Reality Report: Bill McKibben on the current state of the climate movement
The Reality Report talks to Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future and co-founder of the climate change group 350.org.
Over the past year or so, much of the thinking about the severity and timeline of climate change has undergone a major shift. In the fall of 2007, a report titled The Big Melt came out that reviewed the rapid loss of polar ice and its likely implications. In December 2007 James Hansen presented a paper at the American Geophysical Union in which it was argued that safe levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide were at least below 350 parts per million, and in fact may be less than 300 ppm. For anyone familiar with climate science and policy this was a stunning conclusion because current levels of CO2 are over 385 ppm. During the winter of 2008 a new report titled Climate Code Red was released that greatly expanded upon The Big Melt and delved into the socio-political implications of the new scientific information, essentially framing the issue in terms of survival requirements on a damaged spaceship Earth. Soon afterwards, a climate activist group called 350.org was formed by Bill McKibben and friends to spread the message that policy targets need to reflect the scientific imperative.
This show brings us up to date since those developments--and a lot has occurred, including international climate change policy meetings in Poland, more information from scientists, a new U.S. president, and major disruptions to the global economy.
I am very pleased to have Bill McKibben on the program. Bill has been a long-time champion of ecologically grounded economies, a safe climate campaigner, a popular writer, and teacher to many.
See the Post Carbon Institute's Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and Environmental Recovery for our recommendations on carbon and energy policy.
Transcribed by Melissa Bart
Jason Bradford (lead in): I am Jason Bradford, host of the Reality Report. I believe that solving a problem begins by facing the truth about its real causes. Our society is pressing against ecological and energetic constraints. We are at a historic inflection point in which decisions made today will have profound impacts for centuries to come. The Reality Report is recorded in the studios of KZYX and Z in Mendocino County, California, and is a long-format interview program of key thinkers of our time.
JB: Welcome to the show. This is the Reality Report. I’m your host, Jason Bradford, and it’s January 12, 2009. Today we have Bill McKibben as our guest. He’s the author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future and co-founder of the climate change group 350.org, and he may have a cold.
Are you all right, Bill?
Bill McKibben: I’m just fine.
JB: All right. I’m kind of cold. It’s chilly in this studio, so if I have to take a deep breath once in awhile it’s because I’m trying to warm my lungs. How’s it going in Vermont?
BM: It’s a gorgeous day in Vermont! I just came in from a long cross country ski out in the woods. It couldn’t be a more beautiful day.
JB: Oh, good! All right, well, that’s fantastic! Yeah, it’s beautiful here, too, and I’ll probably get out to the farm in a little while.
Well, Vermont is a beautiful state and a lot of parallels with Mendocino County. I’m actually going to be on a radio program in your part of the country in a week or so. Good to have you on the show.
I was going to start off the show by talking about climate change here. My thinking about this has undergone a major shift, and I think it began in the Fall of 2007. A report titled The Big Melt came out and it reviewed the rapid loss of polar ice and the likely implications. And then in December of 2007, James Hansen presented a paper at the American Geophysical Union, in which it was argued that safe levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide were at least below 350 parts per million and, in fact, maybe less than 300 parts per million. Now, for anyone familiar with climate science and policy, this was a stunning conclusion because current levels of carbon dioxide are over 385 parts per million. Then, during the winter of 2008, the same group that put out The Big Melt put out a new report titled Climate Code Red, and it greatly expanded upon The Big Melt and delved into the sociopolitical implications of the new scientific information and essentially framed the issue in terms of survival requirements on a damaged spaceship Earth. Soon afterwards, a climate activist group called 350.org was formed by our guest Bill McKibben and friends, to spread the message that policy targets needed to reflect this new scientific imperative.
The purpose of this show is to bring us up to date since those developments. Certainly a lot has occurred, including international climate change policy meetings in Poland, more information from scientists, a new U.S. president, major disruptions to the global economy. So, I’m pleased to have Bill here on the program. He’s been a long-time champion of ecologically grounded economies, a safe climate campaigner, a popular writer, and a teacher to many. Thanks for being with us.
BM: Well, Jason, my pleasure; and a special pleasure because we all admire the work that you all are doing out there in Mendocino. We look to places like Willits and things as real leaders in this new work underway, and we’re learning a lot from you, so it’s a great pleasure to be on the phone with you.
JB: Oh, yeah. Well, thank you. The feeling is obviously mutual. I want to talk about more recent events, but first I want to give you some opportunity to expand upon any of the historical events that led up to the formation of 350.org. There was that period between the Summer of 2007 and the Spring of 2008 when many of us who pay attention to this stuff closely were first hit with this news that 385 was already too high. What was going on in your mind and with the people that you knew who were hearing this information?
