What will you do with your one wild and precious planet? (w/ Bill McKibben) (Transcript)

How to Be a Better Human
What will you do with your one wild and precious planet? (w/ Bill McKibben)
June 19, 2023

[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
You are listening to How to Be a Better Human. I'm your host, Chris Duffy. When I was a senior in college, I lived in a big off-campus house with a bunch of friends, and we made some perfunctory attempts at cleaning the house and taking care of basic maintenance. But I would not say that having nine college guys living in your property is gonna lead to sparkling hygiene, should we say.

So when we moved out of this house, the landlord kept most of our security deposit, and we were outraged by that. I mean, come on. We weren't that bad. But the landlord insisted that he needed it to pay for professional cleaners. And worse, when he took our money, he also gave us this full-on guilt trip.

He said, and I quote, “I thought you were good guys. You seemed to care.” Now, I would like to think that I have become much better at being a responsible caretaker of the places that I call home these days. But when it comes to all of us as a species, we are not doing so great for planet Earth. We are on track to lose our full security deposit.

Today's guest, Bill McKibben, he has spent decades trying to teach humanity how to be better tenants of this planet. His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989, and since then he has written over a dozen more, becoming one of the most prominent environmentalists around. Bill is currently a leader of 350.org, an environmental advocacy group that he co-founded. Their goal is to end the use of fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy by building a global grassroots movement. Bill is also the founder and a leader of Third Act, which mobilizes Americans over the age of 60 to work towards climate and racial justice. And as you can tell, just by those two organizations, there is a lot to talk about with Bill.

He is working overtime on being a better human. And despite Bill's very busy schedule and important work that he does, he always makes time to remember what it is that he's fighting for, the profound beauty and majesty of this planet. Bill lives in Vermont, where he spoke with me remotely. And here's a clip about his love for that place in particular.

[00:02:00] Bill McKibben:
One of the things I'm grateful for about living where I live is that the sky gets dark at night. There's something very nice about being small. I remember taking a bunch of kids from the city out, hiking and camping one night. These were high school kids, and we got out and stepped away from the campfire so we could really see the sky, and I was showing them the Milky Way, which they'd never seen before, and one of them said, appropriately, you know, “Freak me out, dude.” And I remember thinking that's probably really the moment at which we became sort of humans, when some ape looked up at the sky and was like, “Freak me out, dude.”

[00:02:38] Chris Duffy:
Dude, we are gonna freak you out a lot over the course of this episode, but first, we're gonna take a short break. Don't go anywhere.


[00:02:56] Chris Duffy:
Today, we’re talking about the fight to save our planet with the environmentalist and author, Bill McKibben.

[00:03:02] Bill McKibben:
Hey there. I'm Bill McKibben. I'm the founder of Third Act. I write and I teach.

[00:03:07] Chris Duffy:
Let's start with your personal interest in environmentalism. Can you give me your backstory of how you first came to see this as the issue that you wanted to spend your life working on?

[00:03:20] Bill McKibben:
Yes. I first came to see climate change as the issue that would take up my whole life when I wrote the first book about it back in 1989. So I was finding out about it just about the same time that it was sort of dawning on anybody in the world that there even was such a thing as climate change. A few scientists had been working on it for some years, and as we now know, the oil companies had been working on it for some years and knew all about it.

But I got to help break the story to the rest of the world. And in the course of writing that first book, I was 27 or 28, I guess, it really was clear to me that this was the biggest story of all time. It also became clear to me that though I was a good journalist, raised as a newspaperman, I very much cared about the outcome of the story. I, I did not want the planet to burn up and, and so I've spent the remaining 35 years of my life or so hard at work trying to do what I can to slow down that fate.

[00:04:29] Chris Duffy:
You have such a unique perspective on this, ‘cause like you said, you were really one of the first people to bring this into the popular consciousness and so, you've now seen it be widely accepted.

People across the world are understanding that this is the existential issue of our times, and yet, as you've written about in another book, there hasn't been nearly the kind of change that you would've hoped for or that we would think when people accepted that this is the reality that we would make.

