I speak to the recently arrested environmental author Bill McKibben, who insists that campaigners need to be more confrontational about their demands (and start wearing ties)
I think it’s fairly safe to say that Bill McKibben has had an eventful couple of weeks. As well as being imprisoned for three days at the end of August for protesting against the Keystone XL Pipeline project – which NASA climate scientist James Hansen has warned could mean ‘game over’ for the planet if given the go ahead – his organisation 350.org recently launched a campaign to promote green transport and he is currently touring the UK. I spoke to him in leafy and surprisingly sunny Cambridge where he was giving a talk at the KLICE and Faraday Institute Conference on ‘Faith and The Crisis of Sustainability’.
Fossil Fuel Industry Makes ‘More Money Than God’
For more than two decades, we’ve had clear scientific evidence telling us that if we are serious about keeping the planet habitable we must to stop burning fossil fuels. Yet all these years later and we are no closer to the elusive agreement or solution we are desperately after. Copenhagen, where the last major environmental summit took place, failed to convince leading polluters to cut their emissions to the extent needed. So where are we going wrong?
Well, according to Bill McKibben the problem is pretty obvious- it’s the the fossil fuel industry. Making ‘more money than god’, McKibben insist that they have been ‘drowning out the science’ and blocking potential change. So in response, environmental campaigners need be tougher than they have been- they need to take more risks and become more confrontational. He explains that whilst community and local action is important, alone it isn’t enough to bring about the change that we need to see.
Wear A Tie And Get Arrested
As such he sees the protests (and subsequent mass arrests) outside the White House against projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline as justified and necessary. What’s more, it’s the older campaigners who have contributed more to climate change and have less to lose from a criminal record who should be taking the risks- preferably wearing a tie or a dress to highlight that they are ordinary people. As McKibben adds, fossil fuel companies that are changing the face of the planet in dangerous ways are the real ‘radicals’.
The Environment Is Not Just For White People
I was able to steal McKibben away from his adoring fans after the lecture for a quick chat on the environment and the Middle East. He told me he was quite surprised at the level of support 350.org got three years ago from the region when they joined 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries in a day of international action on October 2009. Jordanians, Palestinian and Israeli worked together in a joint protest whilst campaigners in countries as diverse as Yemen, Egypt and Lebanon marked the event by highlighting the number 350, which is the safe level of carbon per million parts in the atmosphere.
Still, it’s clear that the movement is new and developing so McKibben advises that we give it a gentle nudge in the right direction if it strays from the green path. McKibben also points out that the diverse range of support 350.org receives illustrates that caring for the environment isn’t a white, rich person’s issue. Rather, people of all races are concerned about the future especially those who understand that it is the poor and vulnerable who are going to feel the pinch more than anyone else.
A Protest For Justice And Survival
It clear that this injustice- of poorer nations such as Bangladesh (which Mckibben has visited) having to deal with the impacts of a warming planet caused by rich nations- is what keeps McKibben going. Yes, its true that some scientists say it’s too late and some politicians say the odds are too high, he explains, but we must continue to fight to protect poorer nations such as the Maldives whose very survival is at stake.
And the way that we are going to do this, he insists, is by making our protests louder, more confrontational, more engaging and more beautiful.
For more on Mckibben and environmental issues see: