Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The Most Important Number in the World

Introduction by Will Raap

It is my honor and pleasure to introduce Bill McKibben. Bill is a kind of rare Earth element who thankfully calls Vermont home. Rare because he’s not only a visionary environmentalist and arguably the leading writer and educator and advocate on the perils of climate change; at the same time he is the leading voice on the need for a new economics that values people and values the planet. For Bill it is obvious that our environmental crisis is directly linked to our failing economic system, and clearly, if Fritz Schumacher were writing and speaking today, he and Bill would be close allies.

I learned of Bill’s extraordinary ability to see our collective situation and propose a better course two decades ago when I came upon his book The End of Nature. It was perhaps the first book about climate change for the general public, and it has been reprinted in many languages. For two decades Bill has unrelentingly written about, spoken for, and organized around the need for a fundamental shift, both philosophic and practical, in the way we treat the Earth. In his 2007 Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future he chronicled the failings of an economy dominated by what we now understand to be unsustainable addiction to growth. But more than documenting the problems or just complaining about them, he outlines a set of what could be called small-is-beautiful-type solutions to help us transition to a more locally based enterprise system. Deep Economy proposes we pursue prosperity by means of regions producing more of their own food, more of their electricity and energy, and honoring more of their own unique culture.

Bill is also rare because he is a writer and educator who provides a bridge into the realm of activism and social change. In the summer of 2006 he helped lead a five-day walk across Vermont to bring awareness to the need to respond to global warming. I joined the final day of that awareness-building walk, and it has since then been called the largest climate-change demonstration to date in America. In 2007 he founded Step It Up to demand that Congress enact curbs on carbon emissions and pursue a process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below where we are now by 2050. Step It Up 2007 has been described as the largest day of protest about climate change in the history of our nation—until now. We are a week away from what will surely be the largest global environmental action in history. On October 24 there will be events all over the world that are dedicated to building solutions to the climate crisis. I urge all of us to join Bill and to join to make this so.

I bring you Bill McKibben.

I should begin by confessing that basically I’m here fraudulently. I’m always reminded of that when I speak from a pulpit. I’m a Methodist and a Sunday school teacher but in a sort of backwoods church, not one as grand as this. You don’t have to be much of a theologian if you can take a dish towel and use it to turn a fourth grader into a Palestinian shepherd on Christmas Eve. I don’t really belong in the pulpit, and I also feel myself to be a fraud, at least this year, for coming to talk about anything to do with localism and staying close to home and building local economies because I have hardly seen my house or my wife or my child for the past year; I’ve been on the road pretty much without stop for reasons that will become clear as I talk—and on the road in a fashion I recommend to no one. I just came back from a trip to five continents in nine days, so if I seem tired, that’s because I am. The amount of carbon I have spewed into the atmosphere is almost incalculable, but I hope it’s been for a sufficiently worthwhile reason.

The tension between the local and the global is going to inform my talk this morning. It’s always a great pleasure for me to be in my own region, in my own place, in my own neck of the woods, but my mind is also all over the planet. I just got off the phone with a friend of mine, the President of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, and at my urging he kicked off our 350 event that will be cresting next weekend. This morning he held a cabinet meeting to pass a resolution demanding that the world return carbon levels to 350 parts per million. That meeting was held under water to illustrate what will happen to the Maldives if sea levels continue to rise. All the cabinet members had been trained in scuba diving, and there they were passing the resolution, with big fish swimming around. It was quite grand.

I’m going to lead you to a fairly hopeful and optimistic place because that’s how I’m feeling, but first we’re going to go through a dark valley for a while because you need to understand exactly where we are scientifically in order to understand why the urgency, why the time line, why our actions are constrained in certain ways, why we don’t have an infinite palette of options from which to choose as we go about our work. As my friend Will Raap said in his introduction, twenty years ago this fall I wrote the first book about climate change for a general audience, The End of Nature. Twenty years is how long we’ve known about this problem in any public way, and I suppose it’s therefore not completely incomprehensible that we haven’t done much about it. Twenty years isn’t that long a time in the course of human events, and trying to change big systems is terribly difficult. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time, and hence we need to move quickly. That’s the point I want to get across. Twenty years ago the one thing we didn’t know about global warming was how fast it was going to happen. We knew the mechanics of it, we knew that burning coal and gas and oil put carbon into the atmosphere, that carbon trapped heat, that the planet would start getting warmer. We didn’t know when a dangerous level would be reached, how much was too much, where the real red lines were. And of course being human beings, the great hope was always that the danger was a long way off because then it would be somebody else’s problem to deal with.

Any illusion that it was a long way off vanished for those who were paying attention in the summer of 2007 when, in the course of a few weeks, we saw a dramatic and rapid melting of ice across the Arctic. Before the summer was over, there was 25 percent less ice than had been there the year before or in fact even in all of human history and considerably longer than that, from what we can tell. The Earth as viewed from outer space by September of 2007 looked completely different than it had 100,000 years or 50 years before or even a year before. There was a lot less white to be seen. Before the summer was half over, I started getting calls in the middle of the night from panicked scientists I’d known for a quarter of a century who had always been worried and concerned but now were really frightened, desperately frightened because clearly climate change was happening more quickly and on a larger scale than we had thought it would. That it took us by surprise was no great shock; this addition of carbon to the atmosphere is after all a huge experiment. Still, it was highly unsettling to look not only at Arctic sea ice but at a number of other major physical features of the planet such as high-altitude glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas and see them unraveling at the same accelerated pace. You could almost pick a major physical feature at random.