BM: Well, we had just finished running a big campaign in this country called Step It Up, to get the first real grassroots nation-wide campaign on global warming. It was a wonderful success. We had about 1400 demonstrations in all 50 states on one day in April of 2007, and we managed to shift Barack Obama’s policy considerably to the left on climate, thank heaven. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves. That summer, the arctic melted, sort of 30 years ahead of schedule. Now, you know I wrote the first book on climate change 20 years ago.
JB: Yeah, The End of Nature.
BM: We’ve been following it ever since, and I knew that actually the things were deteriorating considerably faster than our political leaders understood. I knew that they were 5 or 10 years behind in the science; just starting to sort of get to the point of being worried when they should have been at the point of being scared. But even for those of us in that position, the rapid melt of Arctic ice in ‘07 and then again last summer was remarkable. It made it clear that we were no longer dealing with just the biggest on a list of problems, but that we were dealing with an all-out civilizational emergency.
BM: The question became how to make that case around the world, because you can’t just jump up and down and scream “emergency!” We were trying to figure out how to do global organizing around this stuff, and Jim Hansen is one of my old friends and one of the people I admire most in the world. We’d been talking a lot, and as soon as I knew what the number that he was zeroing in on was, it struck me that would be the right way to do this on a global basis; partly because numbers translate across linguistic and cultural boundaries—Arabic numerals are about the one thing we share—and also because it makes the case in a kind of inescapable way. That is, politicians, instead of being able to say, “Oh, I’m in favor of doing something about global warming” can be held to an actual standard. Can you propose something for us that will actually get the planet back to the place it needs to be at if we’re going to have civilization on it?
So, 350 became the obvious thing to rally around and we formed this group, 350.org, mostly with the same people who’d been organizing Step It Up, but now working on a global basis. We met up for about 10 months and we’ve had enormous success within the sort of climate community. At the big international climate talks last month in Poland, Al Gore got up and said, “We need to get back to 350 parts per million.”
BM: This was an enormously radical advance for Al Gore and for the delegates to hear. It got the loudest, longest ovation from 15,000 people in this hall of anything anyone said all week, which was a good sign that our team has been doing its work well. But, now we have about another 10 months to make the same case in public, as it were. We’re really pointing towards a huge global day of action on October 24 of next year. We need everybody! All over the world!
JB: Is that October 24, 2009?
BM: October 24, 2009. We need everybody, everybody out on October 24 in their communities in the most iconic places, figuring out some way to take this number and just brand it into the world’s consciousness. We’ve got organizers going on every continent. We’re going to have actions high up in the Himalayas. We’re going to have 350 swimmers down on the Great Barrier Reef. We’re going to have – up on the pyramids. You name it! We also need on every beautiful mountain top or farm field or beautiful beach or whatever the place in one’s community, one’s county, that really will bring this home. We need lots of people gathering and we need them just thinking of ways to take this number and stick it into people’s minds.
Six weeks after that October 24th date is the Copenhagen Conference that’s supposed to come up with a sequel to the Kyoto Accords. It’s supposed to come up with the next international attempt to regulate carbon. Given what we now know about the science, Jason, this is the last chance that we’re going to have, the last plausible chance, for really mitigating in any significant way the damage that carbon is doing and is going to do. So, our hope is that if we can spark a world-wide movement by October, the results of that will bear some fruit a few weeks later in Copenhagen, and we’ll get a far stronger document, treaty, accord, than we would get at present.
JB: Well, that’s great. The story about Al Gore and that reception. It sort of tells you that there’s this information in people’s heads, but it’s not always being expressed, and that when it is expressed it’s almost this cathartic moment, like finally someone told it like it is.
JB: So, I guess that tells us a lot about, then, the mission and strategy at 350.org. It’s getting this number in place. It’s almost making it appropriate for everyone to just openly talk about it.
JB: There was a movie, I think, that included a lot of the Step It Up activity. What was that called?
BM: A movie called “Everything’s Cool.”
JB: Yeah, great movie!
JB: So, if people see that I guess they get an idea of who the people involved in this are?
BM: Some of them, yes, absolutely.
JB: Yeah. I had Jamie Henn on this program.
BM: Oh, good! Well, Jamie is one of my absolute most talented colleagues.
BM: Started all this Step It Up with me and six kids who got out of Middlebury College here in Vermont.
JB: Huh! Is that unusual to have an organization like this based on young adults that are just out of college?
BM: Yeah. Well, A) they work cheap and B) they work hard. They’re the best organizers in the country and they’re just indefatigable. We’re making it up as we go along because there isn’t/hasn’t been a kind of grassroots movement about science like this. You know, we’ve tended to leave it to the experts, but the changes that are required are just too big. We need big political intervention. We need a movement, and that’s what we’re desperately trying to build.