[00:04:58] Bill McKibben:
I mean, we knew it was gonna be hard. The cheerful title of that first book way back in 1989 was The End of Nature. So I was under no illusions that we were going to easily deal with this. And the reason that it's not easy, of course, is the thing that causes it—burning coal and gas and oil—is also the same thing that's at the heart of modern economies.

So it would've been a difficult challenge to move past coal and gas and oil, even with the best faith in the world. We'd still be on that process, even if we'd gotten started right away. But of course, we didn't have the best faith in the world from some of the players. And this problem has been grievously compounded by the fact that, as we now know from great investigative reporting, the fossil fuel industry not only didn't tell the rest of us what they knew about it in a timely fashion, they also came together to spend billions of dollars building this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that kept us locked for 30 years in a sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real.

Uh, a debate, remember, that both sides knew the answer to at the start, is just one of them was willing to lie, and it turned into the most—probably the most— consequential lie in human history ‘cause it's cost us so much time. The scientists now tell us that if we want to meet those targets we set in Paris, we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. And that means we have six years to do it instead of 36 years to do it. And that's a big problem.

[00:06:37] Chris Duffy:
So this is where I, I sometimes struggle as a person, an individual is, it is such a huge issue, and it's been pushed on one side by the fossil fuel industry, and they've made giant systemic efforts to stop change from happening.

But also, one of the more devious things, in my opinion, that they've done, is to make it seem as though the solution is each individual person trying to do it all by themselves, right? That it's like, “Well, if I turn my heat down a little bit and if I switch my car, then that'll solve it all.” When in reality, it also requires huge changes to our economy and to political processes.

This is the thing I struggle with, is I know that it's not something that's in my personal power, and yet I don't want to do nothing, of course. So how do I keep the focus on the systemic part while also not feeling like it's all on me, but not feeling there's nothing on me, if that makes sense? I, I struggled to even word the question.

[00:07:34] Bill McKibben:
So we all know the things that we can do in our personal lives, and I'm sure many people are doing a lot of them, but if you think about it, the scale of the problem that we face, it soon becomes clear that, really, the most important thing an individual can do is be somewhat less of an individual. Join together with others in movements large enough to have some chance at changing those political and economic ground rules that keep us locked on this current path.

That's why I helped start 350.org 20 years ago, the first global grassroots climate campaign, and why we do this, why we founded Third Act, to help those of us over 60 play our role and, and on and on and on. If people are willing to, beyond whatever they're doing at home, plug in with others, then we may be able to make shifts large enough to really matter.

[00:08:28] Chris Duffy:
I'm sure the people who are listening right now are bought into the idea that this is important, but maybe are feeling a little bit like, “Okay, so where do I start?” So what are some, let's say three things that someone who's listening can do to plug into that broader social change and actually make a difference?

[00:08:42] Bill McKibben:
First thing to do is just a basic point of understanding, that there's two halves to this task. One you could call the demand side and the other the supply. We have to start using, you know, heat pumps and electric vehicles for mobility and induction cooktops, and we have to have a lot of solar power and wind power and things.

Those things are starting to roll out. Really, the only real accomplishment legislatively of our Congress in the 30-some years we've known about all this was this Inflation Reduction Act last year, which puts a fair amount of money in the direction of some of those things, and that is a place where people can play a part on their own and in their community.

So that's part of the battle. But the other half is this question of supply-side. To make that happen fast enough, we also have to, to shut down the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. It doesn't do any good to build solar panels if you're building lots of oil wells and you know, gas fracking rigs and stuff at the same time.

So that's why we work so hard to do things like shut down new pipelines and put land off-limits for leasing. So movements are essential for both these things, and you should find people doing this work. If you're under 30, the Sunrise Movement, the people who brought us the Green New Deal, they're fantastic.

If you're over 60, the Third Act, tell your grandparents about it. If you're in the middle, there's, you know, lots of people, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and a thousand other smaller groups at work on this, but all working in pretty much common consort. One of the things that they're focused on now is trying to keep the financial system from continuing to finance the expansion of fossil fuels.

At Third Act, we just coordinated a big day of action against the four biggest banks in the country. Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America. We had a hundred and some demonstrations with us experienced Americans sitting in, in rocking chairs in front of all the banks because those four banks are the four biggest lenders in the world to the fossil fuel industry. If you wanna have something that impacts how this plays out, not just in America, but in India and China and around the world, that's one of the places to start.