For the 10,000 years of the Holocene it’s been warm enough that the continental interiors have been free of ice—hence we can grow grain on them—but the highlands have kept glacial ice, and that has provided summer irrigation year after year after year. Tibet, which is roughly the size of Italy, contains the glaciers that host the headwaters of the Salwin, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra Rivers. One human in three lives downstream from those glaciers. They’re now melting enormously quickly as they are in the Andes as well. When researchers went to Bolivia at the end of the last southern-hemisphere summer, they found that there was nothing left at all of Chacaltaya, one of the largest and most closely studied glaciers, which had been dwindling for a number of years. It was completely gone. There were only rocks and mud.

The glacier at the head of the Ganges, Gangotri, we now think may disappear in this century at the rate it’s melting. There are 400 million people who depend on the Ganges, and not just for water; it’s a deeply important spiritual resource. I was in Varanasi (formerly Benares) earlier this summer. It’s the most timeless city on the planet. Hindu pilgrims have been arriving every day for thousands of years to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. Every night funeral pyres are lighted along the banks and the ashes dumped into the river the next morning. That essentially unchanged picture probably won’t last out the century because for periods of the year there may not be water flowing down the Ganges unless we’re able to change things very quickly.

There are numerous other physical systems in the same kind of violent flux. The rate of water moving around the planet is changing profoundly. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold, so arid areas have seen dramatic increases in evaporation and hence in drought. I was in Australia earlier this year; that country has just come through a drought so severe that at its end, after three weeks of the hottest, driest weather ever recorded, there were wildfires across the suburbs of Melbourne that killed 200 people in the course of an hour. You’ve seen the pictures from a couple of weeks ago of a great red cloud of dust descending over Sydney from desertifying areas nearby. The government said recently, We’re not going to call what’s happening here a drought anymore because drought implies it will come to an end someday; we think this is the new normal.

Once the water is up in the air, it’s going to come down, and so in wet areas we’re seeing dramatic increases in downpours and deluge and flood, including in areas like our own. At our latitude storms that drop more than two inches of rain in a 24-hour period are up about 25 percent. That’s a huge change in a basic physical phenomenon, and these are the kind of storms that do nobody any good. The same is true for the tropics. We’ve had a quiet Atlantic hurricane season this year; all the action has been in the Pacific, where a chain of typhoons marching across the ocean has brought almost inconceivable quantities of water to southeastern Asia and to China. Typhoon Marakot two months ago bathed parts of Taiwan in 9 1/2 feet of rain in the course of three days. I can’t imagine how that much water can come from the sky, but that’s what happened, and of course whole villages disappeared as landslides took them away.

It’s important to understand that all of this has happened with a global temperature increase of about one degree. We’ve gone from roughly 59 degrees to 60 degrees averaged globally. Twenty years ago we would have said that a one-degree rise was not enough to cause this kind of change. We underestimated how finely balanced the planet’s physical systems are. It turns out that the extra two watts per square meter of the sun’s energy was enough to make change happen in a big way, which is scary enough but scarier still if you consider that the consensus estimate among climatologists, by no means the worst-case scenario but rather a middle of the road estimate, is that there has been a dramatic and rapid change in the way we emit carbon. We’re on the way to another four or five or six degrees of temperature increase in the course of this century. We don’t want to know what that sort of change will bring if only one degree melts the Arctic. Everything we can predict about it is beyond grim. Just to mention a few of the effects one can expect: dramatic reductions in the amount of food we can grow on this planet; incredible political destabilization; by mid-century an estimated 700 million climate refugees on the move around the world, which is more than one in ten of the people on the Earth today. It’s impossible to imagine anything even resembling a peaceful world with that kind of chaos and mass movement.

The current situation is by far the biggest threat to life on our planet that human beings have ever caused, and the biggest challenge we have ever faced is to bring it under control. One of the reasons it’s such a challenge is that we have allowed the change to happen in a world cruelly divided between rich and poor. This disparity has always been a sin, but now there is also a great practical obstacle to doing anything about it because, believe me, the world looks entirely different if you’re living in a remote Chinese village in extreme agricultural poverty. The prospect of limiting the use of energy looks very different than if you’re living in a prosperous Massachusetts town. One of the global ironies of climate change is that its effects are visited first and foremost on the people who have done the least to cause them.

I was in Bangladesh a few years ago reporting for National Geographic on this subject. It is a beautiful country, incredibly green and fertile, with 140 million people in an area the size of Wisconsin, yet they are able to feed themselves. That’s how fertile it is. It’s the great flood plain for the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, the sacred rivers of Asia, as they pour down out of the Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal. Because warm water takes up more space then cold, the country is in big trouble. The sea level is starting to rise because of all those melting glaciers and icecaps, and salt water is backing up onto productive agricultural land. It won’t be long before those glacial rivers will begin to dwindle.

When I was there, the major problem was more immediate: the first big outbreak of a disease called dengue fever, a disease that’s on the rampage around the world. Its incidence is up 200 percent across Asia and South America in this decade for an obvious reason: the mosquito that spreads it, the Aedes aegypti, likes the warmer world we’re creating and is expanding its range rapidly. I was spending time in the slums in Dhaka, so eventually I was bitten by the wrong mosquito, and I came down with dengue. I was as sick as I’ve ever been, but I didn’t die because I was strong and healthy. Lots of people do die from it, however. I visited the hospital in Dhaka, and there was a huge ward filled with cots and people on the cots shivering from the effects of the fever. I remember thinking, This is intensely unfair because these people have done nothing to cause their plight. Practically nobody has a car—bicycle rickshaws are the way people get around—and most people aren’t connected to the electric grid. The United Nations tries to measure how much carbon each country in the world emits. You can’t even get a number for Bangladesh; it’s just a rounding error in the calculations whereas the 4 percent of us who live in the United States produce 25 percent of the world’s CO2. If there are 100 beds in that hospital, 25 of them are on our conscience. That’s what we’re bringing about, and we’re bringing it about every day.

