“Falter”: In New Book, Bill McKibben Asks If the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out

April 18, 2019

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands are taking to the streets in London to demand radical action to combat the climate crisis. Protesters with the group Extinction Rebellion have set up encampments and roadblocks across Central London and say they’ll stay in the streets for at least a week. It’s just the beginning of a series of global actions that will unfold in the coming days, as activists around the world raise the alarm about government inaction in the face of the growing climate catastrophe. A spokesperson with Extinction Rebellion told The Guardian, “Governments prioritize the short-term interests of the economic elites, so to get their attention, we have to disrupt the economy,” they said.

The London protests come just days after schoolchildren around the globe left school again on Friday for the weekly “strike for climate.” The movement was started last year when, at the time, 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg stood alone outside the Swedish parliament to demand her government do more to combat climate change. Now kids around the globe have answered her call with their own weekly strikes. The esteemed journal Science published an open letter from scientists supporting the global youth protests last week. It reads in part, quote, “As scientists and scholars who have recently initiated similar letters of support in our countries, we call for our colleagues across all disciplines and from the entire world to support these young climate protesters. We declare: Their concerns are justified and supported by the best available science. The current measures for protecting the climate and biosphere are deeply inadequate,” Science wrote.

This all comes as the push for the Green New Deal continues to build momentum in the United States. The deal, backed by Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, seeks to transform the U.S. economy through funding renewable energy while ending U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted last week, “The far-right loves to drum up fear & resistance to immigrants. But have you ever noticed they never talk about what’s causing people to flee their homes in the first place? Perhaps that’s bc they’d be forced to confront 1 major factor fueling global migration: Climate change,” she wrote.

We turn now to a climate activist and journalist who’s been on the front lines of the fight for the planet for decades. Thirty years ago, in 1989, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book about climate change for a general audience. He has just published a new book; it’s titled Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Bill McKibben joins us here in our New York studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Bill.

BILL McKIBBEN: Amy, it’s always good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

BILL McKIBBEN: You know, 30 years ago, when I started writing about this, it was a distant threat. We were issuing a warning. Scientists knew that as we burned coal and gas and oil, we were putting carbon in the atmosphere. They knew the molecular structure of CO2-trapped heat. We didn’t know how fast and how hard it was going to pinch. The story of the last 30 years—or one of the stories of the last 30 years—is that it pinched a hell of a lot harder and faster than even we had feared. The things we’re seeing now—half the sea ice in the summer Arctic gone, the ocean 30% more acidic, half the coral reefs under siege—these were things we thought would happen 50, 60, 70 years from now. But the planet turned out to be very finely balanced. So that was one of the surprises of those 30 years.

The other surprise was how little reaction there was in our political system, how slowly it’s moved. In essence, we’ve done almost nothing as a world to grapple with the biggest problem that we’ve ever wandered into.

The one piece of—well, the two pieces of really good news are, one, that the engineers have done their job just about as well as the politicians have done theirs badly. The price of a solar panel has dropped 90%. We have the technology, in a way that we didn’t even a decade ago, to know where we could turn if we wanted to. And we’ve seen this rise of remarkable movements over the last decade. You know, there were periods of time when I felt like—have you ever had one of those nightmares where you’re trying to communicate to everybody that something bad is going on, but words won’t come out of your mouth, or they can’t hear you or something? There was a period when I felt like that. I no longer feel lonely like that anymore. There are a lot—millions of people around the world engaged in this fight. We’ll see if that’s enough power to overcome the wealth and influence of the fossil fuel industry in time or not.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how you’ve divided your book into these four sections—


AMY GOODMAN: —the size of the board, leverage, the name of the game and an outside chance.

BILL McKIBBEN: The question that haunts me, and has since I wrote The End of Nature, is whether we’ve—the thing that we’re doing now is so large that it fundamentally alters our prospects as a civilization. Climate change is the best example of that. And climate change, by now, has already reached the point where, as I say in the first section, it changes the size of the board on which we’re playing this game. Forever, since humans came out of Africa, we’ve been expanding the board on which we play the game, you know, finding new places, spreading out. Now things are contracting. Now people are beginning to worry very much about the cities that they live that are near the coasts. Now we’re seeing—perhaps you saw the story in yesterday’s Times about how climate change has become the main driver for those immigrants having to leave their homes in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, not because they want to, because there’s such a deep drought that they can’t grow anything there anymore. Those are the opening salvos in what’s going to be a century of shrinkage.

