Overlapping crises: Bill McKibben on social solidarity in a world after Covid-19

By Nicole Pollack

McKibben is pictured at a Middlebury event from January 2019. (Van Barth)

As Phase One neared its highly anticipated end, the college concluded its campus quarantine programming last Friday with a remote lecture and Q&A by Scholar-in-Residence Bill McKibben. During the talk, titled “This Crisis and the Next One: What the Pandemic Suggests About the Century to Come,” McKibben spoke about the relationship between environmental injustice and Covid-19 and the reasons he believes Vermont has been so successful in its battle against the pandemic.

Jim Ralph, professor of American history and culture, introduced McKibben. Following his talk, three underclassman student panelists — Tim Hua ’23.5, Alicia Pane ’23.5 and Daisy Liljegren ’24 — opened the Q&A session with prepared questions.

Before diving into the future implications of the pandemic, McKibben began by speaking about its ramifications in the present moment. He emphasized the disproportionate severity of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on minority communities, even in predominantly white Vermont: one of the state’s few bad outbreaks occurred in Winooski, a city with a large immigrant population.

“If there was a single powerful quote from the last six months, it came, tragically, from George Floyd,” McKibben said. “And, as you all know, what he said was, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

He described the many ways in which the compounding crises of the past six months have restricted the ability of people, particularly Black Americans, to breathe: police brutality; poor air quality from coal fired power plants, usually seen in POC communities; the wildfires filling the air with smoke; and the sheer heat of this past summer.

“We have this huge mix of crises on top of each other,” he said.

During his talk, McKibben highlighted three key aspects of the relationship between the pandemic and the climate crisis.

1: Reality is Real

“I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to remind people that chemistry and physics won’t negotiate or compromise,” McKibben said. “And the pandemic was a good reminder that the same is true for biology. It’s fine for the president to get up and say it’s all a hoax and whatever, but the microbe could care less. If it says stand six feet apart, then stand six feet apart.”

2: Reaction Speed Matters

“We’ve learned a lot about flattening curves this year,” he said. “The U.S. and South Korea had their first cases of Covid-19 on the same day in January. South Korea went, admirably, to work. And it’s not over there, but it’s definitely in the rearview mirror, and with a tiny fraction of the suffering and the loss of life that we’ve experienced here. That’s because we wasted a couple of months, as Bob Woodward has demonstrated over the last couple of days, despite the fact that the White House knew very well what was going on. That slow reaction is the equivalent to the way that we’ve done nothing about climate change over 30 years that the scientists have given us a warning. And so now, of course, we need to move with extraordinary speed.”

3: Social Solidarity is Really Important

“I grew up in the political shadow of Ronald Reagan,” McKibben said. “He was the dominant figure in my early life, elected while I was in college. Unlike most presidents, he really did realign the country around a new ideological idea, and that idea basically was that markets were going to solve all problems — that government was, as he put it, the problem, not the solution. Indeed, the most famous laugh line in Reagan’s speeches, always, was, ‘The nine scariest words in the English language are, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ Well, it turns out that the scariest words in the English language are, ‘We’ve run out of ventilators,’ or ‘The hillside behind your house is on fire and you have to leave now, without any of your possessions.’ Those are not things that are solved by markets. Those are things solved by social solidarity of one kind or another, governments learning to work competently, but people joining together with some trust in those governments — and with each other.”

According to McKibben, about 78% of Vermonters mostly or completely trust their neighbors, compared with 38% of Americans. And 69% of Vermonters say they know most of their neighbors, as opposed to just 26% of Americans. He credits the state’s high level of social trust for the early, effective intervention that limited the spread of Covid-19.

Earlier this year, as armed protesters gathered in many states in opposition to wearing masks and other pandemic-related mandates, “in Vermont, there was a demonstration called for Montpelier outside the state capitol,” McKibben said. “And when the day came, there were seven protesters on the ramp for that demonstration.”

He doesn’t attribute Vermonters’ willingness to wear masks and maintain social distance to particularly liberal politics: though Vermont is home to democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the state’s governor, Phil Scott, is a Republican. Rather, McKibben ascribes it to the state’s unusual geographical and political structure. Unlike other remote states, which tend to be centered around a small number of major cities, Vermont’s population is spread more evenly across the state, and individual towns manage their own affairs through annual town meetings.

“It is a state of villages, and what that means is that people tend to know each other better,” McKibben said. “More to the point, what it means is it’s enabled this long Vermont tradition of very close, democratic self-governance.”

He believes that local self-governance disincentivizes polarization, “simply because you have to get the business of the town done and everyone knows it.”

Many of the questions from panelists and audience members alike addressed the concept of social trust. Hua, one of the panelists, asked whether anti-mask protests could have decreased social trust elsewhere in the country; attendees raised questions about encouraging trust on a larger scale and the potential for people with more diverse backgrounds, in more densely populated communities, to develop similar levels of social trust.

McKibben emphasized that it is unclear how significantly Vermont’s demographics — being a particularly homogenous state with a predominantly white population — impact social trust throughout the state, and that it is difficult to gauge how well the concept of local self-governance might translate to other parts of the country. He denounced the increasing political polarization perpetuated by the current federal government and spoke highly of efforts like “citizens’ assemblies,” designed to help communities become informed about, and collaborate on ways to deal with, local issues.

Pane, another panelist, asked how McKibben sees Vermont’s motto, “Freedom and Unity,” playing out during the pandemic. 

“We have chosen, I think, unity above other freedoms here in Vermont during the course of the pandemic,” McKibben said.