I think it was when I came back from that trip that I realized the time had come to do more than just talk about and write about climate change but to try to actually get something done, because on a large scale nothing had been done. Our national government for twenty years has had an unblemished bipartisan record of doing nothing about it, and around the world very little has happened in relation to the size of the problem. My difficulty was that I’m a writer who lives in the backwoods in Vermont, and I had no idea of what one might do. I called up a few of my writer friends in Vermont and said: “Look, here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll go to Burlington,” which is our main city, “and we’ll sit in on the steps of the federal building. We’ll be arrested, there will be a story in the paper, and at least we will have done something.” All these writers said: “Oh, that’s a good idea. Let’s do it.” They were as clueless as I was, but happily one of them called up the police in Burlington and asked what would happen if we did this intrepid stunt. The police said: “Nothing will happen. Stay there as long as you like.”

So we had to reconsider, and I then sent emails asking people to join me on a walk. We set out a couple of weeks later from Robert Frost’s old writing cabin up in the Green Mountains because he’s sort of our patron saint in Vermont And we thought that most clichéd of all high-school-English-class poems about the road not taken was à propos to our situation, so off we walked. We walked for five days, and we slept in fields at night. I called up all the Methodist mafia along the route so we could do programs in churches. We got to Burlington on the final day, and a lot of people, including Will Raap, joined us. One thousand people walked into Burlington that day. Except for University of Vermont hockey games, that’s as many people as you ever get in one place in Burlington. It was also encouraging that all our candidates who were running for Congress—this took place in 2006—were willing to come and meet with us. And not only meet with us, they signed a raggedy piece of cardboard we’d been carrying that called for an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions, at the time a radical doctrine endorsed only by scientists and way beyond what Washington was even thinking of. They all signed, not just Bernie Sanders. The woman who was running for Congress on the Republican ticket, who almost won, had said when she announced for office two months earlier something that too many people were saying: “I’m not sure climate change is real. More research needs to be done.” It turned out that the research which still needed to be done clearly had to do with how many people would walk across Vermont and ask her to change her mind. And the empirical answer was that one thousand was sufficient. That helped make us all a little less cynical about our politicians.

The only disappointment was to open the newspaper the next morning and read a story that said those thousand people were probably the largest demonstration about climate change that had ever taken place in the United States. When I read that, I thought, “No wonder we’re not getting anywhere.” We have what’s needed for a movement: we have leaders like Al Gore; we have scientists who have done the work; economists and engineers have told us what we need to do and how we can do it. We have everything we’re supposed to have—except the movement. We’ve left out the part that would give us heft and force. I think that for twenty years the idea had been that climate change is so obviously a terrible thing that if we just keep saying it’s happening, the system will wake up and do something about it. But in fact that’s not how systems work. We have to make them do what we want them to do. There was, and continues to be, enormous pressure from huge vested interests to keep things the way they are. Exxon Mobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money. Companies like that have both the incentive and the means to keep change from happening, and without a great deal of counterpressure there’s no chance of making a shift happen.

We decided to see if we could build something bigger than in Vermont alone, so in January of 2007 we launched Step It Up to demand that Congress enact curbs on carbon emissions that would cut global warming pollution 80 percent by 2050. When I say “we,” I mean me and six seniors at Middlebury College. We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have an organization. We started by sending out emails asking people to hold events like the one we were planning in Vermont. We had no reason to expect much, but it turned out that there were people all over the country who were eager to do something. They had already changed their light bulbs, but they realized what people who think carefully about climate change for even a few minutes realize—that we can’t solve this one light bulb at a time, that there isn’t enough time for that kind of slow conversion around the country to make enough of a difference, and that we need a political solution. People jumped on board from all over, and three months later, in April of 2007, we had 1400 simultaneous demonstrations across the country, including some right in this neck of the woods organized by people in this room who did an amazing job of bringing our movement to the fore. It was quite wonderful and effective.

Four days later both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, then running for President, changed their energy and environment platforms and endorsed our radical goal of 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions. You can still hear Barack Obama talking about it regularly. I believe the technical phrase is “smug” for how we were feeling about what we had accomplished together—until six weeks later when the Arctic started to melt really fast. By the time it finished melting, we realized two things: one, that we needed to work globally, that we couldn’t solve this problem one country at a time. If it was going to be solved, it needed to be done one planet at a time. And two, we realized that the targets we’d been using were no longer sufficient. The science had changed, and hence the policy response needed to change with it.

The good thing that came out of our Step-It-Up event was that we finally had a good sense of exactly where the red line is. Here’s a 90-second course in climate science: For 10,000 years—the period we call the Holocene, the period of human civilization—the global CO2 level was 275 parts per million, give or take ten parts per million. That’s why the temperature was so stable for those 10,000 years. When we began to burn coal and gas and oil, however, obviously that number began to rise, but we never knew where the red line was. Once we’d watched the Arctic melt, our best scientific minds went back to work. In January of 2008 Jim Hansen and his team at NASA published the first in a series of papers. Many other teams have since done much the same kind of work. The NASA paper told us what that number is. It said, and let me see if I can remember the words from the abstract of Hansen’s paper: “Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet upon which civilization developed or to which life on earth is adapted.” That’s a very strong statement, which makes 350 the most important number in the world. It’s also a number that demands action because we’re already past it. Today the CO2 level in the atmosphere is approximately 390 parts per million, which is why the Arctic melted, and it’s why Australia is on fire. We’re not like the man sitting in the doctor’s office, and the doctor is saying, “Keep eating like this and someday your cholesterol will be too high.” We’re like the man sitting in the doctor’s office, and the doctor is saying: “Look, your cholesterol is off the charts. It’s right at the place where people have heart attacks. Get it down fast and hope you do so before the heart attack comes.” The planet is having a heart attack. That’s what it means when its major physical features suddenly flip from frozen to thawed in the course of a few weeks.

