FEATURE: Bill McKibben: (Re)Connecting Globally and Locally

Carmelita Rosner

In 2010, The Boston Globe called him “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist.” Time Magazine described him as “the world’s best journalist.” Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, David Orr considers him a friend and many Oberlin students revere him as a principal player in the environmental movement. Bill McKibben, noted American environmentalist and writer, came to campus on Monday, April 25, to give a talk titled “Global and Local: On the Front Lines of the Climate Fight,” which was followed later that night by an informal discussion.

The anchor of McKibben’s talk rested in his description of how he and others across the globe are collaboratively working on various scales to change the planet’s energy politics, and fast. The talk opened with statistics on how much harder and faster than expected the climate is changing.

“2010 turned out to be the warmest year yet recorded. Nineteen countries experienced new highs in temperature records. Pakistan reached 129 degrees. There was a yacht race through territory in the Arctic that 10 years ago no one thought humans would ever explore,” McKibben said.

In 2008, McKibben founded an international environmental organization called 350.org. The group is responsible for what Foreign Policy called “the largest ever global coordinated rally of any kind.” The rally consisted of 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries on October 24, 2009, the first 350 International Day of Climate Action. The man behind 350’s success is the practicality and accessibility of its many campaigns, rallies and projects.

One of its most recent projects, 350 EARTH, a sequel to the 2009 International Day of Climate Action, spanned from November 20 to 28 of 2010. Like its predecessor, the event led up to the U.N. Climate meeting to influence the attending delegates. 350 EARTH coordinated “the first planetary art show for the climate,” according to a press release on Earth.350.org, and brought together over a dozen major public art pieces in Australia, Brazil and a multitude of other countries large enough to be seen from space.

During the talk, McKibben shared a selection of photographs of the art pieces, including a visually plain but emotionally striking aerial photograph of Jordan, Palestine, and Israel forming the 3, 5 and 0 of 350, respectively. The photo demonstrates the potential power of the movement to unite and, like the entire series of photos, dispels the idea that environmental action is for white rich people.

“As you can see, most of the people involved are young, brown, black, Asian, poor and just as interested in the future,” said McKibben. He said he is particularly astounded by the participation in 350 EARTH from the religious communities, notably Anglicans. The art movement will continue in 2011.

McKibben chose the name of the organization with the universal mission of “building a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis” in mind, according to the 350.org mission statement.

“The beauty of the Arabic numerals is that they translate,” says McKibben. The numbers carry this same message with them across every border: We need to act, fast. He took the name from research done by NASA scientist James E. Hansen, which found that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity. We are currently at 391 parts per million.

McKibben identified the lack of connection in a community due to the current large-scale economy as a force working against the movement’s progress and hopes that, among other events, the “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Does Not Speak for Me” campaign will help this.

“Statistically speaking, 50 years ago you would have known twice as many people here today,” said McKibben. He argued that this disconnection, to each other and the land, is in part responsible for the decrease in the nation’s general happiness, as well: “Given America’s standard of living, that we are not overcome with rapture is interesting. We’ve poured carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destabilized the environment but also our community.”

While clearly a proponent of local community revival, McKibben is realistic in his reminder that action within the community alone will not prevent further climate change.

“If we let the climate get out of control, it doesn’t matter how good a farmer you are, you are not going to get enough food,” he said, emphasizing the need for political involvement in the fight against climate pollution. “Simply educating politicians isn’t enough. We need to be politically sharper. We need to up the stakes. The fossil fuel industry has a huge stake in preventing progress.”

McKibben is aiming to do just that with 350’s most recent campaign, “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Does Not Speak for Me.” He said, “The Chamber is controlled by Big Polluters, poisons politics with its dirty money and opposes every single effort to curb climate pollution.”

McKibben ended his talk, which received a standing ovation, by expressing his heartfelt appreciation for Oberlin’s reception and his hope that its community will participate in this campaign.

“We need to build the movement, use the currency of body, spirit and creativity against the dollars of politicians and corporations. The movement is more important than the message,” he said. As of April 27, 6,122 business and 32 local chambers of commerce have signed on, according to the 350.org website.

“Your grandparents dealt with fascism. Your parents, perhaps, the civil rights movement. This is the hand we’ve been dealt,” he said.