JB: I guess it should be obvious to everyone listening that if you go to www.350.org, that’s the website.
BM: Absolutely! 350.org is the name and it’s the website and it’s in 12 languages now, so email to your friends and loved ones in far-off places. If we’re going to have a shot at this, it’s going to depend on the interconnectedness that wasn’t there even a few years ago.
I've gotta tell you, it’s incredibly moving to open up the email of a morning and find a message from a farmer in Cameroon who’s gotten together with his neighbors and they’ve planted 350 trees on the edge of their village and hung up a sign on them. I mean it’s moving because you know for damn sure that nobody in Cameroon is causing global warming, but it’s also just moving that they’re beginning to understand that they can play a real role in helping shape the international accord that will do something to maybe slow this down before it overwhelms us all.
JB: Yeah. It is quite a moving website, and I can see how the young folks would be able to use this technology in ways that others hadn’t thought about.
BM: Oh yeah. They’re very good at it.
JB: Well, you know these greenhouse gas numbers can be confusing. There’s carbon dioxide concentration and then there’s what’s called the CO2 equivalent. So, what does 350 really represent?
BM: Yeah. Don’t worry too much about getting the exact number right. What Hansen has said all along, and he’s our foremost climatologist, is that CO2 woks as a perfectly good proxy. It’s not as if we get to 350 the world magically heals itself and all is well. But since we’re going hard in the other direction, it serves as a good anchor to start pulling us back the direction that we need to go. I mean, really, the only world that we know for sure works is back at 280 parts per million CO2 because that’s where human civilization developed over thousands of years. But we’re driving a big ocean liner in the wrong direction. We’re trying all that we can figure out how to do to turn it around, and worrying exactly about what port it’s going to put into one hundred years hence – people much younger than I will get to do that.
JB: Okay. So, how would you say that 350.org fits into this vast landscape of climate change activist organizations?
BM:Well, what we try to do is be less of an organization and more of a campaign. As with Step It Up, we shut it down once we’d done what we were going to do—once we’d had our big national day of action. That’s what we told everyone we were going to do. We said to the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Greenpeace, “Come be a part of this. Help out. Do it. Then we’re going to go away. We’re not competitors.” The same here.
Our goal is to allow people from a million different places and communities, who are naturally at work on all the things that are most urgent in their particular place, to also take a day, a week, a month and join in this kind of global fight. Some of those are going to be church communities. We’ve done really strong organizing in faith communities. We’ve had already hundreds of churches ringing their bells 350 times in the middle of the week, which guarantees a story in the local news. We’ve got lots of involvement of young people all around the world. It’s incredibly exciting. Over the course of the last year we’ve helped form the India Youth Climate Network. They’ve had dozens of demonstrations. We’ve been part of the Green Long March across China—on and on and on!
Our goal is to disappear in a year, after Copenhagen, confident that we will have put this number 350 inescapably on the landscape and that it will have a real dynamic of its own. My sense is there are enough organizations. In an Internet age it’s quite possible to do things like we’re doing—short, sharp, urgent. Partly this is just my own preference, too, because I very much like living where I live and not being globally obsessed all the time. I like thinking about, and like to spend my time thinking about, the things that need to happen in Vermont, in my town, in my county, and in certain ways resent the distraction of having to deal with the globe at the same time and very much want people to be able to do that work in all their own places, but also provide a framework that is inescapably urgent: global stuff has to happen, too.
JB: Sure. Do you think there are any major climate lobbying groups still promoting stabilization targets at what we heard historically 450 or 500 parts per million?
BM: Oh, I think that the sort of climate bureaucracy, whatever, is slowly coming around. We’ve had actually very little opposition to this 350 number, except among people who said, “We’ve been negotiating this treaty for a long time and it’s hard enough to get to 450, 550!” And it is, you know!
One of the reasons it’s so hard is because there’s no movement. Power doesn’t concede without some vigorous action, and we haven’t done anything to make the coal industry, the oil industry, anybody else, think that they should have to concede anything. We’re beginning, around the world and in this country.
In early March, March 2nd, there will be a big demonstration in Washington, D.C. Wendell Berry and I wrote a letter to people last month, around the country, asking them to come to this civil disobedience that will take place outside the coal-fired power plant in Washington that powers the capital. The point of it, really, is just to begin the conversation of saying, “Coal is bad stuff. It’s bad stuff climatically.”
What Hansen’s analysis says is we have to have stopped burning coal altogether in this world by 2030, and much sooner in the developed countries. That’s going to be a huge task.
