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Life on Planet Eaarth: An Interview with Environmental Activist Bill McKibben

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BILL MCKIBBEN
AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Bill McKibben is a leading American environmental writer and activist. Over the last two decades he has helped to educate and mobilize untold numbers of people on issues of global warming, alternative energy sources and localized economies. In 2010, Time magazine described him as "the world's best green journalist." In 2009, his organization, 350.org, planned what Foreign Policy magazine described as "the largest ever global coordinated rally of any kind," with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries.

As part of my preparation for the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shvat -- the Jewish New Year of the Trees (celebrated this year on Jan. 19-20) -- I spoke with Bill about his current environmental thinking and work. It is my prayer that his pioneering and steadfast efforts to heal the earth will help to inspire us all to renew our environmental commitments.

What do you regard as the most significant environmental issue today?

Global warming is the crux. If we don't deal with it, then all our other failures and successes are largely moot; if we do deal with -- by moving away from fossil fuel [which releases dangerous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere] -- then many of our other problems will be easier to solve as well.

What has surprised you most about the development of the environmental crisis since you published your landmark book The End of Nature in 1989?

Global warming has come faster, and with greater impact, than we thought it would 20 years ago. So far we've raised the temperature about 1 degree globally averaged, which we thought wouldn't create huge problems two decades ago. But the world was more finely balanced than we'd realized -- hence the massive melt in the Arctic, the big increases in both drought and flood as the atmosphere has become steadily moister, and the rapid acidification of the world's oceans.

Why did you call your last book Eaarth? What do you wish to convey to potential readers with this title?

That we already live on a fundamentally altered planet, one strange enough to us that it deserves a new name. It's still sort of familiar -- right number of continents, gravity still applies -- but it's not the earth we, and every other human in the Holocene [the name given to the last 10,000 years or so of the Earth's history] was born onto.

For many years you worked as a writer and lecturer. What led you to become an organizational leader?

Oh well, at some point I realized that simply writing about it was not getting the job done. I kept assuming that someone would build the necessary movement. But they didn't. So, too late, I gave it a stab.

What are your highest priorities for your current work with 350.org?

We are the biggest grassroots climate movement ever -- 500,000 people in 188 countries, incredibly diverse. But we haven't yet managed to build something strong enough to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry. We've got to get bigger and sharper.

What role do you think religious communities can play in the environmental movement?

They can help focus on one of the most important dimensions -- that this is the prime moral issue of our time or really any time. The truth is that the more of the problem you cause the less of the damage you suffer, at least at first. It's as if God is giving us an exam and we're failing it. We are failing to protect the world that is under our dominion, failing to love our neighbors. Instead, we are making life impossible for so many people and other species on the planet.

What would you like to see the Obama administration do in the remaining time of this presidential term (taking into account the deep divisions in D.C. these days)?

Keep talking about the issue -- not about green jobs or clean tech, which is easy, but about the fact that the fabric of the planet is steadily unraveling -- and to tell the truth about it. His international negotiating team keeps saying we need a world of 450 or 500 parts per million CO2, which is now scientifically obsolete. As NASA has made clear, 350 parts per million CO2 is the most we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet "similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." We're at 390 now. I understand that it's politically tough to do what the science demands. But political reality is easier to shift than the brute reality of chemistry and physics.

What is one thing you would like every reader of this interview to do today to help heal our earth?

Get politically involved. 350.org is a good place to start.

Around the Web

Official site for Bill McKibben: Author - Educator - Environmentalist

Bill McKibben - Founder, 350.org | 350.org

Bill McKibben On Global Warming, Climate Denial, And Conservatives ...

Bill McKibben Interview | The Progressive

Bill McKibben - The Colbert Report - 8/17/09 - Video Clip | Comedy ...

Amazon.com: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet ...

Book Review - Eaarth - By Bill McKibben - NYTimes.com