I mean, think about what we saw in California last fall. I mean, literally, in an hour, a city called Paradise turned literally into hell. You know, everybody who watched it could imagine dying in a car trapped in a road as they tried to get out of a forest fire. If California, the place we’ve always identified with a kind of golden ease, you know, is now in a paranoid sense of fear for much of the year as they look over their shoulder for the next fire, well, that’s another sense in which this board has begun to shrink.

The second part of the book is more political. I tried to answer, for my own purposes, the question of why we did so little for so long. And I think it has everything to do with the ascendant political ideology of this period, this sense that laissez-faire capitalism, that markets alone would solve problems, that happened to be the dominant political philosophy in the most important country in the world at precisely the most important moment. It’s no accident that people like the Koch brothers, our biggest political players, are also oil and gas barons. I mean, they understood climate change as a threat both to their business and to their ideological worldview, because, of course, if we’re going to solve it, we’re going to have to take joint action, as societies, to do so.

The third part of the book takes a turn into Silicon Valley and asks the question, if, having ended nature, we’re also on the verge of ending human nature. The same libertarian ideology, the same Ayn Rand fan club, that exists in places like the Koch brothers’ network, exists, too, at the top of the heap in Silicon Valley, where everybody pays homage to the idea that they should be left alone by the government—left alone in this case to do things like genetically engineer children, so that we had, in October, the first two designer babies born on this planet, in China, but, as we learned in yesterday’s newspaper, with help from professors at places like Stanford. That future should frighten us in all kinds of ways, that future of ever larger AI, of ever more—

AMY GOODMAN: Artificial intelligence.

BILL McKIBBEN: Intelligence. Perhaps you saw the story in today’s papers about how the Chinese have weaponized AI, and they can now identify in any crowd, in any place in China, anyone who has the facial features of a Uyghur Muslim, and be able to track them by camera automatically. I mean, we’re talking about tens of millions of people in a country of billions of people. It’s something out of a science fiction story, except it isn’t. The science fiction stories—

AMY GOODMAN: The minority Uyghur—

BILL McKIBBEN: —are coming true.

AMY GOODMAN: The minority Uyghur Muslim population in China.

BILL McKIBBEN: Exactly right.

So, the fourth part of the book asks: Is it too late to do anything about this? If we wanted to, what could we do? And here I allow myself a little more hope. I’ve had the privilege over the last decade, since we started, of watching this climate movement arise. And it’s been a great joy to see that happen and to see it join with other movements for justice, against inequality, in a kind of progressive coalition.

I think there were two great inventions of the 20th century that might just save us in the 21st. The first was the solar panel. It’s magic on a kind of Hogwarts scale, Amy. I mean, you point a sheet of glass at the sun, and out the back flows light and communications and modernity. To get to see it being installed for the first time in remote parts of Africa, say—I did a long story for The New Yorker a couple years ago on this—was a fantastic joy. I mean, to watch people who had never had a cold drink in their life, suddenly, because of these solar panels, able to do so, reminds us of how much we take for granted.

The other invention of the 20th century that holds out real hope is this invention of nonviolent social movements, from the suffragettes, from Gandhi, from Dr. King, from people learning how to take—well, how to take the power of the many and the small to stand up to the mighty and the few. Climate change is perhaps the most dramatic example of this there’ll ever be. I mean, as you know, we learned a lot in the last few years about the nature of the fossil fuel industry, about the fact that they knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s, knew everything and believed it. Exxon began building all its drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was coming. They just didn’t tell the rest of us. Instead, they devoted billions of dollars to building this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that’s kept us locked for 30 years in an utterly sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real, a debate that both sides knew the answer to from the start. It’s just one of them was willing to lie.