[00:11:09] Chris Duffy:
I love the phrase “experienced Americans”. I think that's a great way to put it. And I also love the idea of sitting in rocking chairs in front of the banks. I think—

[00:11:16] Bill McKibben:
By far the most comfortable sit-in I've ever participated in.

[00:11:19] Chris Duffy:
Well, that's, that's something that I have a question about too, which is obviously this is the first time we've met, so I don't know you well, but from what I've read and from even just the few minutes we've been talking now, it's clear that you have a lightheartedness and a sense of humor while still tackling these really big issues. What role does that play in maintaining hope and the ability to keep this fight up over the decades that you've been doing it?

[00:11:43] Bill McKibben:
I actually think it is one of the things that plays a role. I mean, this is obviously the grimmest possible topic and grimmer for many other people more than for me.

I mean, climate change hits hardest those who've done the least to cause it all over the world, but you need a sense of, you need a sense of anger at the institutions, the companies, the politicians that have kept us on this path. You need a sense of humor in order to keep from crying. Sometimes you need, I think, some kind of connection with the natural world, just to be grounded and to remember just how beautiful our planet still is, even in its, even in its kind of desperate state at the moment. And you need above all, uh, I think a sense of solidarity. You cannot do this kind of work on your own.

You'd go crazy, and trying to do it on our own is you know, that's kind of the American disease. Our sort of hyper-individualist culture is one of the things that got us in the trouble that we're in. And so building movements, building that kind of solidarity is good on many fronts.

[00:12:54] Chris Duffy:
I think it's really important to acknowledge what you said, that the people who are going to suffer the most from climate change in the short term are the ones who did the least to cause it, right?

That people in countries that have not historically put out these giant carbon emissions are really gonna suffer. And yet, in a place like the United States, we have enormous amount of power right now in many ways. And one of those ways is to change policy both domestically and globally. So what are the biggest policy issues that you see as things that people who are living in the United States or in Europe should be pushing for?

[00:13:31] Bill McKibben:
One, the very, very rapid rollout of sun and wind and batteries. These are the three technologies we have that are affordable and on the shelf and ready to go. In fact, the engineers have done such a good job that the price of power from solar farm has dropped about 90% in the last decade. We now live in a world where the cheapest way to produce power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun.

It's a very new thing, and I don't think we've completely caught up with it yet mentally. I think we still sometimes think of these as alternative energies. The kind of Whole Foods of energy. And coal and gas and oil are the Sam's Club of Energy, you know? But that's not true anymore. So everything that we can do to speed that up, whether it's provide the government support or at a local level to make it easier to permit and build things quickly because we're in a race against time.

[00:14:32] Chris Duffy:
I certainly can't speak for other countries, but in the United States where you and I both are, I, I often think that there are many more issues that unite people across the political spectrum than divide people. And certainly, there are some very big, important ones that divide people. But when you think about something like safe clean drinking water, when you think about air that is clean and you're able to breathe and it's not filled with wildfire smoke, when you think about natural disasters being minimal and you being able to recover from them and predict them, these are things that everyone wants, right? Everyone wants that for their family and for themselves.

They don't want to live in an unpredictable, deadly world where they can't trust nature because it's trying to kill them, essentially. So, a lot of it comes down it, it seems like, to this narrative, and now it seems like part of the challenge is how do we weave a better, sustainable narrative of what our world is and what our country is that will allow us to actually survive into the next hundred years, 200 years and beyond?

[00:15:40] Bill McKibben:
It's funny ‘cause this is the other half of the work we do at Third Act. We work on protecting the climate but also the political climate because for people my age, it's strange, scary, and embarrassing to watch, say a mob of people invade the nation's capitol, killing police officers to stop the counting of votes.

That's not something that even is, would've been comprehensible to an American of my vintage and when I was, you know, young. And, so these things are very linked. You know, you're absolutely right that most Americans want us to take action on climate change. But one of the reasons that we don't is precisely because the fossil fuel industry has done such a powerful job of gaming our political system.