BM: A lot of sunk cost would have to be absorbed in terms of coal-fired power plants and coal mines and everything else, but we gotta start. You know, coal is a bad thing in a lot of other ways, too. I mean, if you happen to live near the coal mine, then they blow up your mountain; if you happen to live near the ash dump, they overflow your house; if you happen to live near the power plant, you get asthma--on and on and on.
BM: Its only virtue is that it’s cheap, and we’ve got to change that so we get away from it.
JB: Yeah, definitely. Now you guys made a big deal about this policy meeting that recently happened in Poland. You talked about 15,000 people applauding the mention of 350 parts per million. Why were these such important meetings, and can you give us your assessment of those meetings?
BM: Sure. There’s this process that started. Some of your listeners may be graybeards like myself. I feel very gray at the age of 48. Old enough to remember the Rio Summit in 1992, which was where people from around the world, leaders from around the world, came together and agreed on what they called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. This framework set up a series of meetings, Conferences of the Parties (COPs), that were to happen regularly and they were to lead to treaties. There were six or eight of these COPs before Kyoto in 1999, where everybody signed the Kyoto Accord, except the United States. Because the United States wouldn’t play, it never really amounted to much. But we’ve kept this process going, and Kyoto Accords expire in another year or two and, hence, there’s this sequence of negotiations leading up to a new international treaty. I think the thing in Poland was COP 16, something like that.
One of my friends, a woman named Elizabeth May who runs the Green Party in Canada—a wonderful woman, had missed several of these. She showed up and said quite correctly, “Nothing ever changes! This is like a family reunion aboard the Titanic.” There is very much that feeling, you know, of the same big cast of people from around the world trying, somehow, to solve the biggest problem the world has ever faced, but without the political movement behind them to allow them to do work on the scale that needs to be done.
BM: So, those meetings are important, but you can’t win this battle inside those meetings. You have to win the battle outside those meetings by building a real political pressure around the world, in 185 countries, to do something different than what we’ve been doing. It’s a noble effort—this U.N. stuff! But like any other political effort, it only works if there’s real grassroots involvement. You can’t walk away and leave the process on your own because you know damn sure that Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal and Saudi Arabia and everybody else are not walking away and leaving the process to itself. They’re doing what needs to be done to make sure things come out wrong.
JB: Yeah. Now, was there any evidence that world leaders were starting to talk about the right numbers for the first time?
BM: Yes, a little. In fact, more than a little. Quite an interesting series of moments when the leaders of what you might call the frontline states in the climate battles--with people who will be affected, already being affected, most profoundly, most early--stood up and started talking in new terms. These included people in the small-island states over the world, who are watching with growing trepidation as sea level rises and as the estimate for how much sea level is going to rise goes steadily up. They were starting to talk. The phrase that they were using over and over again was “survival.” They were saying, “The United Nations can’t negotiate an agreement with something less than 350 parts per million, because if they do, in essence, they’re negotiating away our very survival. Our country, the Maldives, the Seychelles, the wherever-it-is, won’t be here anymore if the ocean rises 3 or 4 or 5 feet.” Will not be here anymore.
You know, after 50 years of the U.N. raising more flags all the time as we’ve gone through the wonderful process of decolonization, we’re now looking squarely at a century where we’re going to start lowering those flags, one after another, because the land masses they represent will no longer be there. So, that call for survival and the equation of survival with 350 parts per million is much more radical than what we’ve heard in the past.
JB: Yeah. Well, that’s good. I’m wondering if you follow the American Geophysical Union meetings in San Francisco.
JB: Did you pick up anything especially noteworthy? They just happened this past December.
BM: The AGU a year ago was where Hansen unveiled this number for the first time.
BM: And he gave another very powerful standing room only—I mean people squeezing in the door—talk explaining, giving the latest set of data.
JB: Yeah, and all his slides are on his website, too. You can download his PowerPoint.
BM: Yes. Yeah, you can read the whole thing and it’s all very powerful. Some of it’s quite technical.
BM: Look, if you go to the meetings like the AGU or you read Science or Nature each week, it’s as if you just get a steady weekly update of just how fast the planet is deteriorating.
BM: And it’s not like there’s some evidence one way and some evidence the other and we’re having to kind of tease it out, that it’s a little hard. I mean, it’s as plain as the nose on your face. The Arctic’s melting. We’re seeing sea level begin to go up. We’re seeing a dramatic change in seasonality. We’re seeing the quick spread of mosquitoes into all kinds of places where they haven’t been before. You know, we’re even seeing changes in very basic physical conditions. The amount of lightning in the world has increased about six percent in the last decade or so because we’re seeing more storminess. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold, so we’re seeing more thunder and lightning. It’s as if we’re building a different planet and most of us don’t perceive that because, the planet, we take it so for granted. But if we had just landed on this planet and we were trying to figure it out, we’d be a little alarmed at the kind of changes that we were kicking off.
