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Bill McKibben: “Communities are more important than individuals, and probably more important than states and nations”

Last week Bill McKibben was in town, and I was lucky enough to get to interview him for half an hour before his talk to a packed St. John’s Church in Totnes (which Jay Tompt reflected on here). I had asked for some questions for Bill on Twitter, and apart from the frankly bizarre “will I ever play the piano again?”, tried to weave most of the questions people sent into the interview. My thanks to Bill for finding time in his hectic schedule:

Hi Bill… great to see you… what brings you to Totnes?

The two things that bring me to Totnes are wanting to get back to Schumacher College for a little while, which is a remarkable place, especially on this 100th year of Schumacher, and wanting to get back to Totnes and see the ‘Mother Church of Transition’! (laughs). You know, I spent a lot of my time in motion around the planet and I run into and work with Transition Towns all over the place and get to see all of the amazing stuff that’s going on, but it will be fun to be able to tell them all about what’s happening back at ‘the source’.

You’ve been quite busy the past few weeks in the States!

I’ve spent more nights in jail than I have at home in the past couple of months, which is probably not a good ratio. We’ve been fighting very hard this plan to run a pipeline from the tar sands of northern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico and I kind of organised the biggest civil disobedience campaign in the US in over 35 years or so. And we’ve had another huge global day of action at 350.org with thousands of events mostly based around the bicycle, taking place in pretty much every country on earth. So between those two things I’ve had enough to do.

Why are the tar sands so important in the fight against climate change?

We should have been involved in this fight a long time ago because they are wrecking indigenous land as they mine this stuff and the pipeline is a clear and present danger to the land it traverses, but I didn’t really get involved with it until the great climatologist James Hansen and his team at NASA wrote a paper documenting just how much carbon there was up there in Canada. It’s the second largest pool of carbon on Earth after Saudi Arabia. If you could burn all that oil overnight, which thank God you can’t, you would raise the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from its current 393ppm, already much to high, to about 540ppm. As Hansen said, in technical scientist’s language, and I quote, it would be “essentially game over for the climate”.

So we gotta stop it from happening. We burned Saudi Arabia, and that raised the temperature of the Earth a degree, we didn’t know about climate change when we went into Saudi Arabia, so no great shame on us. But if we go into the second Saudi Arabia knowing what we now know, and do the same thing, then we’re the worst kind of idiots. And we will, without huge uprising to prevent it, because there’s a lot of money to be made there, and a lot of powerful people who want some of that money.

Recently Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand have argued that the green movement has “lost its way” recently. How do you stand on that?

I don’t think that there’s been, at least around climate, much of a movement. That’s what we’ve been trying to build over the last 3 or 4 years. There’ve been all kinds of expert scientists and things saying what needs to happen, but what we’ve lacked has been a movement. I think we’re just finally now building one. In terms of nuclear power, I think politically, post-Fukushima, its not actually going to happen in most places that have democracies. That’s just reality. The reason it wasn’t happening before Fukushima and this still applies, is because it is too expensive. It’s one more effort to build big centralised power, but it’s ruinously expensive to do it this way.

At this point, all the hip engineers and scientists are far more interested in what they call ‘distributed generation’ and think it makes a lot more sense to build spread out, redundant grid-tied systems that take advantage of things that nature would just as soon give us for free, sun and wind. So I hope we head in that direction. You can make an argument for nuclear power, I just don’t think it’s going to happen, because among other things it’s deucedly expensive to do.

You named your organisation 350.org. We’re currently at 393ppm. Is it actually possible to get back to 350ppm?

Oh sure. Physically it’s possible. If you stopped burning carbon tomorrow, well before the end of the century you’d be back to 350ppm. You’d do some damage in the meantime, there’s already a lot of damage being done, but oceans and forests do suck carbon out of the atmosphere, that’s how we got all those oil fields and coal beds in the first place y’know. Physically it’s possible. The question is whether it is politically possible or not? And I don’t know.

It’s a really hard stretch Rob… fossil fuels is a central part of the world economy, so getting off it requires both the kind of local example that Transition provides such good examples of, and, and these are complementary and not at all competitive, a strong political battle to, among other things, change the price of carbon. And when we do, these battles are complementary, because it will make it much easier for people to understand the need to Transition, once the price of energy reflects the damage it does in the atmosphere.

What’s the role of communities in mitigating and adapting to climate change?

Communities are the integers of this operation. They are more important than individuals, and probably more important than states and nations. In terms of adaption, most of my intellectual work, my writing work in recent years has been about the need and the possibility to build strong local economies. One of the reasons that is so important, perhaps THE reason why that’s so important, is because that’s what we will need in order to adapt to that which we can no longer prevent in terms of climate change.

The problem is that communities by themselves can’t get this job done. We’re not going to do it in the time that physics and chemistry allow us by addition alone, “my town does this, your town does it, then maybe your brother-in-law sees it and tries to talk his town into doing some of it and so on and so forth”. That’s happening, and its good to see it happening, but as you know it has not yet bent any of the curves of carbon emissions.