One of the advantages of renewable energy is nobody owns the sun, nor the wind. And so almost inevitably you get a little more small-D democracy as you move towards local renewable energy. And I think that explains why, of all the things that we poll people about in this country, the thing that people find the most agreement on is whether or not they like solar energy and want more government support for it.

I think that conservatives often really like the idea of their own power plant on their roof, and their house really is their castle now. And I think liberals are like “The groovy power of the sun is uniting us all.” You know, what are, that's okay. Those kind of differences, one can work with, you know? The differences one can't work with are the ones that were where, you know, big forces in our society say, “Pay no attention to physics.”

If we do that and that's what we've been doing, we're going to be in extraordinary trouble, and in fact, trouble that there really is no getting out of/ This isn't like other political problems because we're used to political problems that, well, that play out over very long time.

As long as I've been alive in this country, we've been debating whether or not to have national health insurance, and I think it's a shame and a sin that we don't, and I know that people die and go bankrupt each year because we don't. And I trust that eventually, we'll join all the other developed countries of the world in providing it.

And when we do, it will not have been made harder by the fact that we delayed 40 years. But, climate change is not like that. Once you melt the Arctic, nobody has a good plan for how you freeze it back up again. So our job now is to move fast to do this, and that's where the political divisions get in the way.

The truth is most debates are best solved by compromise because there are debates between different groups of people with different ideas and interests, and you need to meet in the middle somehow and come back five years later and argue it out again, and five years after that and you slowly move the needle in the right direction.

This debate, at its heart, is between human beings on the one hand and physics on the other, and that's a very hard debate because physics is immature. It doesn't compromise, it won't meet you in the middle. It's just gonna do what it's gonna do to meet the bar that it sets.

[00:19:09] Chris Duffy:
Doesn’t that then lead to a real difficulty in making progress, which is that anything short of a hundred percent is, feels worthless?

[00:19:18] Bill McKibben:
Well, it's not worthless. The outcome's not binary. We're not going to stop global warming at this point. We've waited too long for that. We've already warmed the planet a lot, and there's momentum behind it. We'll warm it some more. The question now is, can we stop it short of the point where it cuts civilizations off at the knees?

And that's not at all clear. And I think the consensus among people who think about that at this point is that if we let that happen, that's probably too much violent chaos and flux for our societies to withstand. You know, 1 million refugees flooding into Europe from the Syrian Civil War was enough to discombobulate the politics of that whole continent. Multiply that by a thousand and, you know, try to imagine the world in which one lives.

So our job is to hold that temperature increase as low as possible. Everything we do that's a significant size helps with that, and every 10th of a degree is really important, but it has to happen fast.

[00:20:26] Chris Duffy:
It seems like there was this moment during the pandemic where at great cost, we did have a vision of what an entirely different relationship to the economy, to travel, to the climate could be, and I'm certainly not trying to say that was a good thing. Obviously, that came at an incredible cost and of human lives of suffering, of poverty, of all sorts of issues. However, it's been disheartening to me to see that we've kind of come out of this inflection point and it seems like we're trying to claw back to exactly where we were.

What doors did that open for you in terms of perceptions of the future and possibilities, and is there a way that a healthy planet can coexist with a healthy global economy?

[00:21:12] Bill McKibben:
The sense that it opened was that, was a reminder to humans that sometimes they're not actually in charge and that they have to figure out how to respond to larger forces.

In this case, a microbe who, you know, again, was not interested in compromising, was going to do what it was going to do, and we had to figure out how to get around it, and we did. And it was a reminder of the remarkable power of science and engineering to help us do that. The sad part was also, though, the reminder of how confused, chaotic our, we've allowed our political and information life to become so that large parts of America were scared of, disdainful, suspicious of that kind of progress.

It's entirely possible to imagine a planet that managed to maintain its physical integrity and also had a well-working economy. In fact, far easier to imagine that than to imagine a well-working economy on the planet we’re currently headed for.

Big new studies out of Oxford in the last year proved that making a rapid switch to renewable energy would save the world tens of trillions of dollars over the next couple of decades. Not just, I mean, forget the damages from climate change, just the fact that you don't have to go buy more coal and gas and oil all the time.

