're pushing cyclones one after another across the Pacific. You know, we've got our thumb on the scale." In a very short order we got very, very big. Human beings have always been in Job's position — small — and our job is to figure out how to get smaller again. And I think it's essentially a theological task, at least as much as anything else.

Ms. Tippett: But it occurs to me that we do — we do right now have some power. We are right now powerfully affecting the natural world. And so there would be a theological question about what that says about God.

Mr. McKibben: Hey, I think there's even that. I mean, what did Oppenheimer, you know, watched the first explosion at Alamogordo and quoted from the Gita, "We are become as Gods, destroyers of worlds." That's where we are right now.

Ms. Tippett: That's where we are right now, but isn't the point of this, I mean, ultimately we render — through this power, we seem to be set to render, as you said, civilization impossible. And maybe polar bears will never come back, for example. But isn't a possible outcome of this that nature wins?

Mr. McKibben: Perhaps. Look, two billion years from now or something the sun explodes and if you back up and take it long enough view of it, doesn't none of it make any difference anyway. Right?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McKibben: I find it hard to back up that far. I lack the necessary whatever it is.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: You know, we're children of the late Pleistocene. We're born with this suite of flora and fauna around us. It seems to me a good life's work to try to keep some of it intact, especially since in the course of bringing it down many other theological and moral problems become involved. The billions of people who did nothing to cause this problem who are going to suffer grievously and already are, the huge suite of the rest of the world's DNA that we're taking down with us. Anybody who has any sense that the Earth might be in some way a museum of divine intent, you know, we're just willy-nilly running through the halls slashing at the paintings, you know?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McKibben: So there's all kinds of deep problems raised. And there's, you know, the sort of answers that people sometimes give are in another sense theological. I mean, there are people who say, "Well, then, our response to this should be to become even more powerful and better gods at doing it. Let's figure out to manage everything. Put a big dome over the planet," whatever.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McKibben: I mean, I think that physically it's not possible to do that and I also think at some level there's something silly and ignoble and almost blasphemous about trying it. I think that the response we need is to figure out how to restrain ourselves, how to pull ourselves in. It strikes me that religious thinking back at least as far as the Buddha and probably farther, has centered mostly on the idea that we become most fully human when we don't put ourselves at the center of everything.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: I asked you a little while ago to talk about some really basic information that people could use to begin to wrap their minds around this and I want to ask you a similar question. Again, there's lots of conflicting information about what one can do that is helpful. Right? You know, one year it's drive a hybrid and the next year it's not. One year it's we can create alternative sources for fossil fuel and then the next year that's just as bad for the universe. Recycling is good; recycling doesn't matter.

So where would you want to propose a different way to start thinking about what one can do?

Mr. McKibben: Sure. No, I mean, look, burning fossil fuel is the root of this problem, and so ways that we can figure out to use less of it are the answer. And what's interesting is that burning more and more fossil fuel is almost always or often because we're becoming more and more and more privatized. So many of the answers are about doing things together.

So, yes, it's a good idea to drive a hybrid compared to driving an SUV. It's a much better idea to get on the bus compared with driving a hybrid. It's a much better idea even than that to do what Europeans have done, which is get together with their neighbors and demand that their politicians build a great train network so that they can, without even having to think about it, be innate environmentalists all the time. You know, that's sort of the — and you can do that same kind of scale of things in regard to food or almost anything else.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Give me another example.

Mr. McKibben: Let's think about another commodity that we all use every day: food, three times a day. OK? The moment the average bite of food that reaches an American's lips has traveled 2,000 miles to get there. That essentially means that it's been marinated in crude oil before you get it. So start thinking about how to change that. A, maybe you start cooking more and better yet, cooking for a bunch of people at one time, which means you have your neighbors over or you figure out how to share cooking and have the pleasure of — I'm a Methodist so potlucks are, you know, deep in my DNA.

Ms. Tippett: Right. All right.

