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May 28, 2018 | by  | in Interview |
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Bill McKibben Interview

Bill McKibben lays claim to a number of accolades: he founded 350.org, the first global grassroots climate movement, he won a Gandhi Peace Award for his work in environmentalism, he wrote The End of Nature, the seminal book on climate change, and he was once arrested for protesting outside a gas station, so girls are probably super into him. The real reason I wanted to speak to McKibben, though, is because a new species of woodland gnat was recently named after him. And so, I present to you, ten minutes with the namesake of “Megophthalmidia mckibbeni”.

How does the way that students and young people engage with the climate movement today compare with other historic movements?

Obviously the climate movement has been led by young people, but of course it’s hard, because there are so many other crucial things going on right now. Every single day the most important thing that’s happening in the world is climate change. But every single day there’s something else a little more dramatic happening. So, there’s never a day when the most dramatic thing on the front page of the newspaper is likely to be climate change. This is especially true in America, where Trump is wrecking every form of civilised existence. Young people are having to be expected to take on immigration and healthcare, and we’re in the middle of this amazing Me Too movement, and so on and so forth. So, I worry sometimes that it’s hard to keep focused on the deepest, underlying problems all the time. But the good thing, too, is that the same people who care about those things are also working hard on the climate.

I was trying so hard not to ask a question about Trump, but it’s only been two minutes and he’s already been brought up.

America right now is a very odd place. Trump is a grotesque buffoon, and it’s extremely difficult to concentrate on anything else. On climate change though, he’s not that much worse than most of the other leaders of the world who aren’t doing much either.

Do you know much about New Zealand’s climate action movement?

People in New Zealand are doing such a good job. I first came here 10 years ago, and each time I’ve come back since there are more and more great movements. When I was last here, 5 years ago, I was in Dunedin, and the fight against offshore exploration was just beginning. People were thinking that they couldn’t possibly win, and that the oil industry was too powerful. And I said “no, I think you’re quite capable of doing this – people love the ocean here, and they’ll defend it”. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all to see what’s really a world-victory taking place [government’s ban on offshore oil exploration]. One wishes that one could then say: “time to rest on your laurels; no need to do anything else for a few years.” Sadly, climate change is proceeding so fast that we need other things happening too.

There are so many important areas of environmentalism that you could get involved in, so how do you find time to prioritise yourself and to prevent burn-out?

I don’t always succeed, and one of the issues is that with most problems we face, you can rest confident that eventually you’ll win. The problem with climate change is that it’s a timed test, and if we don’t win fast then we can’t ever win. And that scares me a lot. So that’s one of the things that keeps me going. And the other thing that keeps me going is this emergence of a really strong world-wide movement, especially in places where people have done nothing to cause the problem. So, if people in Bangladesh and Pakistan and the Pacific Islands can work super hard on this, then so can I.

That’s so true in terms of Indigenous peoples, too — I saw that you did some work on the Keystone Pipeline protest. It feels so inequitable how climate change affects the people who did the least to contribute to it.

Right! One of the best things that’s happened in the last 10 years is the powerful emergence of Indigenous organisers at the very forefront of all this work. And I think that’s important for many reasons, but it’s really good to have the oldest wisdom traditions on the planet meshing with the newest wisdom. You know, the messages coming out of ceremonies and sacred sites matching the ones coming out of supercomputers and satellites. That’s powerful.

How do we address some of the fundamental inequalities in the climate action movement, when it takes a significant amount of time and money to educate yourself and to make informed decisions that impact the environment?

I think the real leadership of the climate movement around the world comes mostly from people in frontline communities. If you have a lot of money and time, chances are you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution. The biggest source of carbon on the planet is rich white people – that’s just what I find. 350.org works in every country on earth except for North Korea – and maybe now we’ll get there. Almost everybody who does this work is poor, black, brown, Asian, young, because that’s what almost the whole world is composed of. So that’s the most exciting part of it all.

I’m in the middle of a report for my Environmental Studies degree, but I can’t find enough evidence to back it all up. Can you give me permission to cite you every time my lecturer points out that I haven’t referenced something?

Absolutely. And if you really have trouble, email me.

(If you’re reading this, Cliff, please give me an A)

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