On Thursday, famed climate change writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke as part of the College’s Confronting Climate Change initiative.
McKibben began his talk by establishing the “pace and scale” of the effects of climate change, which he said, “came a hell of a lot faster and pinched a hell of a lot harder than we thought they would.” He described the dying o of coral reefs, the days earlier this spring when temperatures at the North Pole were fifty degrees above normal and the river in the Yukon that recently changed course as a result of glacier melt. “Is that biblical enough for you?” McKibben asked.
Roughly twenty years after writing one of the first climate change book for general audiences (The End of Nature), McKibben took “the moral urgency of his own work to heart,” as Fellow-in-Residence Elizabeth Kolbert put it, and “decided he was going to have to do it him- self.” McKibben was a leader of the Keystone XL resistance movement and was arrested for this cause. In 2008, along with seven Middle- bury undergraduates, McKibben founded 350. org, an organization that leads grassroots campaigns around the world to “dismantle the influence and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry.” Named for the highest safe concentration of atmospheric carbon, 350.org has helped roughly 570 institutions divest from fossil fuels.
For much of his talk, McKibben shared photos from 350.org campaigns around the world. One picture showed herders in Garissa, Kenya, with signs describing the life-threatening drought they were experiencing. Another showed children in Les Cayes, Haiti, holding signs that read, “Your actions effect me. Connect the dots.” Many were aerial photos that showed large groups of people standing in formations that spelled out “350.”
McKibben also showed many photos of “kayaktivists” (activists in kayaks) blockading huge oil rigs and tankers. He returned several times to the example of Pacific Islanders protesting the construction of a coal mine from kayaks off the coast of Newcastle, Australia.
In these iconic images, McKibben sees a powerful symbolism: the many and small against the large and few. He resists the notion that environmentalism is a movement of rich, white people. “There are different kinds of power in the world,” McKibben said.
McKibben also focused his talk locally. He criticized the College for its continued in- vestment in fossil fuel companies that practice “compulsive amorality” and that spread untruth and suppress civic engagement.
McKibben said that he is “really grateful” to students and faculty members still push- ing for divestment. He even mentioned the mock wedding that would occur the next day, saying, “If you’re the kind that cries at weddings, this is just the wedding to cry at.”
In the fall of 2015, President Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees stated, “Just as it is irresponsible for us to leave future generations to deal with the devastating e ects of climate change, it would be profoundly irresponsible … to burden future students … with the expectation of such severe financial constraints and consequences.” This sentiment, which McKibben interpreted as, “Climate change is important, but not as important as access to Williams,” is “pretty much the definition of living in a bubble,” McKibben said
“The planet is not a subset of Williams,” he said. “Williams is a subset of the planet.”
Student activists also appreciated McKibben’s discussion of radicalism. He attacked the “presumption” that the people asking for institutional change are radicals, while the Board is moderates or centrists who are “doing the natural thing.” According to McKibben, climate activists are merely asking for a planet similar to what all humans in history have known. “It doesn’t strike me there’s anything radical about that,” he said. “It’s a deeply conservative demand.”
“Radicals work at oil companies and investments offices that validate them,” he said. Hear- ing what science says about climate change, seeing its effects beginning to happen and continuing to burn fossil fuels is what McKibben calls the kind of “dangerous radicalism” that “we’ve got to check.”
At this point, “winning slowly,” he said, “is exactly the same thing as losing.”