And so, now we’re at the point where we have no choice but to hope we can build movements big enough, loud enough, beautiful enough to challenge that power. That’s why, for me, it’s incredibly moving and incredibly exciting to see the young people doing the Green New Deal work, to see Greta Thunberg and her comrades, you know, 12-year-olds, out of school and talking articulately about these questions. I don’t know if we’re going to win, but we definitely are going to have a fight.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump signed two executive orders last week to facilitate the approval of pipeline projects at a federal level, limiting states’ ability to regulate such projects. The move is intended in part to clear the way for permitting on the northeastern Constitution pipeline, which has stalled after New York invoked the Clean Water Act to reject the project on environmental grounds. This is President Trump speaking Wednesday in Crosby, Texas, where he signed the orders.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My first order will speed up the process for approving vital infrastructure on our nation’s borders, such as oil pipelines, roads and railways. It will now take no more than 60 days. That’s a vast improvement. And the president, not the bureaucracy, will have sole authority to make the final decision when we get caught up in problems.

AMY GOODMAN: In response, last week we spoke to Dallas Goldtooth, organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. I asked him to explain the pipeline executive order signed by President Trump.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: You know, what we’re seeing right now with these executive orders is nothing but an act of aggression against the authority for states to protect their homelands or protect the residents of their state and the lands within the borders of those states, mainly targeting the Clean Water Act. Really, what Trump wants to do is take away the states’ abilities to enforce environmental regulations against pipeline projects or other infrastructure, fossil fuel projects, and take and give that power solely to the federal government. You know, this is—it’s kind of absurd that, you know, Trump, being a representative or the figurehead of the Republican Party, is wholeheartedly endorsing an ideology that the federal government has a final say over what happens within the borders of a state and that the state has very little recourse to address these issues. The other—there are just two executive orders, so that was the first one.

The second one really specifically talked—focuses on the cross-border—the border crossing of pipelines. In this regard, we’re talking about Keystone XL. I know Enbridge, Enbridge Line 3, was also one of those pipelines that had to deal with crossing the border from Canada to transport tar sands oil. And really what the president is trying to do, and he did this a couple weeks ago by approving Keystone XL a second time, is saying that he, as the president, has the sole power to approve these projects, and is encouraging the State Department to say—to act only as advisers to the president to sign these projects.

And there’s something really—something really insidious and dangerous about this, that is just a part, a continuing part, of Trump’s legacy for overreaching his executive powers, is that the president has stated that because he is the president, he is not a federal agency, therefore he’s not beholden to any environmental regulations that federal agencies have to follow, in particular the National Environmental Protection Act, parts of the Clean Water Act. You know, he’s saying that, “As the president, I actually am—I don’t have to follow those, because I’m not a federal agency.” And that’s very, very dangerous precedent to start here, especially as we look towards a rapid expansion of fossil fuel development in this country at this current moment and what we’re trying to fight against in the protection of Mother Earth and the sacredness of the land itself.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dallas Goldtooth, Diné and Dakota organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. You can visit our website to see the full interview with Dallas. Still with us, Bill McKibben, co-founder of, the global climate organization, his new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? So, there you have Trump in Crosby, Texas, and you have one of the leading indigenous activists responding. But talk about your response last week, Wednesday.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, first of all, it was great to see Dallas, who’s one of the savviest organizers in the whole world and has done an immense amount. And I feel much the same. I mean, what Trump’s trying to do is short-circuit this really effective protest movement that’s been built up around pipelines. In fact, Trump had another—I mean, I’ve got to say I took it almost a little personally, these executive orders, because, see, part of one of them also took aim at the divestment campaign, the fossil fuel divestment campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that that has—where that is now.

BILL McKIBBEN: We started, the year after some of us started this Keystone resistance, and which turned into a big resistance against pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, in general, following the lead of indigenous people up in Alberta. The next year, a bunch of us—Naomi Klein and I and others—started this fossil fuel divestment campaign to get institutions to sell their stock. Well, it worked better than we thought it would. It’s become, by some measures, the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind ever. I think we’re now at $8 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios that have divested in part or in whole.

And it’s really beginning to take a toll on the industry. Earlier this year, Shell said in its annual report that divestment had become a material risk to its business. A couple of weeks ago, the heads of many of the biggest coal firms in the world were at a Houston energy conference, and they were quoted by Politico as explaining that they just could not find capital anymore for new coal projects. Too many funds had divested. People had been scared off.

That’s why Trump’s trying to push back on that and on pipelines. I think, in so doing, he’s done us, in a sense, a favor. I mean, it’s pretty much like he’s providing the blueprints to the climate death star, you know, and saying, “Here are the couple of places you might want to push really hard, because it clearly hurts.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell me if you think this will add to that movement: President Trump coming under fire earlier this month for falsely claiming windmills cause cancer. He made the remarks in a speech to the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he touted U.S. oil and gas drilling while mocking renewable energy.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations. Your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You told me that one, OK? Whirr! Whirr!