Mr. McKibben: You start eating lower on the food chain because it's clear that eating lots of red meat is a big problem in terms of the emissions it causes. You start searching out your neighbors to buy food from them. Find the farmers who live near you. Now maybe it costs a little bit more. Maybe not, because you've knocked out a bunch of middle men, but maybe it costs a tiny bit more.

This is advice for people who still have some margin left. It doesn't work for the poorest people in our society who have to figure out how to scrape by. And it's one of the reasons that the great gulf between rich and poor the world around is now not just a sin, it's an enormous practical inconvenience to getting anything done. But it does allow all of us who still have some set of choices and margin to make those choices, not just in the direction of what seems environmentally obvious, but in the direction of what builds strong communities. Because in the end it's strong communities that are efficient, that replace consumptive pleasure with deep human pleasure, that allow us to imagine a future that actually works.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: In a 2008 essay for Orion Magazine, Bill McKibben wrote this: "Research has shown that when we live on car-filled streets our number of close friends drops by half. We eat half the meals we used to with friends, family, neighbors. Forget about the flax-swingler; our clothes come through the ether from the mysterious geography of Lands' End. We don't need each other anymore, and that's the saddest thing we've done — sadder even than the scourge of climate change, which at least is anonymous and impersonal." He concludes: "The big question for this century may turn out to be how fast we can relearn the skill of neighborliness." Read this entire essay, "Where Have all the Joiners Gone?" — and subtitled "A Declaration of Dependence" — at speakingoffaith.org.

I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, Bill McKibben on the "Moral Math of Climate Change."

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: We were both born in 1960. You know, I wonder if this era in which people like us maybe went thousands of miles away to college or sent their children thousands of miles away to college, you know, as a rite of passage backpacked through Europe or Latin America, that we didn't think twice about getting on an airplane to go on a business trip, right? Or to see friends. Will this way of living, you know, with this kind of — is that going to go away? Like, a hundred years from now will people look at some of this and just not believe that we lived this way?

Mr. McKibben: They may. I mean, I think we're going to have to learn to do a lot more travel via Google than American Airlines, you know? We're going to have to learn to stretch our minds in different ways and learn to really fall in love with our local places. But I think that the best parts about the world that we've built are things that we can preserve. We're going to have to have different ways of doing them. You know, the best part of travel is the kind you described — the backpack across Europe, not the visit to Club Meds — you can just recreate your everyday life in a warmer spot, you know?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: But even if you can't backpack across Europe, you can now have a relationship with someone in Europe in many ways more deeply and profoundly than it was easy, anyway, for someone a couple of generations ago because you can be in daily contact with them, hourly contact with them if you want.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: Skype is a very interesting, different way of being in touch with people and staying at home. I don't know how the world exactly is going to change. I know that the main features of the world we inhabit are the result of our access to cheap fossil fuel. That's why our cities sprawl. That's why we drive everywhere by ourselves, on and on and on.

I know that that has to change, that physics — I mean, the negotiations that are underway internationally and whatever, we think is between China and the U.S. and the EU. It's really not. The real negotiation underway is between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other. That's a really tough negotiation because physics and chemistry are notoriously poor bargainers. They state their bottom line and that's it.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: We're going to have no choice one way or another but to adapt, whether it's gracefully or in a violent and ugly fashion, to adapt to that demand of basic bottom line of the planet. But I think that we retain the capacity to do it in elegant and graceful ways. That's the hope, anyway. But it really requires us to do it fast and with real commitment.

Ms. Tippett: Elegantly but quickly.

Mr. McKibben: That's it.

Ms. Tippett: So, you know, you've written about the sadness that descended on you as you wrote The End of Nature. And I wonder, you know so much about what's at stake here and you have all these facts at your fingertips. I mean, did they — did they haunt you?