I mean, if you think about it for a minute, what's the reason that the fossil fuel industry dislikes renewable energy so much and has worked so hard against it? It's because every morning when the sun rises above the horizon, it delivers your energy for free. And if you're Exxon who spent the last hundred years getting people to write a check every month for their energy, that's the dumbest business plan the world's ever seen.

[00:23:14] Chris Duffy:
If you're looking for more business plans that don't make as much sense as they should, let me tell you about how we fund podcasting. It is through ads, and we are gonna take a break for some right now. We'll be right back.


[00:23:34] Chris Duffy:
We’re talking with Bill McKibben about environmentalism and the fight against climate change. I want to go back to something you said earlier, which is that one of the really important parts for you in doing this work is having a connection to nature and to what you're fighting for. Where do you get that connection?

[00:23:49] Bill McKibben:
Well, I'm very lucky. I've made it a point to live my life out in the woods as best I can, and so I live up on the national forest, in the green mountains of Vermont. So I get out every day that I possibly can for a while. For two reasons. One, because it's good for my mental health, and two, because one of the jobs of human being is that we're the creature capable of bearing witness to the beauty of the earth on which we live. That's one of the great gifts that comes with consciousness, and I take that job seriously. The world's never going to be more intact than it is right now. And so to be out in it and to revel in it some is part of the reason that we're here, I think, and part of the thing certainly that gives me whatever strength I've got to go on in this kinda work.

[00:24:50] Chris Duffy:
How can a person who's not an acclaimed writer and environmentalist do their own version of bearing witness to the earth?

[00:24:59] Bill McKibben:
All you have to do is go outside. And I, you know, I used to be just the same way; when I lived in the middle of New York City, I used to write a column about kind of urban naturalists. I lived in Brooklyn for many years back before Brooklyn became the hip place to live, and I used to go out every spring out along the oceanfront because it's one of those places along Jamaica Bay where the horseshoe crabs come up outta the ocean to mate. It's one of the oldest creatures we know about. It's so old, its blood is based in copper, not iron.

And not only could you watch it, you could also help because the wakes of boats would tip over those horseshoe crabs as they were coming ashore to, to mate, and they couldn't. You just go up and down the beach flipping them back over on their right side, and you got this, I remember as deep a connection as I ever felt to the kind of weight of time on this planet, some sense of what our actual proportion is.

It's a very good thing to be reminded once in a while that you're actually kind of a small part of a very large, beautiful, buzzing, mysterious, cool, interesting, uh, world and cosmos. What we find, especially now that we're working with older people like me, is that really effective activism isn't just fear translated into action, though sometimes that's what it involves. But it's also love translated into action.

You know, people keep showing up at these demonstrations we're doing at Third Act with pictures of their grandkids, sometimes even, you know, taped to the front of the walker with which they're making their way to the protest or whatever. And it's extraordinarily moving ‘cause you realize that legacy is not some abstraction.

Legacy is the world you leave behind for the people you love the most. And we're in danger of leaving behind a shabbier world than we found, which will be a novel experience for human generation. And one we should do what we can to avoid. And I'm very glad and proud that people are.

[00:27:09] Chris Duffy:
That gives me a lot of hope. What are some things that make you hopeful about the possibility of tackling climate change?

[00:27:16] Bill McKibben:
I’m hopeful about the fact that technology is where we need it. We have a cheap and a, a workable workaround. I'm hopeful about the size of the movements that we've built from nothing. We're ready for the test, and it really is a test. Climate change is a test about whether or not the big brain was a good adaptation or not. I mean, obviously, it can get us in some trouble. Can it get us out? My guess is that the real question is how big a heart is that big brain attached to?

[00:27:50] Chris Duffy:
It's interesting to hear you say the part about the big brain, because I do feel like there's a subset of people, at least that I hear from sometimes now, who seem to think that we can continue to live exactly the way we're living now and that there will be some to be determined, as yet unknown, giant technological breakthrough that will allow us to just keep doing exactly what we do and not have any other negative effects.

[00:28:16] Bill McKibben:
Do you know that joke about the guy who's in a flood and his house is flooding, so he goes up on the roof and, and prays to God to come save him? And a guy comes by in a boat and says, “Jump in,” and says, “No, God's gonna come save me.” A little while later, a guy comes by in a helicopter and says, “Here, you know, here's a rope. Climb aboard.” And the guy says, “No, God's gonna save me.” And then little while later, he drowns, and he gets up to heaven and, and he says to “God, I prayed to you. Why didn't you save me?”