AMY GOODMAN: Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley called Trump’s remark “idiotic,” saying, quote, “I wish his staff would tell him I’m the father and now the grandfather of wind energy tax credits.”

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, Trump is obviously a ludicrous buffoon in almost every situation, but never more so than here. His dislike of windmills dates to his desire for a Scottish golf course where no golfer would have to see one in the distance. But what he’s—the reason that Grassley is standing up for this is because places like Iowa now make a ton of money off the wind. It’s not like anyone is going to defeat these technologies. Wind and sun are free. That’s why they’re coming so fast.

What the fossil fuel industry, with Trump as one of its helpers, wants to do is slow that transition down, stretch it out, so that their current business model can last a couple more decades. The problem with that is that if we don’t get action really soon, if we let it stretch out, those are the decades that will finish the work of breaking the planet. It’s why the urgency of something like the Green New Deal is so crucial.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, the Seychelles President Danny Faure visited a British-led science expedition exploring the depths of the Indian Ocean. From there, he gave an impassioned speech on climate change inside a manned underwater submersible, 400 feet below the ocean’s surface.

PRESIDENT DANNY FAURE: The ocean is huge, covering almost 70% of our planet, but we have managed to seriously impact this vast environment through climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, plastic and other pollution and other threats. From this depth, I can see the incredible wildlife that needs our protection, and the consequences of damaging this huge ecosystem that has existed for millennia. … We must act accordingly. This issue is bigger than all of us. And we cannot wait for the next generation to solve it. We are running out of excuses to not take action, and running out of time.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Seychelles President Danny Faure, again, speaking 400 feet below the Indian Ocean’s surface. Bill?

BILL McKIBBEN: It reminds me so much of watching Mohamed Nasheed from the Maldives take his whole Cabinet down in scuba gear for a Cabinet meeting to send the U.N., a decade ago, a message that we had to get back to 350 parts per million. It is now, at this point, the leadership of those most vulnerable states, the low-lying island states, places like Bangladesh, they are—I mean, the hair on fire is much too subtle an understatement. They understand that the absolute survival of the places where they live and the oceans around them is now at stake. You’d say they were the canaries in the coal mine, if it wasn’t such a horrible metaphor, at this point. They’re on the cutting edge. And remember that it’s their citizens who are really on the forefront of this movement everywhere. I dedicate this new book to our colleague Koreti Tiumalu in Fiji, who was one of the greatest activists we ever met, in the Pacific Climate Warriors.

AMY GOODMAN: Going from them and from the Seychelles president to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who has inspired this global student strike. She was speaking just a few weeks ago for a call for more action on climate. This is Greta recently addressing a rally in Berlin.

GRETA THUNBERG: The older generations have failed tackling the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. When we say to them that we are worried about the future of our civilization, they just pat on our heads, saying, “Everything will be fine. Don’t worry.” But we should worry. We should panic. And by panic, I don’t mean running around screaming. By panic, I mean stepping out of our comfort zones.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Greta Thunberg. She was speaking in Berlin. When she first did her vigil alone for three weeks in front of the Swedish parliament, and MPs were saying to her, “Go to school,” she said, “We have done our homework, and that’s why I’m here.”

BILL McKIBBEN: She’s an amazing force. I mean, her basic point is, if governments can’t be bothered to prepare the world for climate change, it’s a little rich to demand that I sit in school all day preparing myself for the future. And it’s a message that’s amplified and resonated. There were millions of schoolchildren out on March 15th.

And now it’s time for adults to heed the call. Those kids were saying, in one rally after another, “We need adults backing us up.” Watch, over the next few months, as people try to organize the adult equivalent of those strikes, getting people out of their businesses for a day at a time, because if you think about it, I mean, they’re disrupting education as usual. We need to disrupt business as usual, because it’s business as usual, literally, that’s doing us in. It’s the fact that we just keep doing, going on doing what we’re doing, not changing in any dramatic way, at a moment when the world demands transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: People are more active than they’ve ever been on climate change. Talk about the change in understanding across the political spectrum in this country. This country’s so important because it’s historically the greatest greenhouse gas emitter. But also, you say, look at people, and look at me here with my computer in my hand, an extension of the human body.