Now we had a number, a tough number to deal with, but we decided to go ahead and make it the centerpiece of a global campaign. Global campaigning is an impossible proposition. Nobody does it except Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, and the reason nobody else does it is because the world is an enormously big place. It’s divided in all kinds of ways, not the least of which is because everybody insists on speaking his or her own language, which basically makes it difficult to work across boundaries. Nonetheless, with the same kind of naive resolve we set to work, and my team of six Middlebury students, now fully graduated, each took a continent and got started. They spent eight or nine months finding all the people they could all over the world, mostly young people, who were eager to take part in our campaign. We were doing a lot of organizing behind the scenes to reach some of the major players, such as Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri, who is the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.N.’s top climate scientist, the only other person besides Gore to accept a Nobel Prize for his climate-change work. We wanted them to understand what the stakes are and to endorse our target, but mostly we’ve been trying to organize a big global public movement of ordinary people as well as scientists. Our efforts will peak on Saturday, October 24, a week from today, and it will be the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history. There will be events in at least 170 nations, which means pretty much all the nations there are except those so tiny that we can’t find anybody to participate and North Korea. I checked the website as I left today; there are over 3500 actions and events and rallies planned [ed. note: the final figures were 181 nations and 5200 actions], all designed to take the three digits 350 and drive them deeply into the debate. That’s what we need to do.

It’s not sufficient to stand up and tell our leaders that we want action on global warming. They can produce action on global warming. They’ll all be in Copenhagen in December for the big climate conference. They will produce something. You don’t get 180 world leaders in a room and all they do is say, “Forget it, we can’t do anything.” They will do something. The question is whether or not it will be commensurate with the scale of the problem we face. We have to tell them what it is that’s needed, what the target actually is. A different way of saying this is that we must make them understand that the debate underway is not the right one. They and the media still imagine that the debate underway is between the United States and the European Union and China as well as between industry and the environment. Those are important debates, to be sure, but the crucial one, the actual negotiation, is between human beings and physics/chemistry. Physics and chemistry are completely unimpressed by good intentions. They’re not going to suspend the laws of nature just because we’re in a difficult economic period. Haggling is not their style. They have announced their bottom line: no more than 350 parts per million of CO2 if we want the world to work the way we’re used to it working. If we can’t figure out how to meet that goal, then whatever we do is pyrrhic and rhetorical and won’t matter much in the end. That’s the message we’re trying to get across.

Now, the reason that this global organizing has gone remarkably well, it turns out, is that Arabic numerals cross linguistic boundaries; 350 means the same thing in Beijing and in Lagos and in Stockbridge, which fact has allowed us to organize across all those places, and it’s why the focus next week will be on those numbers themselves. We’ll have myriad events going on. There will be at least 120 big demonstrations in China, which is pretty remarkable. No one has ever tried to do this kind of organizing there, and even authoritarian systems will respond to that prodding and pushing and cajoling. There will be a kind of global scrabble in a few big cities such as Delhi and Sydney, where tens of thousands of people will form a giant human 3 with their bodies, and at the same time in other cities such as London and Quito an enormous human 5, and then in Washington and in Copenhagen a 0. The hope is that CNN and BBC will put them together that night and make the point for us that we must work across borders to make things happen. In fact, the most beautiful of these linkages is in the Mideast. I was in Bethlehem a couple of weeks ago, meeting with activists from across the region on the shores of the rapidly dwindling Dead Sea. Israeli activists are going to make a big human 3 in their sector, and on their beach Palestinian activists a big human 5, and in Jordan a big 0. This will remind us that we need to set aside some of our other problems to deal with this one that is bearing down upon us. I could go on and on describing what will be happening around the world on October 24. To find out what will be going on in your area, go and type in your town. You may think I’m talking as if I and my team are somehow controlling all this, making it happen. Far from it. It’s the global equivalent of a potluck supper. We set the date and the theme, and then people are on their own, figuring out how to do their part on our International Day of Climate Action. It’s extremely beautiful to observe.

I want to try to tie this international activity in with themes of the day and with E. F. Schumacher’s legacy and my own intellectual interests. This organizing is what I spend all my time doing now, when all I really want to do is stay home in my town and help make change happen. Yet what most compels me, and what I have been writing about in recent years, is the emerging story of what’s on the other side of a far more localized world and economy than the one we have now. The two sides I’m referring to, the local and the global, are closely related in several ways. I think that the way to understand what I mean begins with understanding that so many of the features of the modern world that Schumacher saw as causing great problems—and that we all intuit as causing great problems—derive from the central economic fact of today’s world: for 200 years we have had access to cheap fossil fuel. That’s why our lives are as they are, and it’s why our physical surroundings are as they are. It’s what has built the world we live in and built our mental world too.

Think about it: for the 60 years since the end of World War II the American dream has been to build bigger houses farther apart from one another, and that is what much American economic activity has been engaged in. That’s what we’ve been about, and it has been possible to think in those terms only because we had such seemingly endless access to huge amounts of cheap energy, which also explains why our food system looks the way it does—highly industrialized and relying on shipping food great distances. These are the temptations we’ve succumbed to, and it’s been important work to try and change those patterns from the bottom up, to go from town to town and place to place, open farmers’ markets where we can buy our vegetables locally. It’s good work and work that I participate in and love, the work I want to be doing. It’s precisely the way we should proceed—if we had all the time in the world. Unfortunately physics and chemistry put a deadline on how much time we in fact have, and it’s a deadline that means our local efforts alone won’t get us where we need to go because we also need a powerful global movement to force a solution that will put an end to the cheap energy we’ve had access to for so long. If we ever get a global or national agreement capping carbon emissions, the most useful result will be a rapid increase in the price of fossil fuel. All of a sudden coal and gas and oil will have to pay for the fact that they are destroying the Earth. At the moment CO2 is a free good that can be poured into the atmosphere, so there is no economic reason to slow it down. But if that changes, we’ll begin to see real repercussions. We got some sense of that the summer before last when the price of gasoline went through the roof.

