Since his first book on climate change, The End of Nature, was published in 1989, Bill McKibben has spoken on behalf of the environmental movement in the United States with a voice that is both pragmatic and prophetic. His global vision for fighting climate change through 350.org inspired me as a high school student, and his witness continues to inspire people of all generations. His latest organizing effort, Third Act, aims at organizing Americans over the age of sixty, using their skills and life experience to work on behalf of environmental justice.
I spoke with Bill McKibben shortly before he gave a keynote address at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, an annual conference on a faith that does justice held in Washington D.C. His talk, as well as the panel discussion that followed, enraptured the audience of mostly high school and college students. His message was clear: “Winning slowly on climate change is just another way of losing.” In our conversation, we talked about the intersections of faith and environmentalism and unpacked the difficulties, joys, and possibilities of confronting the climate crisis in the present moment.
The Jesuit Post: What is the relationship between faith and environmentalism in your own life?
Bill McKibben: Well, I mean in my life it’s all pretty simplistic. I’m no theologian, but I did grow up in the Christian Church and remain there. If you take the Old Testament halfway seriously, the very first thing we’re told to do is take care of this creation we’ve been left, that’s literally the first job that we’re given, that and multiply. We’ve done good at the multiplying but bad at the other part. And if you take the Gospel seriously, we’re supposed to love our neighbors. So at the moment we’re drowning our neighbors, we’re sickening them, we’re making it impossible for them to grow their food. The climate crisis is by far the biggest thing that human beings have ever done, so how could it not have huge theological significance?
TJP: Do you see, then, an invitation or perhaps even more an obligation of people of faith to involve themselves in environmental issues?
BM: I see an obligation of people of faith to figure out how we can make ourselves smaller, help humanity make itself smaller. I did write a book once on the book of Job, which is my favorite book in the Hebrew Bible, and you know the story of Job. At the end he demands that God explain why he’s ended up in this pickle, and God finally appears and God basically just makes fun of him. Do you know where I keep the snow? Can you tell the proud waves here you shall break and no further? Just sarcastic taunts for two or three chapters until finally Job just says sorry I asked, can I sit down now? That’s always been the position of human beings, we’ve been small and something else—God or nature—has been very large and all of a sudden those proportions are reversed. I mean it obviously began when we exploded the first bomb at Alamogordo, more powerfully still as we’ve exploded 100 billion pistons inside a billion cylinders over the years. Now we’ve melted half the sea ice in the summer Arctic, now we’re the ones telling the proud waves where to break. We can spit in God’s face. You think you’re so big? And I think that’s an unnatural and bad place for human beings to be. So I hope that over time we’ll be able to make ourselves smaller. Right at the moment the way to do that is to start making use of renewable energy, because that makes us a little smaller, do a little less damage. And over time I hope that we’ll figure out a lot of other ways to fit back inside creation.
TJP: I like that, “to fit back inside creation.” I think that many folks, especially looking at the ongoing catastrophe of the climate crisis, feel the sense of being overwhelmed. In young people, there’s a sense of even hopelessness. How might we begin to engage that?
BM: Hopelessness is not a stupid emotion to be feeling in a world where, as we learned last week, seventy percent of the animals that shared this world with us in 1970 are now gone—hopelessness would be a reasonable response to that situation. The only real response is to figure out how to fight, and to figure out who the powers and principalities are that need fighting. And happily, in this regard, Pope Francis has done a good job of pointing out quite clearly that the fossil fuel industry and the bankers who keep handing it money are the problem here. So that’s where we fight. That’s why we do divestment, that’s why we try and stop new projects, that’s why we’re trying to get the banks to cease their lending to the fossil fuel industry and on and on.
TJP: It strikes me as prophetic work.
BM: The dumb part is that it mostly shouldn’t be prophetic work. It shouldn’t even be a fight. I mean, scientists have explained to us quite clearly for three decades what’s happening and how to avoid it. And instead of taking their advice, the legal system gamed by the fossil fuel industry has kept going in exactly the opposite direction. So, I’ve been to jail ten, twelve times. It feels stupid each time. Why would anyone be required to go to jail in order to get leaders to take physics seriously? That’s really because, at some level, it’s no more difficult than that—it’s just physics. The molecular structure of CO2 traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. Of course it’s complicated because it’s a huge part of our economy, but even that’s easy now. I mean, renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy on the planet. It’s sheer vested interest that keeps us from moving.
TJP: I take a lot of inspiration from organizations like Sunrise and Fridays for Future. I–just a couple weeks ago–was in lower Manhattan at a march of almost entirely high school students. If you were going to give high schoolers advice for what will sustain them and keep them in the fight, what would it be?