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, we’re in a climate moment now. OK? That’s good news, something. The IPCC report last fall that gave us 10 years to make a change, the fires in California, the rise of the Green New Deal, somehow these things have finally captured people’s attention. So, as we enter, say, this presidential cycle, as you know, we used to fret and complain because they never had asked a question at any presidential debate about climate change. Well, I’m not worried about that, going forward. That’s going to be one of, if not the biggest question. Candidate after candidate, as they announce for president, are saying this is the most important issue that we face. Buttigieg said it yesterday in South Bend. That’s really important.

The question now is: Can we commit people to moving quickly enough? This is one of these places where I have to kind of restrain myself from saying, “Oh, if only you had listened to me when,” because—

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty years ago.

BILL McKIBBEN: —30 years ago, there were—30 years ago, there were things we could do that weren’t very hard. If we had made some fairly small adjustments, put a price on carbon, say, or something, we’d be on a very different trajectory now. Having let the fossil fuel industry delay action for three decades, we’re now at the point where everything is hard. And it’s going to be, for even the bravest politicians, a real stretch.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about this being a climate moment. It’s an everything moment for 2020. And you see this in the Democrats, for example, close to 20 now who are running for president.


AMY GOODMAN: You have Jay Inslee of Washington state, the governor, running, saying climate change is his only issue.

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BILL McKIBBEN: Only issue. What’s interesting this time is—and, you know, the way that we’re thinking about it at 350 Action and, I think, a lot of environmentalists are thinking about it, is, we actually need all 20 of them to be climate candidates. What we’re playing for now is less a set of policies, though the Green New Deal is the set of policies that we’re going to need, but what we’re playing for most of all is a change in the zeitgeist, a sense of what’s natural and obvious and normal, going forward. And if we can get that change, then the legislation will follow rather easily. The point is getting that across, taking us from the place where we weren’t paying attention to climate to the place where we’re understanding that it is the issue of our time.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when we talk about it as the issue, it’s part and parcel with the inequality in this country, the power of these economic giants. You have, for example, oh, Chase, Seattle activists recently rallying against Chase Bank’s alleged—of their investments in fossil fuels.

BILL McKIBBEN: They shut down 44 branches last week.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about—and then talk about JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, their response to all of this.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, the financial community, we really need them to step up. Most of them have issued reports announcing that they care about climate change, but they keep the money spigot open for the fossil fuel industry. That’s why people are able to build pipelines, because people keep lending them money. And so, increasingly, there’s pressure on the banking sector.

And the other place where you’re going to see more and more of it is pressure on the insurance sector. They have more money than anybody. And they should know better. They’re the ones with the actuarial tables demonstrating just what hot water we’re in, and yet they continue to lend money to the fossil fuel industry, too. The pressure on these guys to stop and change their ways is only going to grow more intense.

Look, this whole complex of the fossil fuel industry and the financiers who back them, they’re the Philip Morris of today. The only difference is, you know, where Philip Morris took us out one smoker at a time, Exxon is figuring out how to take us out one planet at a time. And that’s why the resistance is growing more vocal, angrier.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the Green New Deal, this paradigm-shattering approach that McConnell tried to humiliate the whole idea of by taking a vote at this moment, when even those who supported it didn’t want this to happen. The power of this new Congress, people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and what the Green New Deal means to you?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, partly, it’s great personal appreciation, because the kids who are doing it, this Sunrise Movement, which is a wonderful outfit, an awful lot of them, maybe most of them, cut their teeth on college campuses as part of this divestment movement. And it’s a reminder of how movements grow. But now they’ve introduced this legislation that is the first time we’ve had an answer to climate change that’s on the same scale as the problem itself. That’s why it’s important. It gets the scale right, and it understands that at this point we have to address it alongside inequality, alongside the economic insecurity that people suffer from, that this is an enormous crisis, but also an opportunity to remake not just a broken planet, but a broken society.

Well, Bill, you talk so much about climate change. Interestingly, in this book, you expand to talk about the threats of artificial intelligence, of genetic engineering. Why?