I’ve been concerned about gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles for fifteen years. We started a campaign ten years ago called “What Would Jesus Drive?” that actually was pretty effective. It was picked up by the national and evangelical environmental networks, which helped to advance it, but all it took to end the SUV era forever was six weeks of $4 a gallon gasoline. All of a sudden people realized that they don’t actually need a tank to go to the grocery. They can drive a small car or even take a bus. The change happened quickly and profoundly. If we’re able to alter that variable, the price of energy, then much else will alter with it. All of a sudden farmers’ markets won’t be fighting against the force of economic gravity but will have economic gravity working in their direction. All of a sudden wind turbines won’t be fighting against economic headwinds; economic wind will be at their back, helping push them along. The rules of the game will change such that the experiments and test cases and pilot studies we’ve built with our farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture and energy projects will have some chance of gaining enough momentum to matter. It is some combination of the global and the local that we need to work on if we are to move forward. We can’t choose one or the other; we need to be doing both, figuring out how to engage at both levels as powerfully as we can. And as we make this leap, we can sense that if we get to the other side, we will reach a place that will be far preferable to where we are now.

My latest book, Deep Economy, is a kind of meditation on what we know about happiness and how deeply rooted it is in community and why it is that Americans have become steadily less happy with their lives for the past 50 years. The reason is clear: as we have built bigger houses farther apart from one another, we have managed to destroy community. The average American has half as many close friends as 50 years ago. That’s a big change. There are not enough iPods in the world to make up for that. The average American eats meals with family or friends or neighbors half as often as 50 years ago. In social terms, and we are socially evolved primates, that’s as huge a change as the Arctic melting. Fossil fuel has devastated the climate even as it made us rich, but perhaps most profoundly it has made us the first people in the world to have no practical need of our neighbors for anything. What we thought was the American dream has turned out to be something of a nightmare, but the world we’re building to take its place will be better than the one we’ve been living in. It will be a world where we have some need for one another, where our food comes from people we know, where we have a farmers’ market in energy, where your solar panel tied to the grid is helping to cool my locally brewed beer before the Red Sox game. That’s what we desperately need to keep in mind as we do the hard work of making a transition, of trying to push this system hard enough to make it react quickly and powerfully.

We’ll get some sense from Copenhagen of how well our efforts are going, of whether we’re making headway or we’re just going to have to batten down the hatches and make our own communities as strong as we possibly can to ride out change that’s going to be dramatic, difficult, and near impossible to deal with. In any event, strong local communities are the best survival mechanism we have, even if thriving is no longer one of the items on the menu. But I don’t think it’s time to despair quite yet. I can’t promise you that what we’re doing at 350 is going to succeed. There are scientists who think that we’ve waited too long to get started and that the physical momentum of our destructive systems is too great. But the consensus science still says we have a narrow window, not to stop global warming—it’s too late for that because the Earth has already warmed, and it will warm even more, causing severe damage—but maybe to keep it from reaching civilization-scale collapse. If that’s the case, then we have the absolute moral obligation to try as hard as we can while that window remains open to pull as many people and as many places and as many institutions through it. And we in particular, those of us who have spent our whole lives in this country pouring carbon into the atmosphere, have a special obligation. The movement has been led for the most part by young people, which is good and appropriate; they are the ones who will have to live for a long time with the world we have built, but they darn well better be supported by the rest of us. Those of us in this part of the world had better step up and do everything we can, beginning next Saturday, to help make a difference.

Building networks in the developing world is what I’ve liked most about the work. We go to places where people normally aren’t listened to at all on these kinds of questions. People in those places have done an unbelievable job of organizing. For instance, we set up climate camps with six-week courses to train young people from Central Asia and from Africa, and they understand the issues. They responded to what we presented and did amazing work. Next Saturday there will be 10,000 people in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi, doing a big event; there will be Masai herders in villages in Kenya; there will be actions in every one of the “-stan” countries across Central Asia, including in the mountains of Afghanistan. We even have a Farsi website now to coordinate all the actions across Iran.

I got an email not long ago from a farmer in Cameroon in West Africa. He decided to do something that would look good on a cell-phone screen, so he got together with his neighbors and they planted 350 trees on the edge of their village. He used a cell-phone camera to take a picture of the trees and a 350 sign and sent it to us. That was useful. It appeared on the front page of the African papers, but more to the point it was moving. Nobody in Cameroon did anything to cause the temperature to rise, but these people had figured out that in a world wired together the way ours is, they may have some role to play in solving this problem.

I’m going to be in Times Square next Saturday. We’ve gained access to a number of the big advertising screens, and throughout the afternoon they will be showing thousands of images as they’re uploaded from places all around the planet. I look forward to seeing all of your faces up on those screens in Times Square from wherever you are, at the very least letting the rest of the world know that you have heard the 350 message and are doing your best to respond. It may mean that the planet’s immune system is beginning to respond as well, that conscious citizens around the world are starting to rise to the challenge. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to win. Not every time the body’s immune system kicks in do you get well and recover. Sometimes it’s too late. But at least it’s a hopeful sign.

It’s a great pleasure to be in a room full of people who engage in this kind of work and this kind of thinking all the time. I’m enormously grateful to you and very happy to be your colleague. Thank you.


Excerpts from the Question & Answer Period

Q: I’m wondering if an acceptable, tolerable, relatively sustainable outcome 20 or 30 years from now will square with the continuation of capitalism as we know it.