And God said, “Well, I sent a boat. I sent a helicopter. What did you want?” You know, the miracle technology we've got, you can point a sheet of glass at the sun and produce an endless stream of electrons. What do you want? We've got it now. We just need to put it to use, and I, I have no idea what people are waiting for because the miracle, if we wanted it, I mean, that's magic. That's Hogwarts-scale magic. Point a sheet of glass towards the sun, and out comes heat and light and information and everything else that, you know, modernity consists of. The solar panels on my roof are powering our conversation here today.

[00:29:28] Chris Duffy:
That's, that's, that's actually the same for me too. I, the solar panels on my roof here are powering both ends of this conversation are being powered by solar at this moment.

[00:29:35] Bill McKibben:
There you go.

[00:29:36] Chris Duffy:
Yeah. Um, a lot of the issue, at least as far as the culture shift that needs to happen, seems to me to be a little bit of having to admit that this framework that we've been operating under, that we can take whatever we want as much as we want, and waste as much as we want was wrong.

And we kind of need to apologize for that and make amends. And there's a lot of people who don't like to apologize, and they don't like to admit that they're wrong. And I wonder, sometimes it's framed as we have to figure out these new ideas. But it seems like actually a lot of these ideas are the ones that native and Indigenous people had been and have been doing for a long time, of being good stewards of the planet and being more communally minded.

[00:30:20] Bill McKibben:
If you're working on these issues, one of the thirst things you figure out is that an extraordinary amount of the leadership for the climate and environmental movement comes from Indigenous people on this continent and all over the world. And one reason for that is that they're often in the firing line, you know?

On top of land that people wanna steal to get fossil fuel or on low-lying island nations that are about to get overrun by the sea and whatever. But it also has to do with what you are saying, and I find power in the fact that the oldest, most ancient wisdom traditions on this planet, Indigenous wisdom traditions, are, find themselves very much in sync with the newest wisdom traditions on the planet.

And what they have in common is a sense that the conventional wisdom that most of the rest of us hold, that we’re just gonna keep on growing the size of things forever and so on, is not true. And I think that convergence is a very powerful moment, or could be. And it's one of the reasons why it's so important that those are the people who are at the absolute forefront of this work.

[00:31:32] Chris Duffy:
Because of your work with Third Act, we've talked a lot about what, like, older folks can do to be a part of this. What about a little bit on what young people who are just, you know, coming into their own independence and adulthood?

[00:31:45] Bill McKibben:
Young people are doing all the work, man. when I founded 350.org, it was with seven college students. We started this vast divestment campaign now at 40 trillion in endowments, in portfolios that have sold their fossil fuel stock. That was mostly done on college campuses, and the kids who did it when they graduated went on to form this Sunrise Movement that brought us the Green New Deal, and hence the Inflation Reduction Act.

Meanwhile, the really young kids were all rallying behind Greta Thunberg and the 10,000 other Greta Thunbergs across the planet. So they've done their job. Now they need the rest of us to back them up for all their intelligence and energy and idealism. They lack the structural power to make the changes we need in the time that we have.

The reason I'm organizing people with hairlines like mine is because people over 60 have structural power coming out their ears. We all vote. There's no known way to stop old people from voting, and we ended up with most of the resources between the boomers and the silent generation above. So if anyone's gonna be able to help back up those young people in the lead, it's their grandparents. And that's our to do the things that I think we need to do.

[00:33:03] Chris Duffy:
Well, Bill McKibben, thank you for your time. It's been, uh, an absolute pleasure talking to you.

[00:33:08] Bill McKibben:
A great pleasure for me too. Many thanks, man.

[00:33:12] Chris Duffy:
That is it for today's episode of How to Be a Better Human. Thank you so much to today's guest, Bill McKibben.

You can find out more about his work at 350.org and thirdact.org. I am your host, Chris Duffy, and you can find more from me, including my weekly newsletter and information about my live comedy shows at chrisduffycomedy.com.

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