Bill McKibben Talks Lessons Learned



McKibben spoke about his book at a talk in Wilson Hall.


The earth is not to be taken for granted. 

Last Thursday evening in Wilson Hall, 30 years after publishing the seminal climate change volume “The End of Nature,” Bill McKibben revisited the many lessons he has learned since the book’s publication. That was the first one. 

McKibben, known for his work as a journalist and environmental activist, founded the international climate change organization in 2008. In 2010, McKibben was named Middlebury’s Schumann Distinguished Scholar. Since then he has regularly given talks on campus and appeared at college events, while continuing his work as an activist outside of Middlebury. During last week’s talk, entitled “What I Learned in the Last Three Decades: A First Glimpse of My New Book,” he shared eight lessons about the climate crisis and human nature along with excerpts from his newest book, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”

The talk began with introductions by Professor of Economics Jon Isham, Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay, and College President Laurie L. Patton. Isham read a new poem written by the environmental poet Wendell Berry about McKibben, the first entry in a book of writings gathered from close colleagues and friends of McKibben’s. Jenks-Jay presented McKibben with the book. Patton read her own entry, thanking McKibben, whom she called “the world’s colleague and friend,” for his many contributions to the college over the last 18 years.

About two months ago, Jenks-Jay suggested giving McKibben an award in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the publication of “The End of Nature,” Isham told The Campus. This idea evolved into the book they presented to him at the talk, a collection of 39 contributions from people who have worked with him on the front lines of the fight against climate change.

Today’s climate movement did not exist fifteen years ago, McKibben wrote in an email to The Campus. “Whether it’s strong enough to match the fossil fuel industry I don’t know,” he wrote, “but it is very good to know that at least there will be a fight.”

The second lesson McKibben learned is that some people actually do their jobs. The price of solar panels has fallen by 90 percent in the last decade, he said, thanks to the work of engineers — and the “ex-hippies” who spent their time “down in the basement fussing with the lead-acid batteries.”

“The good story of the last thirty years is that we know, now, how we could solve a problem that in a certain way seemed insoluble in 1989,” McKibben wrote. In 1989, there was no clear alternative to coal, gas and oil. Now, as solar power has become more affordable, there is.

His third lesson: it’s possible to win the argument, but lose the fight. Despite winning the climate change argument, scientists lost the fight to the world’s fossil fuel elites who had enough money and power to inhibit change. Oil companies knew all the basic facts of climate change by the 1980s, but their willingness to spread “the most consequential lie in human history” produced a 30-year debate about whether climate change was real at all. 

For the fossil fuel companies, that lie remains a success. “The President of the United States believes that climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese, an idea so odd that if you were sitting on the ACTR bus next to someone muttering this, you would get up and change seats,” McKibben said.

After the release of “The End of Nature” in 1989, McKibben worked to grow the global climate movement and continued to write books. Just over a decade ago, he began dedicating more time to organizing, combating the massive amounts of money in the fossil fuel industry, moving away from book writing. But “Falter” felt necessary, especially considering how far McKibben has come since he wrote “The End of Nature.”

“‘The End of Nature’ was a good book, but written by a young man,” he wrote. “That has both advantages and disadvantages.”

The fourth thing McKibben learned is that large numbers of people will gather and do the work they are asked to do, “if they’re given a — even mildly plausible — reason to think it might be successful.” He brought up the then-upcoming Climate Solutions Walk held last weekend, a five-day march from Middlebury to Montpelier. He described a similar march in 2006, during which protesters walked from the Robert Frost Cabin in Ripton to Burlington.

In 2006, when they reached Burlington, he said, they were greeted by then Congressman and senatorial candidate Bernie Sanders, who praised them enthusiastically for their activism. Sanders then asked, “What is this about, again?”

McKibben’s primary takeaway from the 2006 march was that people respond better when they are asked to do more challenging things, because they are more likely to step up if they feel that their work means something. This is also seen in the unexpected global success saw in 2009, when they coordinated thousands of protests around the world on the same day.

In 2009, McKibben said, climate activism was an unfilled ecological niche. But while nobody focused primarily on climate change, many worried about closely related issues: women’s rights, war and peace, development, public health, hunger, and “all the problems you couldn’t address on a planet that was rapidly destabilizing.”

Lesson five, he said, is that it is sometimes necessary to go beyond education and confront the problems. The Keystone Pipeline protests show, regardless of their outcome, that it is possible to stand up to big oil. Divestment of money invested in fossil fuels has also been more successful than McKibben ever anticipated, with coal and oil companies now recognizing the financial losses as a serious threat.

The sixth lesson: “it’s possible we may not win this fight.”

Never take a snowstorm for granted, McKibben warned, because winter as it exists now will not last much longer. The evidence of climate-related losses is rapidly becoming ubiquitous. Coral reefs, “once the most enchanted corner of God’s brain,” he said, “are now just lobotomized and vacant.” He played a video he had filmed of a glacier disintegrating into the sea.

The seventh lesson is a little bit more optimistic: to have any chance of “winning”— of slowing and limiting climate change enough for human civilization to survive—people will need to stretch well beyond their comfort zones. After all, he said, the planet is way outside its comfort zone. And what people have done so far is clearly insufficient.

McKibben cited two mechanisms which have been enhanced over the last 30 years and serve as reasons for hope. One is the solar panel. The other is the evolution of nonviolent resistance. Activism by pioneers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi serve as the foundation of the climate movement protests.

“You shouldn’t have to go to jail to get people to listen to science,” McKibben said. But it works.

His eighth and final lesson is that the world is so beautiful, and so remarkable, that all of this is worth a try. Earlier that day, he said, as his flight to Middlebury passed over the Adirondacks, he found himself captivated by the view. And yet, while watching a recent SpaceX launch, he realized that the richest people on earth just want to leave this planet behind.

Moving forward, the next ten years are likely to be the most critical, McKibben said. “Can we make a decisive transition away from fossil fuels in that period? If not, I think the prospects for catching up with the physics of climate change become vanishingly small.”

“We are messy creatures, often selfish, prone to short-sightedness, susceptible to greed,” McKibben said at the end of the talk. “In a Trumpian moment, with racism and nationalism resurgent, you could argue that our disappearance would be no great loss. And yet most of us, most of the time, are pretty wonderful. Funny. Kind. Another name for human solidarity is love. And when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me.”