Bill McKibben: Environmentalist, Journalist, Activist

Q. When did you develop an interest in the environment? Was it from your youth?

A. Not so much. My father was an outdoorsman, and so we hiked and biked. When I was working at the Crimson, I covered the city of Cambridge, and at The New Yorker, I was writing the “Talk of the Town” column. It was only later in my 20s that my life kind of shifted. I quit The New Yorker and moved to the Adirondack Mountains, the great wilderness of the East, in upstate New York. I fell in love with that landscape and spent a lot of time in it — hiking, canoeing and cross-country skiing. I also began reading the great nature writers — Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Terry Williams and Rick Bass. And I began reading the early science about climate change, and as a journalist, I realized that this was probably the biggest thing that had ever happened. So, I started covering this and that’s how I came to write “End of Nature,” which was really the first book about climate change for a general audience. It really became my life.

Q. How was it writing about climate change at a time when no one else was?

A. As a journalist, it’s always good to be out in the front, right? My book had two things going on. I was writing about what was going on scientifically, interviewing scientists and all of that. At the same time, the book was a kind of extended essay, almost philosophical, on the meaning of it all. I was very struck by the idea that there were really no wild places left on our earth, even the very wild place I was living in. I think that that’s an idea that has continued to grow in our lives.

Q. Has being a Methodist in any way informed your outlook on the environment?

A. Sure. Some years ago, I wrote a book about Job, which is really the first great piece of nature writing. I take very seriously the Gospel’s call to care for our neighbors. We’re not doing that. We’re in the process of drowning and sickening our neighbors around the world.

Q. You’ve spoken about your desire to encourage campuses to divest from fossil fuels. How have people reacted to your call on college campuses?

A. We at 350.org haven’t fully unveiled that campaign yet. I was sort of jumping the gun at Yale and letting people know about it. I’ve also done that at a few other colleges in the last week or so — at Ann Arbor, Madison, Amherst and a few others. The response has been remarkable everywhere. People understand that this is a compound moral issue as well as a practical one. And they understand that it’s no longer okay for us to profit off of the destruction of the planet. Now, of course it’ll be very difficult to persuade boards of trustees. But I’m very glad that we’re at least getting started with this process.

Q. Have you at any point felt disillusioned about the success or progress of environmentalism?

A. Yes. We’re losing and we have been. But in the last four years, since seven Middlebury College students and I founded 350.org, there has been a very rapid growth. It’s possible we’re going to give everyone a good run for their money.

Q. Do you think that campaigns like 350 will be enough?

A. I don’t know. I think that big movements are our only hope because the fossil fuel industry has all the money. We’re never going to compete with that much money. We need to rely on social movements. Our real problem, I think, is we have to make progress very, very quickly. The physics of climate change demands rapid incremental action. I don’t know if we’re going to do it fast enough or not. We’ll find out.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on the upcoming elections? Are there any candidates or political parties that you think will be more open to environmental change?

A. I think that Washington is not going to save us one way or the other. I was shocked when Mitt Romney made his only comment about climate change, which was when he joked about it at the Republican National Convention, when he said he wasn’t going to help or be worried about saving the planet or any of that stuff. That did shock me. It’s not that Obama has done that great a job; I guess you can say that at least he isn’t telling jokes about it.

Q. In writing about your time at the Harvard Crimson, you’ve said that reporters had no drive to take on “the largest subjects of the day.” Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists today?

A. Yes, I think that college reporters should be overconfident at all times. And think that it is entirely all right to take on the big issues of the world around them. At the Crimson, I covered the 1983 presidential campaign and spent a month in New Hampshire. We wrote editorials about everything going on in the world around us, and we wrote them as if the world paid some attention to us. At some level, that was very vain. But at another level, one has to take himself seriously as a thinker, as a writer and as a reporter.

Q. Now, the obligatory question: Yale or Harvard?

A. I think both of them are beautiful places. But if I was going to school right now, I’d be tempted to come up to Middlebury where I teach. It’s as academically serious as Yale or Harvard and it also has big mountains to go skiing and hiking.

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