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Q & A
Q&A:Bill McKibben, UM writer/activist, keeps focus on climate change Sam Hodges, Feb 3, 2012
Bill McKibben is a writer and environmental activist who recently made news by leading opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, including getting arrested in a demonstration at the White House. He’s also long been a United Methodist, teaching Sunday School for many years.
Mr. McKibben, 51, was president of the Harvard Crimson newspaper in college, and immediately afterward became a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His first book, The End of Nature, dealt with global warming, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. He’s written several other books, and The Bill McKibben Reader (Henry Holt & Co.) collects many of his magazine articles and essays.
He’s the founder of 350.org, an anti-global warming group, and he’s a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He’ll be one of the speakers (via Skype) at the March 15-18 Caring for Creation event at the UM retreat center in Lake Junaluska, N.C.
Managing editor Sam Hodges interviewed Mr. McKibben by email.
Are you currently part of a United Methodist church? If so, which one, and are you still teaching Sunday school? We have a tiny, tiny Methodist church in our village of Ripton, with a very part-time pastor. But it’s been refurbished beautifully in the past two years—new roof and everything! And I’m not teaching sunday School these days—on the road too much for it to be fair to a class.
Any highlights from your time as Sunday school teacher? Well, it must be said that we spent an inordinate amount of time studying Noah and his ark. And a high point of every year was a blessing of the animals service. Everyone brought their pets, of course, but we also made sure we had a blackfly and a mosquito there in a jar, and we paid tribute to the coyote and the bobcat and all our other wild neighbors in the Adirondacks.
Did you first begin to attend a UM church when you moved to the Adirondacks? If so, which one, and how did that come about? Yes, I was baptized a Presbyterian in California, and grew up in a UCC church in Massachusetts. But when we moved to the Adirondacks, the Methodist church was about the only flavor available. It was a lovely congregation in Johnsburg, N.Y., where the old traditions still held sway. Hence, I can sing ‘Give Me Oil in My Lamp,’ and pull the bell rope with gusto. But there was never a hint of rejection because we’d come from away. I’ll never forget the night the UMW gave a shower for my (Jewish) wife in the basement of the church; it was a wonderful evening, interrupted only by the labor pains that heralded the arrival of our daughter right as dessert was being served.
Is there anything about the Wesleyan tradition, or just the way Methodists tend to approach things, that appeals to you? There’s much that appeals to me, the more I learn about Wesley. I love the emphasis on community. And I enjoyed working as a member of our conference Board of Church and Society, and going to Annual Conference, and so forth. But I have to tell the truth—I’ve pulled back from organized Methodism over the years, because it seemed to me that the national polity became little more than a boxing ring for fighting about homosexuality.
I know how I feel about that—there’s not such a surplus of love in the world that we should look down on any of its manifestations—and I know how the story is going to come out, too. It embarrasses me for my church to see it clinging to discrimination when secular society has moved on; it should have been the other way around.
You have a “heroes” section in The Bill McKibben Reader. Have you had any UM pastors or laity who have been a big influence on you—maybe to the point of being heroes? Absolutely. My first pastor, Lucy Hathaway, was a great friend—a daughter of the South who had grown up in real poverty, and managed the move to the north country with grace and good humor. She officiated at our wedding, and it was her first trip to New York, which she enjoyed mightily!
And our longstanding pastor Barb Lemmel, who is one of the greatest preachers I’ve ever heard (which is saying something, since my preacher in college was Peter Gomes, and my preacher when I moved to New York after college to write for The New Yorker was Bill Coffin). I’ve never seen anyone able to compel both the comfortable and afflicted with such love and good humor and sternness and depth. Her husband, Mitch Hay, another great pastor, had the next church over. ... There are few people in the world I love and respect more.
How would you assess United Methodist involvement in “creation care,” specifically such issues as global warming? I think the denomination has taken all the right positions, and I think it hasn’t meant much. The need is for church people to become politically engaged. It’s starting to happen. When I spent three days in jail in D.C. this past summer leading the fight against the Keystone pipeline, Jim Antal, head minister of the Massachusetts UCC, was three cells down, and the aforementioned Mitch Hay took his place in line a few days later. The good people at Sojourners helped organize a lot of it. But boy I would have liked to have seen 10 bishops of the UMC.