JB: Yeah. That was my frustration in academia in a sense. I would get inundated by these very powerful scientific articles—really well argued, great data. You didn’t hear much about them in the press and the mass media, and it was sort of at a loss as a scientist. You just sort of scratch your head going, “Is anybody paying attention to this?” I mean, do you get any sense of that when you go to these meetings? I mean, are the major media covering American Geophysical Union and interviewing these world-class scientists?
BM: Oh, not so much. I mean, the major media is so busy falling apart, you know.
JB: Yeah, they are.
BM: It’s a great problem. I mean, because there are media that are doing a good job, you know. In the last 3 or 4 years the New York Times has done a pretty good job of covering the science and politics of climate, and hence it’s bad news that the Times is struggling to stay afloat.
BM: But, no, it clearly does not get the coverage that it needs or deserves. Part of that is the willful inability of scientists to speak in language plain enough to be understood.
BM: It’s one of the reasons that Hansen is such a hero. Not only has he been at the forefront all along in figuring out this problem, he’s also been brave enough to state plainly what his research means. It’s one reason that he was so wildly targeted by the Right and that George W. Bush tried his best to get him fired.
BM: Gagged and everything else. Thank heaven that we are entering ten days hence into a new world, at least on that account.
JB: Yeah, definitely.
This is the Reality Report, and I’m your host Jason Bradford. Today’s guest is Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future and cofounder of the climate change group 350.org.
Well, speaking about the Obama administration, heaps of expectations are now placed on that group of people. I think about the situation--if I understand it correctly, the world has a few years left to get its act together, halt emissions increases, then begin the process of reducing greenhouse gas concentrations or we all face some version of the Four Horsemen. So, I’m extremely curious about something. Does the incoming president recognize the situation? Does he know and accept the James Hansen view of the climate?
BM: That’s a very good question. I think the answer is he’s moving in the right direction. Not very fast. Not quite as fast as he needs to be. But, clearly on the one hand the bar is set so low that anything is going to be a fantastic improvement, right? But we need much more than that. We need this to be the presidency that really gets it and goes all out. And especially since there’s kind of the moment, maybe, for that to happen with this economic crisis and the need for something to go spend money on. If we spend that money building more highways, forget it! But, if we spend it trying to do some really smart things about energy, well, maybe. So, I think the answer is not there yet, but headed in the right direction. The best sign was that he appointed some very smart people as his science advisors. John Holdren will be the Chief Scientific Advisor, a long-time stalwart on climate stuff. Steven Chu, who’s been heading the national renewable energy laboratory, will be the Secretary of Energy, Nobel laureate. That would indicate that the guy has a working brain.
BM: Basically, that’s what we need—some real working brains unimpaired by ideology in there—because to anybody who looks at the case for very long, the facts lead you in the direction that we need to go in.
JB: Yeah. Didn’t Al Gore meet with Obama soon after the Poland meetings?
BM: Yes. Yup.
JB: So, I’m wondering if he gave the same kind of message?
BM: I think he did. Of course, he’s remarkably well placed to do that because he’s able to understand in a way few others are, both the scientific reality and the political pressure, you know.
BM: He comes as close to having a full real-world view of this as anybody on the planet. It’s extraordinarily important, the role that he's going to play.
JB: Well, that’s good. Yeah, I’m interested to see what role he does play if he’s close with the administration or stays sort of back and comes in for meetings here and there and keeps up his We Campaign. So interesting.
Okay, let’s say world leaders, including the U.S. president, recognize the climate emergency. Of course, there are various proposals and trials that exist for governing the decline in emissions and fossil fuel consumption, but none of them have been applied globally at the scale required. I’m just wondering if you have any preferred greenhouse gas control mechanisms?
BM: Well, look, this is such a huge problem. I mean, it goes to the very core of our entire economy around the world. I think, at this point, given the time that we have and the scale of the problem, that there’s really no way, legislatively, to sit and pick and choose what we should be doing; should we be having this kind of power or that kind of power or whatever. I think, basically, our one shot lies in getting the price of this stuff right, and then letting markets do what they’re going to do. I think we need a hefty price on carbon.
JB: Like a tax or a tax and dividend?
BM: Well, yeah. More likely the way that we usually describe it now is a cap on carbon that would be, in effect, a tax. Your neighbor there in northern California, Peter Barnes, the guy who founded Working Assets, has done the most brilliant job of figuring out how to make this part of the equation work. Because, boy, you put a tax on—well, whoever voted for it gets voted out of office. Two years later you’re back to square one. What he said is, and it’s very smart of him, let’s put a cap on carbon. That’ll raise the price. Exxon will have to pay for a permit to release the carbon into the atmosphere. They’ll have to pay a lot, hopefully. They’ll pass that price on to you at the pump or at your house or whatever, and that’s how it’ll work. You’ll then have a big incentive to no longer drive around in a forest ranger vehicle, no longer build a 5,000 square foot house, no longer do all the stupid things we’ve been doing.