Mr. McKibben: I think the advantage of having written about this 20 years ago is that I've had two decades to work my way through …

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: … whatever those cycles of grief and whatever, you know, all the denial and bargaining and acceptance and yada yada that you supposedly go through. I'm like on cycle 11 or whatever.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. McKibben: You know, I've had a lot of time. So, yes. You know, part of me is still completely haunted and sad and part of me never takes a moment for granted. I love to ski in the winter, cross country ski above all else, and there's not a day when I'm out skiing in the woods when I'm not thinking this is a gift and not something to be taken for granted, because it's not going to be here all that much longer, probably.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McKibben: On the other hand, I've gotten through enough of that, that I can take enormous joy in the prospect of people coming together to do something about it.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. McKibben: I waited 20 years to see what the global warming movement would look like when it finally emerged, and it's beautiful. It's diverse. It's on both sides of the divide between rich and poor. It's from every faith around the world. It's young predominantly but not completely. It's really, really wonderful and that gives me an enormous charge of deep joy.

Ms. Tippett: And you have a teenage daughter; is that right?

Mr. McKibben: I do. I have a 16-year-old.

Ms. Tippett: So what is the effect on her of living with you, and how does living with her make you think differently about how this will all go?

Mr. McKibben: Well, of course it raises the stakes in some other way emotionally in powerful ways and probably I don't even think about them that often …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. McKibben: … because it's too intense and too hard. For her, you know, I mean, well, she's a good Harry Potter fan and there were several years when she referred to me as the Dark Lord because I was so …

Ms. Tippett: Full of doom and gloom?

Mr. McKibben: … assiduous about turning out the lights.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, OK.

Mr. McKibben: Because I turned out the lights all the time.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Mr. McKibben: But she's turned into a great activist. She went with me to India this past summer. We work together and that's good fun. And most of the people I work with are all, you know, between 16 and 25.

Ms. Tippett: Well, that's really — this is my last question but, you know, I say in my engagement with younger people — I also have a 16-year-old daughter — but also people I'm in conversation with, people I work with, I am very excited. I feel like they have a sensibility. They've grown up with the Internet. They have a completely different imagination.

Mr. McKibben: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, technologically and morally somehow. Globalization isn't an abstract concept. You know, it's something they know in their being. Do you also …

Mr. McKibben: So with seven Middlebury College students and essentially almost no money, we organized the biggest day of political action in the planet's history. And it's because they have a visceral, intuitive sense of how to use technology, how people are connected. They didn't just send e-petitions to each other.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. McKibben: They used it to organize people on the ground in real life to do things. But they live in a different mental space and, in many ways, much more promising one that goes way beyond national boundaries and at the same time has room for both deep and local and wide and global at the same time. And let's hope that it's come in time. Let's hope we got some of this going in time. It'll be an interesting race to see where it comes out, and we will find out. I mean, it's not going to be a hundred years in the future before we figure out whether we dealt with global warming or not. We'll know in the next few years whether we started to take steps on the scale necessary. It's an exciting, scary, intense moment. It's for our time. You know, we grew up looking backwards at, say, the Civil Rights Movement or something …

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Mr. McKibben: … and admiring the people who had the courage and conviction to go put everything on the line and do it then. For our time, this requires the same moral urgency, the same kind of sacrifice, the same kind of theological rethinking, the same kind of practical change. It's that kind of moment on steroids because it's about the whole planet.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College and the founder of 350.org. His books include The End of Nature and Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.

In writing the script for this program, we faced some hurdles in understanding, explaining, and simply fact-checking the particulars of climate change. On our production blog, SOF Observed, we give you behind-the-scenes stories and sources of our information. I encourage you to read about our efforts and contribute your own knowledge and experience. We look forward to reading those comments.

And as you're listening to this program, you may also be feeling inundated by the news coming out of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. We want to sustain this conversation in the months following the summit and in the terms Bill McKibben spoke about to invite reflection on how climate change will change the substance of our lives and how it might alter what the world needs spiritually, psychologically, philosophically. How have changing realities of the natural world touched you at a practical and moral level? On our home page, look for the "Share Your Story" link and tell us. And download an MP3 of this program along with my complete unedited conversation with Bill McKibben at speakingoffaith.org.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is Chris Heagle. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I'm Krista Tippett.

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Voices on the Radio

is Scholar-in-Residence in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, and the founder of 350.org. He's the author of many books, including The End of Nature.