Bill McKibben told his story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The thing you first notice most is just the alternating deep chills and fever so intense that I can remember holding my arm out and watching the sweat pour off my finger at the end of my arm, the way you’d watch water pour off a gutter in a thunderstorm.
I’m a writer and an environmental activist. I wrote the first book about what we now call climate change, and I founded the first big global movements to try and do something about it.
I started writing for money at the age of 14, covering high school sports for the local town newspaper, 25 cents a column inch. And in college, all I did was work for the newspaper there. My father was a newspaper man. And so I imbibed those values of neutrality and objectivity.
I was at the New Yorker, and I started writing the book that became The End of Nature. I started in on it in part because I thought that this science around climate, which was just beginning to emerge, was the most interesting and potentially the biggest story in the world. But halfway through it, it also became clear to me that I cared very much about the outcome.
It’s not that I’m any less objective or honest or accurate as a reporter than I ever was, but I do care how it all comes out. And as the years went on, that morphed into becoming an activist around these questions, too.
Part of it was writing the book, and part of it was the fact that I was living up in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the great wilderness of the American East, bigger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite combined. A remarkable place, very sparsely populated, and I was completely falling in love with that wilderness at the same time that I was doing all that early reporting on climate change. As a result, it hit me all the harder because, and this was the thesis of the book in certain ways, my understanding all of a sudden that no matter how wild this place was, it really wasn’t going to escape from human influence.
After I wrote The End of Nature, I took a reporting trip to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a beautiful country, but a place under assault by climate. The Bay of Bengal is rising fast. The Brahmaputra depends on the flow of water out of the Himalayas, and long-term prospects are dubious. But while I was there, they were having an acute problem, the first big outbreak of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that’s the poster child for climate illness. Lots and lots of people were dying, people were freaking out. Big pictures of drawings of this mosquito on the front page of the newspaper.
I was spending a lot of time in the slums. So eventually, I got bit by the wrong mosquito, and I was as sick as I had ever been. But, I was strong and healthy and well fed going in, so I didn’t die. I remember being at the big armory that they were using as a clinic in downtown Dhaka with thousands of people out on cots, just stretched out and shivering from this tropical disease. And I remember thinking, Well, A) I feel wretched, and B) this is so unfair.
I knew enough about climate and energy to know that 180 million people in Bangladesh had produced essentially no carbon at all, a minor rounding error in the global tables. Whereas we Americans have produced about 25 percent of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If there were 4,000 people in beds in that armory, a thousand of them were on us. And when I came home from that trip and recovered from dengue, I really was more inclined to feel the urgency of actually doing something. That’s when we began organizing the kind of protests and things that eventually led to 350.org.
The first thing that I organized was a march across the state of Vermont where I live now. We walked for five days up the west side of the state, slept in farm fields at night. By the time we got to Burlington, there were about a thousand of us marching, which in Vermont, is a lot of people. And the next day in the newspaper it said that thousand people was probably the biggest demonstration that had yet taken place in the US about climate change.
This would’ve been 2006, and reading that, it became clear to me why we were losing this fight. We had the super structure of a movement, Al Gore, some scientists, some policy people. We just didn’t have the movement part, and so that’s what we started trying to fill in.
Within a year or two, with seven college kids, we’d launched 350.org. Within a year or so after that, we’d had our first big Global Day of Action, which was the kind of coming out party for a global climate movement: 5,100 demonstrations in 181 countries. One of the most beautiful was in Bangladesh, which when I saw the pictures coming across the internet, meant a lot to me.
I had no idea how big it was all going to grow as we started doing it. Right now, we’re organizing old people like me, and many of them have spent 65 or 70 years not doing things, and they find it very liberating to be able to now.
My advice would be to trust your moral instinct and take seriously the fact that we’re called to do something about the things that are wrong in the world around us. But it really helps if there’s some other people to do it with. Don’t try to do all this by yourself. It’s a recipe for ineffectiveness, but also a recipe for burnout and despair.
Though there are plenty of things an individual can do around their house and the contours of their lives, the most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual and join together with others in movements large enough to actually make a difference.
Bill McKibben is an author, educator and environmentalist. He wrote The End of Nature in 1989, and in the years since, he’s won the Gandhi Peace Prize, received 20 honorary degrees, and he’s had a new species of woodland gnat named in his honor. He co-founded 350.org, and his most recent project is Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 for action on climate and justice. You can find out more about him at billmckibben.com.
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