Snail Mail at the Speed of Light with Environmentalist Bill McKibben
If I’m being honest, I can’t remember the first time I read Bill McKibben’s work.
Odds are, it was in The New Yorker, where he’s been a contributing writer for many years, but what I do know is this: somewhere thereafter, a little tab remained open in my brain as the years went by and climate change got worse. I could count on Bill McKibben to be paying attention somewhere out there, and staying the course.
Maybe you know him as the author of a monstrously prolific bibliography that stretches back to 1989 with The End of Nature, or from his work with Third Act, an organization he founded to mobilize the radical hearts of the over-60 crowd for progressive change, or his founding role in 350.org, a worldwide community of climate change activists. (Maybe you’re a connoisseur of Vermont academics, and you’re like, duh, Bill’s the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.)
Wherever you find him, he’s one of the few people we know of who combines hope, disappointment, patience, and urgency into a written tonic that seeps into your bloodstream the way good writing about important things should.
After confirming our cookware was induction-compatible (it is!), he had this to say about rethinking our habits in this critical, complicated moment: “It's important to change things in your life, but not as important as trying to change the society in which that life is embedded. The most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual and join together with others in movements large enough to really shift our politics and economy.” Third Act
Makes you wanna rally, no? His latest is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened. (PG Retail Director Steph Ciancio recommends a listen of this fabulous episode of The Climate Pod for more.)
The following conversation is excerpted from an ongoing exchange of emails, and has been edited in some places for clarity.
CL: There’s this short story by Cixin Liu that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, called ‘The Wandering Earth.’ Have you read it? In it, civilization discovers that the sun is set to explode in 400 years, and instead of building starships, the powers that be devise a plan to effectively rocket boost the entire planet to a new solar system. It will take most of those 400 years to stop the Earth’s rotation (one hemisphere living in perpetual darkness for centuries, the other in brutal, scorching heat), and another handful to slingshot around Jupiter before heading into open space, and scooting toward its new destination.
In order for any of this to work, the project must stay the planet-battering course for over 100 generations. You can imagine how this plays out.
I guess the first thing I’m wondering about is whether your work over the years has shaped how you view or experience time. Time, to me, seems like the kiss of death when it comes to holding people’s attention about something that is happening both rapidly and slowly—at least relative to most things in our lives. I’m curious, as someone who seems to have one foot in either stream, if you’ve experienced some kind of duality as both a human living a human life full of normal human-paced things, and also as a conduit for so many to the speed and scale of the climate crisis. How do you manage the bureaucratic lulls between urgently-needed action?
Do you think there’s something in our lived experience of time that contributes to our ability to act, or comprehend the scale of what needs doing?
BM: Time is a problem when it comes to climate change, because—almost uniquely among our political dilemmas—it comes with a sharp time limit. An easy way to say it is, once the Arctic melts no one has a good plan for refreezing it. And that time is clearly short—that's why the IPCC has told us we need to cut emissions in half by 2030 to have a prayer of hitting the temperature targets we set in Paris.
And there's another thing: we've wasted huge time, since 1988 when Jim Hansen told Congress about global warming, or 1989 when I published the first book on the topic. The fossil fuel industry spent big to build an architecture of deceit, denial, and disinformation that kept us locked in a sterile debate about whether global warming was 'real,' a debate both sides knew the answer to at the outset, it's just that one of them was willing to lie. That lie cost us most of the runway.
So now we need to act with appalling urgency, but our systems aren't set up for change at speed. It's the thing that sometimes causes me to despair, and always causes me to try to figure out new stratagems for forcing the spring, as it were. It's why I keep ending up in jail...
And yes, you're right, we also go on living our actual lives, which for me in rural Vermont are punctuated by the roll of the seasons. That cyclical time is extraordinarily appealing, in no small part because the linear outlook is so grim.
CL: The appeal of the cyclical amid the linear is so real—like most things, it feels equally rooted in comfort and some kind of relief to me. Though maybe that’s only in my head? I can’t deny the explosion of color in all the gardens on my street each summer makes me feel calmer, even when the temperatures are too hot and the average gust of wind makes me jumpy.
Those patterns are a big part of my next question, which is this: do you think there is something we are particularly good at, or inherently built for, that will be crucial to our next era? Is our yen for collective action and community part of that survival kit? Do we already possess the thing we need to overthrow/bypass/reshape the inadequate systems we’ve made? If we're a people that lives on a circle set on a line—is that a power or a flaw?
There are so many maddening things about human nature, but I’d hope there’s something in there that makes us uniquely qualified to pull ourselves and our fellow species out of the shit. (To be fair, perhaps the poetics of self-regard is another circle/line scenario...)
BM: Well, climate change is clearly a test of the big brain–it can get us in a little bit of trouble, but can it get us out?
The key thing may not be the big brain but the big heart it's hopefully connected to. This is a battle over whether we think of ourselves mostly as individuals, or as fellow members of a society. America's been trending in the former direction at least since Reagan—a kind of hyperindividualism that denigrates community effort. But clearly we have the ability to do otherwise—we are also a social species, and at times that's been very strong in our makeup even as Americans (the Depression, but also the 60s if you think about it). So, that's why we try to build movements.
CL: What makes a good movement, in your opinion? (Alternatively: are modern movements missing something integral?)
BM: Music, old people and young people, good humor, strong analysis that gives people a plausible sense that they can win a fight, and that the win will matter. Lots of courage.