BM: Truthfully, I think that’s not the issue here. I think high schoolers and youth are doing a terrific job, and I have worked with and know huge numbers of them. The Sunrise Movement was all kids that did divestment work in college, which was a campaign I launched. I know and love Greta and her crew around the world. Too many older people are just like well it’s up to your generation to solve this problem, which is ridiculous. They’re doing their part, but they clearly lack the structural power to make change in the time that we have. That’s why I spend my time organizing people over 60. We’ve started this new organization called Third Act that tries to bring that kind of experience to bear.
TJP: It’s the work of all of us together.
BM: Yeah, and it’s good fun. I mean, we were just outside a bank not long ago and the young people, the high school kids were at the head of the march because they’re somewhat sprier, and at the back there was a whole crew of older people with a big banner that said “Fossils against fossil fuels.” That’s what we need.
TJP: Absolutely. You’ve been involved with the environmental movement for many years now, where do you see growth from within?
BM: Well one of the places that’s been very good is the growth of a serious religious, environmental movement. Thirty-some years ago there was none. Among liberal church people the environment was viewed as a sort of thing you got to after war and poverty. Among conservatives environmentalism was viewed as a waystation on the road to paganism. But now there’s a robust religious environmental movement across faiths. Two figures really emerged as great champions of that. The first was Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church who for many years had been a powerful witness on this. Then Pope Francis has become in many ways the most important environmentalist in the world. Laudato Si’, which I really read carefully and got to live with, is a truly thoroughgoing critique of modernity. I mean it’s environmental in many deep ways and my sense is that though things move slowly in the giant beast that is the Catholic Church, once they get ingrained, then they stay. I think that Laudato Si’ is becoming ingrained in the fabric of the Church. Not completely, I’m always still amazed we have Jesuit Universities in this country that haven’t divested from fossil fuel. That I don’t get. The Jesuit Pope has told everybody to get to work on this! I mean I’m a Methodist. Our kind of outside view of the Catholic Church is that it just operates from the top. But one hopes that it’s gathering steam and power.
TJP: I think that for many Catholics there can be a frustrating disconnect from what the Pope has said, but also I think about the work of some Catholics that often doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. I’m thinking right now of Sharon Lavigne in Louisiana who led a grassroots campaign against a plastics company attempting to build a new plant in her parish. I look to people who are organizing around their faith communities oftentimes locally. They ask, “What is going on in my backyard?” as a way of beginning.
BM: Absolutely. The problems with climate change are: one, it does have to be addressed globally, at some level, and two, it has to be addressed fast. We’re not used to problems that have a time limit. I mean, it was Jesus who said the poor you will always have with you, and he seems to have been correct. But this one, if we don’t solve it soon, then we never solve it. No one’s got a plan for how you refreeze the Arctic once you’ve melted it. So those things argue for having action on as large a scale at any point as is possible, looking for leverage as big as possible. I think finance is one of those places, and it’s a place where the Pope’s been very forthright in talking about all this.
TJP: It certainly is a Christian precept to be wary, at least, of wealth. At least right? Laughs. We see that playing out, the influence of greed that is willing to sacrifice the lives—
BM: Right and what’s really horrifying at this point is the fossil fuel industry doesn’t even have a long term plan. You know that thirty years from now, forty years from now we’re going to run the world on sun and wind because it’s essentially free. You’re just trying to keep your business model going a few more years, even though those are the years that may well break the back of the planet’s climate system. In that way, it’s a very disheartening fight, and a reflection of the fact that we’ve let our democracy wither. Even though there are now large majorities of people who want action, that doesn’t translate as quickly as it should to actual results. We did finally get a bill, through Congress this year, thirty-four years after Jim Hanson first testified to Congress about this, so that’s something.
TJP: We were speaking briefly before the interview about Wendell Berry, and I know that many people have found some solace in a line from his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” Where do you find hope?
BM: I’m very lucky—I live in the woods. I’ve chosen to do it. So for me I have the great solace every day of getting to go for a walk or a ski through the woods. And that’s generally enough to keep me going to the next day. And I have great solace in the fact that, as we’ve tried to build movements, people around the world have responded. There are an enormous number of good people willing to do the work that needs to be done. So those are things that give me hope.
TJP: Those seem to be very holy things.
BM: I think so. Even if you’re convinced that we are going to lose this fight, which is very much a possibility, one still is required to take notice of the world around us. We are the creature that can take notice and bear witness to the beauty of the world we inhabit. It seems a sin not to take that notice when we can, and maybe that’s an excuse for going out for a walk everyday, but that’s an excuse I take.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.