A: First to put it in environmental terms: One of the problems we have is that our series of choices is constrained by the lack of time we have to deal with climate change. That is, underneath the frozen tundra and taiga of the far north there is an immense quantity of methane, CH4. As that permafrost has begun to melt, methane is seeping out into the atmosphere, and over the past two years the level in the atmosphere has begun to spike. CH4 is a potent greenhouse gas itself. By a certain not too distant point, if we haven’t brought our carbon emissions under control—stopped burning fossil fuel—and we let enough of that permafrost melt, then there’ll be nothing we can do to slow it down. It will no longer be in our power to control. This means that we have to work very quickly, and this limits our options. Now, if everybody in the world subscribed to some sort of nature-based religion, it would be easier to do what is needed. But that’s not going to happen in the time frame you mention; hence, we need to figure out how to work with Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Hinduism to promote the work we’re doing. It turns out that there are great resources in the scriptures of those religions that make this possible, as evidenced by the fact that thousands of churches around the world will ring their bells 350 times next Saturday. And happily the Torah portion of the service in synagogues around the world next Saturday will be the story of Noah, so a lot of people are organizing around that.

Similarly with our economic system, it might be easier to deal with the crisis if we had an entirely different economic system from the one we have, but my guess is that in 20 or 30 years we’re still going to have the same system of markets. That doesn’t mean we can allow them to be unfettered in the way that we have, particularly as regards carbon. The big change that we need to make more than any other is to drive the price of carbon high enough that markets respond. In a certain sense, environmentalists have to hope that markets function with some of the efficiency that their proponents describe because so much depends on how quickly innovations result from that increase in price, if it ever comes. And so on a local level I’m extremely interested in all the experiments in capitalism that are going on, and I write about them and try to help build them in my area. I think one of the most beautiful of these experiments and the one that I adore is the BerkShares local currency, which I’ve written about and will continue to write about. It’s exactly the kind of thing that holds a great deal of promise, and I see it as a guidepost for the direction we want to go in. It’s also fairly capitalistic because it operates on the assumption that the BerkShares in circulation will spur all kinds of global demand and local production and so forth. That’s the kind of undertaking we should encourage. Even if one could wave a magic wand and come up with some other whole set of ground rules by which to operate, it might or might not be useful, but that’s not going to happen in the relevant time period, so we better figure out how to use the tools we already have.

Q: If the Copenhagen Conference in December fails to put a significant price on carbon and if climate-change legislation in the U.S. Congress is stalled or is so watered down that it doesn’t put a significant price on carbon, will the new year be the right time to go back to your original idea of a sit-in, following Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their massive civil disobedience?

A: That’s a good question. In March Wendell Berry and I helped plan the first big climate civil disobedience in this country. It was a lot of fun, actually. Right around this time last year we sent out a letter to people asking them to come to Washington in March. Some of you may have gotten that letter, and some of you may have come. We had a target that was just too inviting to pass up. It turns out that Congress owns the power plant two blocks away that services Capitol Hill. For 103 years it’s been powered by coal. We asked people to come for a sit-in at the plant, and to our surprise 5000 people joined us there. Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network handled the logistics because Wendell and I were not capable of that, and they did a good job. We surrounded the plant, illegally blocking all the entrances and standing in the street for hours and hours. Nobody was arrested because the police said: “We were expecting 500 people. There’s no way we can arrest 5000 of you.” We would have felt bad about this except that in the course of the day a letter arrived from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, as owners of the power plant, and it said, We will set the tone and stop burning coal here. Two weeks later they did stop burning coal. So one coal plant down, 600 to go. Civil disobedience may well be where we need to go, but at the moment it’s also important to do the 350 work and to keep doing it because it’s crucial that people understand what the target is. We need the level of education that enables people to understand the seriousness of the situation and why action is so urgent. But I think the two approaches are closely related, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if civil disobedience is the direction in which we’re headed. If it is, then let me say, looking at the demographic composition of this audience, that I hope those of you who are old enough to get arrested without having it ruin your career will take part because it’s not fair to leave it all up to 22-year-olds.

Q: You spoke about the importance of education. Higher education trains future leaders. It’s also an area in which many of us have a point of leverage that may have been overlooked as we promote the local in our communities as well as try to influence national and international policy. Colleges and universities set examples by what is taught in the classrooms, but they also set examples by what is served in their dining halls, by the way they use energy in their buildings, and by the type of new buildings they build. Recently the fourth edition of the college sustainability report card came out, and only 26 colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada merited the highest grade, which was an A-. People should go to to find out how their school ranks—there are over 10,000 pages of surveys that were done at an in-depth level. If yours isn’t among those 26, when you get your alumni appeal or the tuition bill for your child, write in and ask, Why aren’t you improving your grade? Educational institutions carry weight in our society, and they are leading the way to the future. Ask what kind of future your school is leading the way to.

A: That’s a very good point. There are about 1500 colleges that have signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, and their boards of trustees have pledged to become carbon neutral by some unspecified date. There’s good work going on, and much of it of course is being driven by students. It’s beautiful to see it when it happens, but it does need to go much more quickly. You’re right when you say colleges have intellectual leverage; after all, every year there is a new crop of graduates to go out into the world and spread whatever good ideas—or bad ideas—they’ve adopted. I always tell college administrators they need to remember that everybody on campus is an educator, and that includes the people in the kitchens, say, who are preparing meals. Three times a day they can either teach students to eat the way people have been eating for the past 50 years, which is destructive of their bodies and of the continent, or they can teach the advantages of eating food raised close to home, knowing where the food is coming from and what it’s supposed to taste like. Students are very open to the latter option.

Q: By the way, Middlebury got an A-.

A: Glad to hear it.