We are also going to have to work by multiplication, and that’s an inherently political process. That means changing the rules of the game, and the reason that it is such a hard fight is that there are people making so much money doing what they are doing now, and they are willing to spend some of that money to work the political process and make sure we don’t get change. So it’s a constant, constant battle, and that work we need to carry on at a national and even a global level.

It’s one of the great ironies and paradoxes that at the same moment that we need both stronger communities than we’ve ever needed them before and we really need, almost for the first time, a working global system, because we have the first really global problem. I mean, nuclear weapons were, in a sense, a global problem, but they were confined to a certain number of states. Compared to this it was a relatively simple problem, because everyone could picture the destruction that comes with a few nuclear bombs, but it’s harder to picture the destruction that comes with the explosions in millions of pistons that take place every minute of every day.

One of the things that is very live within Transition is that edge between activism and protest culture and ‘doing Transition’. Where do you sit with that?

One of the reasons we set up 350.org in the way we did was precisely with that in mind. We didn’t want to build a kind of big, centralised organisation, we wanted to have a campaign that would allow people to spend most of their time doing what all of us should do, be at home working on our own communities, and yet have some way to come together with other communities all over the world and multiply one’s political power. That’s why when we do days of action it’s thousands upon thousands of places in hundreds of languages in hundreds of countries and it’s beautiful and powerful.

We also need some centralised campaigning around certain particular pressure points because we gotta score some victories and put the other side on the defensive. So it was really good to be in Washington at the White House at the centre of power and to watch for two weeks as a hundred people a day showed up from every state in the union and got arrested. Many of them were people who are working on Transition back in their communities, probably most of them.

Yet they also recognised the importance of doing this kind of work. There’s no either/or, it’s got the be both/and, especially now, because one of the things I think we have come to realise in the past year or so is that peak oil isn’t going to do any of this work for us. It’s true that we’ve had peak oil in conventional terms, and it’s also true that the high price of oil, and the profits to be made since there’s no carbon penalty attached to it, have driven people to find more than enough unconventional oil and gas to keep us going way past the point where we’ll break the climatic back of the planet. As I said, there’s as much oil in the tar sands of Canada as there is in Saudi Arabia, and at $80 a barrel, they’re happy to pull it out of the ground for us.

I’ve brought my copy of ‘The End of Nature’ which I read when I was 24…

I wrote it when I was 27!

… it was certainly one of the most impactful books I read in my whole life. I wonder how you personally, having been immersed in that understanding, that knowledge, for the past 20-30 years, how do you keep smiling and keep going and not just weep in a corner somewhere?

That’s a very good question, and actually when the book came out, I was in a pretty dark place for a while, and sometimes still am. But, two things. One, there is a certain amount of catharsis in writing and getting your own angst out onto everyone else…

Yeah, thanks for that …

.. and in the second place I have a certain advantage now which is that I’ve been living with this stuff for 23-24 years, day in and day out, and at a certain point it’s like you get over grief from someone dying and you just go on and so in a certain way I’m probably more emotionally prepared to deal with climate change than people who are learning about it for the first time. It’s part of my mental framework, I know what the stakes are, and now I assuage my grief simply by working very, very, very hard and I find that helps.

I think I would be rather grief-stricken if I didn’t have some way to get up every day and really fight. Frankly, some of the time I take out whatever grief I have on the people I’m fighting, there are days when I really despise and hate the oil companies and coal companies and take a certain unholy amount of pleasure in trying to make their lives more difficult, even if we don’t win!

Is your sense that the tar sands campaign is starting to have an impact?

Look, it’s changed the odds a little bit. Most likely we’ll still lose, there’s, at current value, 3 or 4 trillion dollars worth of oil that’s recoverable. 3 or 4 trillion dollars puts a lot of pressure on systems, it’s like a law of nature almost! The odds are against us, but they’re better than they were a few weeks ago! We’re fighting real hard. The one reason we have any kind of chance is because President Obama gets to make this call by himself without Congress in the way, and we’re trying to demonstrate that there’s some political pain if he makes it the wrong way. It’s a hard thing to do in a country where the alternatives are nutty Republicans, so who knows how it all works out, but we’re fighting hard.

Any last thoughts for the Transition movement?

The good news is, and we’ve talked mostly about bad news, the good news is that every place around the world is starting to kick in in a really strong way. I watch it in the US and the local food movement is astonishing. It’s carrying the field before it. Last year the US Department of Agriculture said there were more farms in the US than the year before, the first time that’s happened in 150 years. That’s really good news. The biggest demographic trend in American history has bottomed out and is beginning to reverse.

So I think the good news is that given time, we can do this. The bad news is that unless we can get carbon under control, we’re not going to have the time to do it, and instead of making a nice beautiful cultural transition to something different, we’re just going to end up fighting and endless series of rescue operations and emergency battles and so on and so forth. So much as I would like to be at home in Vermont, I seem to spend virtually all of my time on the road, if not in jail! There you are!

… and we’re very deeply grateful for it….

… and I’m so grateful for all the work you guys are doing because that’s what makes me want to keep going, the thought that there really is some vision on the other side of what the world might look like. So, we shall see!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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