But, what we should do with that money that Exxon paid in is collect it all in a big pot and then write everybody in the country a check every month or every year or something for their share of that money; call it cap and dividend. I don’t think anyone is really going to go along with the prospect of just allowing the government to collect it and spend it. And I’m not certain it’s the best plan to allow the government to do that anyway. I mean, so far the big great idea they came up with with energy so far was big subsidies for corn-based ethanol.
JB: Yeah, it was frightening.
BM: Which was not a good idea. I think that the next thing that they’re likely to do is big subsidies for nuclear power which, whatever you think about nuclear power—and it’s clear that the safety calculations have changed somewhat in a world when the scariest thing on earth is now a coal-fired power plant—but whatever you think about that, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not a very smart economic decision to throw all your eggs in the nuclear basket. Stuff is just too expensive.
JB: Yeah, okay. Well, I admit to sort of getting a bee in my bonnet when I hear economists say we can’t afford to stave off climate change because it will slow economic growth. You hear a lot of talk right now about how we need to stoke the economy again, get growth going. Do you see any political or conceptual hang-ups like this, making it difficult to shift policies appropriately?
BM: Well, the obsession with growth is the huge central problem haunting our culture, and my intellectual work as opposed to my activist work is largely devoted to trying to do something about that. I think we’re having some success. I think more and more people are beginning to understand that the model we’re working on isn’t going to work; that plan A ain’t all that. But, you know, right now we’re in the middle of a recession/depression. It’s pretty clear that Barack Obama is going to try to get us out of it—get the economy growing again, flog it back to life for another round.
BM: I think, given that reality—and carbon has a wonderful way of imposing kind of reality checks on one, as does peak oil—I think given that reality, we need to keep pointing out that even if you care about economic growth above all, the dumbest thing you could possibly do is let climate change get out of control. Nicholas Stern, the British economist commissioned by the U.K. government to write an economic report on this, concluded that climate change was likely to be more expensive than World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression combined. You know, economists are like mathematicians who forget how to subtract.
BM: They can only do the growth thing, but it never occurs to them that you might be doing all kinds of damage along the way that we’re going to subtract from those numbers in the end.
JB: Yeah, yeah. It’s like growing to the extent you need liposuction.
BM: Yes. That’s a good analogy.
JB: So, yeah, it’d be interesting. There was just, for example, a little letter to Nature where some academic somewhere wrote this beautiful little 200-word essay, basically in letters to Nature saying that we need an economic shrinkage of some sort. It was really well done. So, yeah, you’re it hearing more and more, I’m sure.
BM: Absolutely! My last book, Deep Economy, was about this, and it was quite radical in many ways.
BM: And, it’s funny. I was expecting a much tougher reaction to it than I got. I mean, it became a best seller and everybody, including the economists, were like, “Yeah, well, we kind of know this. We’re beginning to suspect that you might be right.”
BM: On the other hand, you know, we’re riding on a careening bicycle, that the minute that you try to tap on the brakes, bad things start to happen.
JB: Well, yeah. That’s why we’re seeing this deleveraging problem and layoffs.
BM: Exactly. I don’t think the world is going to be the same at the end of this process, I gotta say. I know that some people think we’re going to get out this like we’ve gotten out of other recessions in the past and things. I doubt it. I think the combination of peak oil and climate sort of working as a one-two punch mean that we’re going to not get out of this easily. We’re not going to just resume easy growth on into the future.
JB: Yeah, I mean you get into issues of the actual way money is created and debt with compound interest and the structural requirements, and I’ve never heard anyone in the mainstream really delve into that in any detail. I mean, you get the theoretical stuff—well, growth isn’t possible and here’s why and it’s causing these negative consequences—you know, the externalities. But, I haven’t heard anyone sort of discuss, “Well, what does this mean for the banking system?”
BM: Yeah. Well, that’s why it’s exciting to start seeing the alternatives beginning to arise, you know. I just, not long ago, went down to the Berkshires to give the talk at their celebration for their putting their millionth BerkShare, their local currency, into circulation.
BM: Now I think they’re up above 2 million. And you can go into the normal old bank, 6 or 7 different banks in the Berkshires, and cash your paycheck either in U.S. dollars or in BerkShares. You can go to the ATM and pull this local currency out from the ATM. I mean, I bought an ice cream bar from the Mr. Dingaling truck as it went by using my BerkShare.
JB: Oh, that’s great! The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek recently had articles on local currency, which I found pretty fascinating.