Q: I participated in a discussion group in Amherst last Wednesday. We talked about C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, which dates back to the 1950s. He expressed concern about the lack of understanding between the scientists and the humanists. I fear this is still true, not only for the public but for some of our leaders. For example, a year or so ago President Bush said that water has hydrogen so there’s no energy problem because the hydrogen economy is on its way. I don’t think he realized that it takes energy to catalyze hydrogen from water, and energy today is 90 percent from fossil fuel. I talked to my Congressman a while back, and I asked him if it’s really true that there are people in Congress who believe that if you bribe people enough you can defy the laws of thermodynamics. He said, “Unfortunately, that is true.”

A: One of the ways to make your point concrete is by watching even our best politicians try to grapple with problems that are different from the ones they’re used to. Think about the big controversy going on now over health care, which is going to end at some point with a compromise that falls well short of what anybody wants. We all know this, and everyone is pushing to get as close to his or her version as possible. I have high hopes that we’ll be able to move this particular debate in the direction of actually taking care of sick people, and that’s good, but not everyone will be covered. To a certain extent it’s sensible to have a system that goes part way and then some years later gets farther down the road. That’s how politicians expect change to happen so that it’s not too abrupt and unsettling. President Obama keeps saying that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that’s true at some level. He has used the same language to talk about climate change. The trouble is that this issue is fundamentally different, i.e., getting part way there doesn’t mean much because we’re already past the series of physical thresholds that cause the problem. So it’s true that we can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, but it’s also true that we can’t make the convenient the enemy of the necessary, and this is extremely hard to get across to political leaders. They’re eager to go to Copenhagen and produce a solution of some kind that they can bring home and boast about, but if it doesn’t get us far down the road, then in certain ways it’s worse than nothing at all because it will remove the pressure to do anything further. After Kyoto everybody walked away for six or seven years and nothing happened except that we lost six or seven years of opportunity to make progress.

Q: You have emphasized the strategic necessity of raising the price of fossil hydrocarbons substantially. In that context, what do you think of the phenomenon of peak oil production and the role that may play economically?

A: I’ve been writing a lot about peak oil recently and in fact was recently in California with Richard Heinberg to talk at the Post-Carbon Institute, a wonderful outfit. Peak oil in certain ways helps and in certain ways hinders. As we run out of oil, the price goes up. That’s what happened the summer of 2007, and it helped drive down consumption and changed our attitude toward automobiles. It hinders because the first reflex of the system is to substitute coal for oil, and you know that if we electrify every car in the country but generate the electricity to run those cars from coal-fired power plants, we haven’t gotten far at all. In many ways peak oil is a useful phenomenon in helping us come to grips with this crisis, but it’s not going to solve the problem by itself without policy intervention, without the kind of political work we’re doing, because we have a lot of coal lying around, and there’s always going be the temptation to use it.

Q: Would you comment on how we can get more people involved in what we’re doing without having to convince them completely of the scientific validity of our cause?

A: That’s what we’ve been trying hard to do with 350. Many of the events going on next weekend were designed to be fun; for instance, there’ll be 350 bike riders going on a long outing. Now, of the 350 people who set out, 30 of them will be devoted climate warriors, and 320 will be people who like to ride bicycles and go off for the day. By the end of the day a significant percentage of the latter will be proud of what they’ve done and will understand at least some of what it’s all about. Having fun is a big part of what we’re doing, and I think not including fun has been one of the great weaknesses of the environmental movement, which has been much better at producing graphs and charts than at producing songs. If you go to the 350 website, you’ll find beautiful videos and good music of all kinds that people have been producing around the world, using these numbers and making them real. One of the reasons why young people have been particularly valuable to our efforts in the past few years is because of their visceral and intuitive understanding of the way the world is now wired together and their ability to use social networks and the web to build real organizing power instead of sending e-petitions off to one another, which is useless.

It’s always useful to remember in this kind of work that you do not need to have 51 percent of people on board to make change. If five percent are truly committed and vocal about something, that is more than enough to change any political system you can think of.

Q: You spoke about the social breakdown of society. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the strange bedfellows that sometimes come out of social movements, specifically the differing motivations you’ve observed on your travels that have brought people together. The more I hear about this aspect, the more I think it creates opportunities for the choir to sing more songs in order to find people’s personal motivations for becoming involved.

A: What a good point, and let me talk about it politically first. One of the problems with the environmental movement is that people tend to identify it with liberalism, and I think that’s both wrong and a handicap. Many of the things we’re doing now don’t need to be identified that way. Take a farmers’ market—is that a liberal or a conservative concept? It’s some of both, and it even has features repugnant to both political traditions. There’s much in the kind of environmental movement we’re building that goes strongly against a liberal interpretation of the world: the strong emphasis on localism, for instance, is in many ways a conservative response to the world around us; trying to keep carbon emissions at a relatively sane historic level is also a deeply conservative idea. The radical idea is to double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and just see what happens. Abbie Hoffman on his best day never came up with anything half as radical as that. Conservative faith communities here and around the world are coming on board because if you believe that the world we live in is God’s creation, then you would have twice the impulse to go out and protect it than if you believe otherwise. I find it easy to work across those boundaries, and I think it’s important to do. It was a great mistake to let environmentalism become a subset of liberal politics instead of something much broader.

Q: I have a theological question. You alluded to the fact that you’re a Methodist, and you’ve also talked about the role religions can play through their traditions, if not their present practices. What resources do you see within your own tradition that can help motivate people to take action beyond themselves, especially considering that churches represent organized money and organized people?