BILL McKIBBEN: Put it this way. You know, I’ve described climate change as a possibility of ending nature. These new technologies have the possibility of ending human nature, of taking us from what we’ve been, all through our evolutionary past, and replacing us, quite quickly, with something else. Some of those worries are practical: What does AI do to people’s livelihoods as, you know, we start automating everything that we do? Those practical problems are important, but there’s a deeper problem around sort of human meaning that really gets to me.

I talk a lot in the book about the advances in human genetic engineering, because, as you know, these are now no longer just some distant science fiction threat. The world produced its first two genetically engineered human beings in October, a pair of twins in China. The scientist who did that is now in trouble with his government and with scientific groups. And there seems to be some at least beginnings of a recognition that we’re on dangerous terrain here. But there hasn’t been—I mean, we’re sort of at the same place we were with climate change 30 years ago. There hasn’t been the debate that we need in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what just happened with genetic engineering of these—

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. A doctor in China produced two twins who had been genetically engineered to make sure that they would never get HIV—something that, as every doctor pointed out, is an absurd use of this technology, because there’s lots and lots of ways to make sure you don’t get HIV once you’re born, OK?

But the thing that worries everyone is that as you start by making changes that seem benign like this, you very quickly move over into the world of improving children. Scientist after scientist, from James Watson, the kind of father of the double helix, on down, have made it clear that that’s their goal—improving intelligence, changing mood. We’re now to the point where those things are at least beginning to be within our grasp. We know how you regulate dopamine in the human brain and what genes turn it on and off. And it’s not beyond possibility to imagine trying to change the mood of a child. Once you start down that path, the thing that scares me most of all is that you take away human meaning.

There are two ways I think people can understand this. One is the fact that by making people into products, you also start the process of making those products obsolete. So let’s say, Amy, you go to the clinic to your first child, and you have a certain amount of money, and you’re able to spend it to upgrade your kid with the best stuff that there is. Then let’s say you go back five years later, maybe have a little more money, and definitely technology has progressed, because that’s what this kind of technology does. Now your $5,000 buys you twice the upgrades you had before, the sort of human equivalent of, you know, moon roof and leather seats. And what does that make your first child? Your first child’s now Windows 6, you know, iPhone 8, obsolete already. That’s new for human beings. We’ve always been connected to the past and connected to the future.

The other challenge, the other thing that just sort of makes me shiver, is to imagine what it means to grow up one of those children. Let’s say that your parents engineered you to have a certain mood, to be sunny and optimistic, say. Well, you reach adolescence, and you suddenly realize that you don’t know whether you’re sunny and optimistic today because something good has happened to you and that’s how you’re feeling or because that’s your spec, you know, that’s the thing that your body has been engineered to produce. Human meaning is as vulnerable as the physical planet we live on. And just like the physical planet, we overestimate its stability. We take it for granted, because it’s never been challenged before. But just as we’re now wrecking the planet around us, we’re also running the danger of wrecking the most intimate and essential things about who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: Artificial intelligence?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, artificial intelligence—

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly does it mean?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, that’s, of course, one of the questions. And we don’t exactly know where the lines are, but we begin to sense that there’s a problem about making machines that are smarter than we are, much, much smarter. The scientists who talk about this envision that sometime in the next 10, 20, 30 years, computers, that have already shown they can beat us at chess and beat us at poker and beat us at a lot of other games, will develop a kind of far-reaching, more general intelligence that allows them to outthink us. That’s why, you know, some of the leaders of the technological pack start imagining futures where human beings are essentially pets of these intelligences or whatever it is.

The question to ask ourselves, one of the questions, anyway, is: Why are we doing this? What thing is it that we need to do that requires us to run these kind of risks. And I don’t think that there’s—sometimes people say, “Well, we should do it because we have to deal with climate change.” And that’s so hard. Look, the human brain, as currently constructed, is perfectly capable of dealing with this, you know? We’ve built great solar panels, great wind turbines, great batteries. We could do what needs to be done. If we wanted to genetically engineer anything, it should probably be the brains of plutocrats, who are so greed-obsessed that they can’t help themselves from trying to wreck it all. But even that, I mean, truthfully, I’d rather beat the Koch brothers than engineer them.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, on the one hand, you have greater awareness of the climate catastrophe that is upon us. On the other hand, perhaps you have people more disconnected from their physical environment. You, yourself, are deeply—you live in the natural environment.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I used to. And more and more, like everybody else, I live my life on Twitter and—you know, because that’s the place where we’ve needed to do some of this work. But, man, it’s a Faustian bargain. I mean, the—

AMY GOODMAN: Just like kids are online relating, less than they’re actually relating to people, which causes a very serious psychological disconnect.