JB: I thought, “Oh, no! I’m not ahead of the curve anymore.”
BM: You want the curve to catch up to you.
JB: Exactly. All right, what’s new? What do I have to do now?
What do you think about this financial crisis? Does it make the social transitions that you feel are necessary more or less difficult to achieve?
BM: Oh, it cuts all ways, you know. On the one hand, we all become conservative in bad times and our deepest goal becomes getting back to normal.
BM: And that makes it hard. Just in structural terms, the price of energy drops because a marginal demand drops, and hence the ability to go build windmills and things drops; there’s no capital for it anyway. On the other hand, you know, we relearn certain lessons about frugality that are useful.
BM:So, I don’t know how it all ends out; it’s just another part. It’s sort of like the weather. It comes and goes and we have to deal with it and not lose sight of the fact that we need to make a fundamental transformation.
JB: Yeah. It’s interesting, people were bemoaning the low U.S. savings rate for a long time and you would have financial experts saying, “Gosh, people aren’t saving. This is a problem.” And now people are starting to save again. There are articles about the savings rate going up, even as people are losing income. And now they’re bemoaning the fact that they’re saving.
BM: Right. No, now it’s time to go buy some more junk.
JB: Yeah! I mean it’s just so ridiculous! It is just absolutely absurd.
Well, let’s open the phone line. Would you be willing to take a couple calls?
BM: Oh, of course.
JB: We’ve got a few minutes left here, if you want to talk to Bill McKibben. He's written a number of books; End of Nature was one of your early ones. How many do you have now? Several?
BM: Oh, about a dozen, I guess...I don’t know.
JB: I lose track.
All right, here you got a caller. Hi there, you’re on the air.
Caller: Hi. I wanted to find out more about the local economy people. What’s the name of that region where they have a local economy?
JB: Oh, Berkshires.
BM: In the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. Yeah, and the place to go Google to find out more about that local currency thing is the Shumacher Society, named after E.F. Schumacher. They’re out there in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and they’ve done a good job pulling together this local currency thing.
JB: Yeah, Schumacher. How do you spell Schumacher?
Caller: How long are you going to be in Mendocino? Or, I guess you’re not in Mendocino.
BM: Would that I were in Mendocino! Actually, Vermont is so beautiful today that I wouldn’t leave for anything, but hopefully I’ll get to Mendocino before too long.
Caller: Is there any local economy growth in Mendocino County?
JB: Oh, yeah, there’re lots!
BM: Yeah, Jason’s been leading the charge on this for years. I mean, there are people doing incredible things. All the rest of the country looks at Willits as the sort of original prototype for how to do a local economy plan.
Caller: Yeah, but what about money and an ATM?
JB: Well, no one’s at that point yet. There is this proposal for this thing called Mendo Moola which became Mendo Dollars, and there have been talks with the local banks about this. Cliff Paulin was the guy behind this. He’s an attorney in Ukiah.
Here in Willits we’re starting a currency backed by grains and dry beans, and so the local bank is going to issue that. Basically, you exchange Federal Reserve currency for credit slips that can be redeemed in food, and then you can pass them around. They’re only in $10.00 notes to start off with.
Caller: That’s a good move, Jason!
JB: It’s a start.
Caller:How do we get a hold of you?
JB: You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; and I’m in the phone book, Jason Bradford.
Caller: Hey, thanks a lot!
JB: Sure thing!
These ideas have been around so long, Bill, it’s kind of embarrassing to get press when you’re just sort of stealing from people who have been writing about it for so long.
BM: One of the things that I’ve gone back and looked at for the first time in years is the stuff that the people did at Limits to Growth in 1970, and they essentially figured out most of what we’re dealing with now long ago, and it was just a little too tough for people to hear.
JB: Yeah, exactly. But what’s astonishing is how these ideas keep recurring in times of stress and need.
BM: Yeah, well, because there’s not another set of them out there, unfortunately.
JB: Right, right!
BM: I mean, this is what you have to do. If you want to eat dinner and turn on the lights, you gotta figure out some different things than we’re doing now.
JB: So, now you’ve got some local currency movements in Vermont, I think, don’t you?
BM: Mm hm. There are a bunch of nodes around the country—Northern California, Oregon, Vermont, parts of the upper Midwest—where people are experimenting with lots of things. And, what’s good is that it’s now beginning to rub off into lots of other places, too. You’re starting to see the same sort of thing happen in just plain old vanilla suburbs all over the place.
BM: Farmers’ markets spreading fast and so on and so forth.
BM: I think in those ways it’s quite an encouraging moment.
We have another call. Hi there, you’re on the air.
Caller: Hi. I’d like your guest to talk about the impact on our lives as middle-class Americans who are accustomed to having our house be as warm as we want it in the winter, having our house be as cool as we want it in the summer, driving where we want to go. My feeling about climate change is those things are going to have to change. We’ve overdrawn our bank account, so to speak, and our lives are going to get less comfortable; we’re going to have less privilege. The sooner we start doing that, the better, but it’s really hard to do. I mean I’ve, this winter, been not turning my heater on, a lot. And when I talk to friends about it, about being cold, they’re like, “Well, you shouldn’t have to do that!” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, we all do!” So, there’s a lot of denial about the impact on our individual personal lives that is going on amongst all of us, and I’d be interested in what you have to say about how we overcome that.
BM: Well, I think that you’re very right in many ways, and the examples that you give are the right ones. People always ask me, “How do you heat your house?” thinking that I’ll have some great environmental method; and in fact we’ve got solar panels all over the place, solar hot water, and yada yada. But I always say, “Well, basically we heat our house with wool.” Sweaters, or a couple of them, are a good thing.
I think that the caller is correct about the scale of change. I also think that if we’re even halfway clever—and humans are a fairly clever bunch—we’ll figure out how to do the things we really need to do without it becoming incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t think we need to live in a cave, but I do think that she makes the very good point that habits are going to have to change. A very clear example is there’s no ecologically sound way to fly all the heck over the world all the time.
JB: Yeah, yeah.
BM: For most Americans, middle-class or higher, that’s their biggest use of energy, and we’ve just sort of taken it for granted now that you should be able to travel thousands of miles in a couple of hours at a whim. And we can’t keep doing that. And we won’t keep doing that, if we get prices right.
There’s no way to get everyone around the world to make the sort of moral commitment in the time that we have. We can’t convert all our neighbors one by one. We can’t even get the light bulbs out there one by one. We’re not going to solve this problem one light bulb at a time—important as those things are. That’s why, given the scale of change we need and the time we have to do it, I spend most of my time on these political movements. If we can build a political movement that changes the ground rules, then it raises the price of carbon; then we’ll start to see change happening everywhere all at once on the scale we need it to happen. And then we’ll also start seeing the kind of innovation and change that allows us to do things that people need to be able to do—stay warm when it’s cold, eat dinner—in ways that make sense. I gotta say I think that that’s been, for me, the most important understanding that’s dawned on me in the last 20 years—is that the fundamental task is not, although it’s incredibly important and you could spend a lot of good and valuable time at it, the fundamental task, at least for the moment, is not in your own home, it’s in the political world.
BM: That’s where the movements have to be built. That’s why we so badly need your help with 350.org. Jason, I hope that you and other people listening will figure out who in your part of the world will sort of take responsibility for organizing something great for October 24, to link together with people in every other part of this planet, taking that same number and driving it home. Your congress people and senators and all that, they vote the right way, but they need to know how urgently you understand this problem and how deeply you feel on it.
JB: I’ve sat down with our congressman and he’s heard this message.
BM: He’ll really pay attention if 50 people are out doing something cool on October 24.
JB: Exactly! It can’t just be me sitting down with him and talking to him. It has to be the big thing he hears over and over again.
BM: That’s it.
JB: We only have another minute or so in the show.
Caller: Oh, phooey!!
JB: You have a quick thing to say? Well, I hung up on her. “Oh, phooey.”
So, Bill, anything else that we haven’t covered you’d like to say or reiterate as we wind up the program?
BM: No, only just to say, once again, my great thanks for the leadership that people are providing in that part of world. Yeah, I mean it’s very exciting to see what you all are doing, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with for October 24th because I know, given the concentration of creativity and cleverness and commitment in that part of the world, that you guys will do one of the great things anybody does all around the world for this 350.org Day.
JB: I have an idea already.
BM: Oh, good!
JB: Yeah, it’s going to one of these ancient Redwood groves we have around here. It’s sort of a timeless place.
BM: You got it. That’s just right.
JB: But those are in risk now, you know.
JB: At 450 parts per million and 2 more degrees Celsius increase, who knows what happens to those Redwoods.
BM: You’re absolutely right. That’s a perfect idea. Those are just the iconic images that we need and we’ll get that picture. Do something great there and we’ll get it on every front page of every newspaper around the country.
JB: All right. Well, Bill, we’re going to have to sign off.
BM: All right. God bless. Thanks so much for your work.
JB: Yeah. Enjoy your time cross country skiing and writing in Vermont.
BM: Indeed! Take care.
JB: All right. Bye.
JB: This has been the Reality Report. I’m your host, Jason Bradford, and we were talking today to Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future and co-founder of the climate change group 350.org.
Thanks to our underwriters today and Dan Roberts for stepping up and doing engineering.
Have a great week everybody!
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.