Can you summarize what moved you from writer to writer/activist? A story as good as any other might be the trip I took to Bangladesh early in the new millennium. They were having their first big outbreak of dengue fever, a disease spreading like wildfire because the mosquito that carries it loves the warm, wet world we’re creating for it. Lots of people were dying. Because I was spending lots of time in the slums I eventually got bit by the wrong mosquito myself, and was as sick as I’ve ever been. And I remember thinking, looking out at the hospital ward filled with shivering souls, that it was totally unfair. If you try to calculate how much carbon the 150 million Bangladeshis emit, you can’t even really get a number—it’s a rounding error. Whereas the 4 percent of us who are American are responsible for about a third of the global warming gases currently in the atmosphere. At any rate, having felt that, it seemed right to do more than write about this, and hence I have.
Can you describe your reaction to President Obama’s de facto shelving of the Keystone project? With the Republican candidates promising they’ll countermand Obama if elected, do you think there’s a good chance the project will happen after all? Oh, environmentalists never win anything but temporary victories, sad to say. There’s a very good chance the pipeline will get built—after all, the fossil fuel industry, which is the richest industry the world has ever seen, is squarely behind it. It has been educational to see the power it brings to bear—234 Congress people voted to speed up the pipeline, and they’d taken $42 million from the fossil fuel industry. I honestly don’t think you should take money from companies and then vote on their interests. I don’t think it’s any different than paying off the referees.
Obama showed himself to be tougher than many have said he was. In the face of a direct threat from the American Petroleum Institute to exact ‘huge political consequences’ if he didn’t approve the pipeline, he stood his ground and refused to rush the environmental review. It seemed to me not only the right response, but the brave one.
For those who remain global warming skeptics, what’s your short answer for why they shouldn’t be? You have to read the signs of the times, you know? Think about that first picture of the earth that Apollo 8 sent back. The planet has 40 percent less ice in the summer Arctic now. The ocean is 30 percent more acid. The atmosphere is 4 percent wetter—an astonishing change that has loaded the dice for drought and flood. If for some reason you don’t want to believe scientists, then ask the insurance industry, the people we charge with thinking about risk in our economy. The world’s biggest insurer, in its annual report last year, said there was no other plausible explanation for the rapid increase in damaging weather around the world save the onset of climate change.
You also have written a lot about community, friendship, social interaction, and how those tend to suffer in the economy we’ve made for ourselves. Can you talk about that a bit? A consumer society is based on I-dolatry. This is unChristian, and it’s also counter to our evolutionary roots as social primates. American life satisfaction, according to the surveys, peaked in 1956 and has declined since despite our huge increases in standard of living. Why? Because we spent those decades engaged in the consumer dream of building bigger houses farther apart from each other, and then stuffing them with screens. As a result, the average American has half as many close friends as they did 50 years ago.
That’s a grievous loss—and it’s the reason why I worry less than some about changes in the economy. I think we’d be wise to aim for more localized economies with more human contact. And if that meant less stuff, well, so be it.
Do you feel you’re on stage about your lifestyle and carbon footprint, given your high-profile role writing and speaking about global warming? I’m pretty much a hypocrite. At home, I am fairly green—our house is covered with solar panels and stuffed with insulation. It got a prize for its energy efficiency. I drove the first hybrid Honda Civic in the state, and one year we fed our whole family with entirely local food. But our work at 350.org has meant I’ve been on an airplane much of the time these past years, because we work in 188 countries around the world; my carbon footprint is therefore high. I hope that it’s been worth it; I know I would like never to get on a plane again if I could avoid it!
What are your 2012 priorities for yourself and 350.org? One, we need to highlight the impacts of climate change around the world. We’ll have a big day where people in every nation who have felt the sting of changing weather can make themselves heard. We need to communicate constantly that this is not some future threat, but a very present reality.
Two, in America, we need to highlight the insidious role of money in politics. Hundreds of people have been dressing up as referees and going to see their U.S. House members and senators, calling a foul on the fact that they take money from companies and then vote on their interests.
Finally, I have a friend who is a fan of your work. But she worries that you don’t have much fun in life. No, I have lots and lots of fun. When I’m home I spend a lot of time in the outdoors. And when I’m on the road, it’s with good people—many of them young—who are deeply involved in the most important fight on earth. It’s deep fun to get to see them standing up for the future.