BILL McKIBBEN: It’s one of the reasons, by the way, that this Greta Thunberg movement of climate strikes is so wonderful. And one of the things that made it possible—and Greta will say this herself—is she’s autistic. And she’s talked about it a lot. She says, “You know what? I’m able to focus on one thing all the time,” which is something that—you know, ability to focus is definitely something that we’re yielding up.

AMY GOODMAN: She said two things: focusing on one thing all the time and seeing everything in black and white.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, understanding that there are places where we really do have to make choices. Look, we’re at such an interesting moment in so many ways. We’re going to find out, in the next 10, 20, 30 years, whether we have some hope of preserving the planet and, with it, the civilizations that we’re accustomed to, and whether we’re capable of preserving the idea of human beings as something not just useful, but kind of beautiful. Look, it’s easy to get annoyed with ourselves, you know? I get upset that human beings have done such a poor job of responding to these threats, of allowing so much injustice, whatever. Human beings are also, at root, funny and kind and capable of great love. Those are things machines will never be capable of, and we shouldn’t sacrifice them easily.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the phenomenon of Trump and all that he is denying right now, you know, obviously, starting with climate change, saying it’s a Chinese hoax, though no one actually believes he actually believes that, then winning the election. You were a big Bernie Sanders supporter. Now Bernie Sanders is going to the Trump supporters to try to win them over. Your thoughts on that and whether you think climate change is a way to approach people, that people understand, across the political spectrum, when fires burn down their houses, when their property is flooded?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, it’s not just that climate change is a way to talk across the political spectrum. So are the answers to climate change. I mean, oddly, the single most popular thing in America, when people poll about it, the one thing that everybody agrees they like is solar panels. They poll at 80% among Republicans, independents and Democrats—maybe for different reasons. I mean, I think sometimes that conservatives like the idea of a solar panel on their roof so they can isolate themselves from everyone and everything, you know? But that’s a really good place to start.

And I think also people increasingly understand that we’re in severe problems in terms of economic security for people. One of the things about the Green New Deal that’s going to strike a chord is this guarantee of a federal job, if you want one, to do the work that needs to be done making this country a habitable place. I think that that’s also one of the answers to this encroaching artificial intelligence and the automation of our livelihoods and so on and so forth.

It’s hard to—I mean, you know, it’s hard to overestimate the stakes of the moment. I try to, in that subtitle, say, take them as high as I can: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? That’s, for the first time, a very real possibility. The good news is that there are at least some people who are thinking about it and working hard.

AMY GOODMAN: What would playing itself out look like?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, you know, we used to say, “Will the world end with a bang or a whimper?” I think it’s possible that the world will end with, you know, the gurgle of a rising ocean and the soft beep of some digital system taking over.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

BILL McKIBBEN: That those are things that we have the most to fear, this ongoing degradation of the physical world and this encroachment of a different world, the digital world, on human flesh and blood, on what we’ve always understood ourselves to be.

AMY GOODMAN: And the alternative?

BILL McKIBBEN: The alternative is the noisy, raucous world of human solidarity, where we unite not only to take on climate change, but to take on the people who made it possible, to bring down those people who have built a world so unequal in wealth and power that it threatens our survival.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see the presidential election mattering in 2020?

BILL McKIBBEN: In climate terms, we’ve run out of four-year terms to waste. If we don’t get it right soon, we won’t get it right. The thing always to remember about climate change, above all else, is that it’s a timed test, the first timed test that human have ever had. And we’re running out of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much, Bill. Bill McKibben, co-founder of His new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?  I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard honored Goodman with the 2014 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also the first journalist to receive the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize' for “developing an innovative model of truly independent grassroots political journalism that brings to millions of people the alternative voices that are often excluded by the mainstream media.” She is the first co-recipient of the Park Center for Independent Media’s Izzy Award, named for the great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, and was later selected for induction into the Park Center’s I.F. Stone Hall of Fame. The Independent of Londoncalled Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! “an inspiration.”

Tags: American politics, artificial intelligence, climate change activism, genetic engineering