A: Churches, synagogues, and mosques are interesting institutions. They’re the only major institutions left in our society that can still posit some reason other than accumulation for human existence. Government is all about growth—that’s how it defines its mission—and even higher education largely sees itself as designed to produce people for today’s workforce. If they happen to pick up a little philosophy along the way, so much the better. But the churches are potentially quite subversive. If you read the Gospels, which not many people do, you’ll find that they are radical indeed. There’s one message that is constantly repeated. The basic dramatic structure of the Gospels is that the disciples are stand-ins for all of us. They are quite dim-witted; they can never remember what’s going on, and they keep asking Jesus: “What is this about again? Why are we doing this?” Jesus keeps saying the same thing over and over again, “Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love your neighbor, love your neighbor, love your neighbor. That is the most radical possible thing to say, especially in a world where we’re now deeply committed to living our lives in a way that causes our neighbors to drown, gives them mosquito-borne diseases, and makes increasingly miserable the lives of the most vulnerable people on earth—the three or four billion people who depend on the daily operation of the planet’s physical systems in order to have enough to eat. I’m just a Sunday school teacher, but I don’t think any tricky theologizing is required here, for there couldn’t be anything closer to the core of the Christian message than to figure out how on earth to stop making life impossible for people around us.

Q: What I found most compelling in your enlightened presentation is that the solution might well have been brought about in part a couple of years ago when gasoline went up to $4 a gallon and the country as a whole reacted very quickly without having to reach out to Kenya or anywhere else. As Europe has shown, people really do react to higher priced carbon. How much political will do we have in this country to tax carbon for what its cost is to our society, and what can we learn from Europe?

A: As yet we don’t have anywhere near enough political will, and we certainly can learn from Europe that all kinds of good results flow from increasing the cost of carbon. There is less physical sprawl, and you have train systems that work; advantages like that derive from having realistically priced fossil fuel. This was the smartest decision that could have been made and is the reason why the average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American and is nonetheless happier with life than the average American. The question is how to make the change, and this is the hard part. There’s no shortcut to building political will. It doesn’t help to just complain about not having it. There’s no substitute for going out and building movements that make things happen, but we haven’t been able to do that. The movement having to do with carbon reduction is in certain ways in the same place where the civil rights movement was in 1955. Most thinking people understood that segregation was archaic and wrong, but that didn’t mean it was going to dissolve by itself without people doing an immense amount of work and taking risks. They had to sit in, they had to march, go to jail, and get shot in order to make possible that leap from one world into the next world, and we’re still reaping the dividends from the people who took those risks half a century ago. Barack Obama is the direct descendent of those efforts. He couldn’t have become President without them, and in 40 years or so what we’re doing now will pay dividends that we can’t yet predict. For now, it’s essential that we build our movement on as big and dramatic and powerful a scale as we can, which is why I do things that sometimes seem quixotic but at other times seem to work. And we need all of you to help.

Q: I have a question relative to our tax dollars. We seem to be at a point in our history where economic stimulus is actually beginning to funnel some subsidies to clean energy technologies. I think most people are not aware that the National Priorities Project has published a report about securing energy resources that says ever since Jimmy Carter’s day oil in other parts of the world has been our national interest. About $200 billion a year of our tax dollars are now spent on securing access to the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, etc. How can we shift our tax dollars away from fossil fuels toward clean energy, and what can bring that about faster?

A: Vermont has lost more citizens per capita in the war in Iraq than any state in the Union. We don’t like going to so many funerals, but we’ll have to keep doing it as long as the central part of our economy lies under the sand of other countries. About 57 cents from every gallon of gasoline sold provides the military dollars that are going into the oil economy. That’s a hidden transfer. Anything that helps to move us away from fossil fuel makes it easier to bring about the transition you’re referring to, and I think the easiest lever to pull to do this is the one that increases the price of fossil fuel and hence makes it less central to our economy. As soon as we get 20 to 30 percent of our energy from renewable resources instead of 1 or 2 percent and it’s clear that this is the direction we’re headed in for the future and this is where the political power will lie, all of a sudden everybody will understand that it’s the wind guys who are coming into their own. Exxon Mobil will still be powerful, but we will be on the way to making that transition. It’s very difficult to do this the other way around—to decide, one town meeting at a time, that we don’t want this fossil-fuel-driven economy to continue. Town meetings are helpful in making the point, but the effort has to be toward the goal of a global agreement that really changes the economic scene.

As we think about a more localized world, we need to redefine what security means. We’re not talking about creating a paradise where there’s no need to worry about security. We’re talking about a world in which we’ll still need to provide security for ourselves, among ourselves. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and I spent my summers on the battle green wearing a tri-corn hat and giving tours, so I’ve always had a somewhat flexible way of thinking about self-defense and home defense and what we can do together with our neighbors in that regard. A lot of our ideas are going to change in the years ahead, and I hope chief among them will be that it’s all right to wander around the world killing people because they stand between us and oil.

Q: You were talking about trying to make the planet safe for human habitation, and one of the things that will come out of the dialogue that’s becoming worldwide in a deeply interconnected way is a sense of what it is we want for a world community. I‘d like to give a personal example from my own family. At the turn of this century, everything was supposed to fall apart when 2000 was entered on computers; it was called the Y2K crisis. My father, having been an Eagle scout, prepared for it not only by putting a generator and extra oil tanks in the back yard but by stocking the root cellar with 4000 pounds of dried food. He said there was enough food for x number of years for the family. My father, who had a doctorate in chemical engineering from NYU, was an intelligent man who had always been exceedingly rational. I told him that if this anticipated disruption really did transpire, I didn’t believe our family was going to get through it as a result of what he had done to prepare for it but rather through community, through neighbors supporting one another, through dialogue and interaction in a much more profound and meaningful way than reacting with fear. What I think will happen in the future is that overall in the dynamic of the developing dialogue—which is political, economic, social, and climatic—we will, as you said, actually create a world society that functions in a much more humane way as we attempt to make the world safe for human habitation.

A: That’s such a good story, and it makes my point so well. The nightmare vision of the world is of people out with their shotguns defending their carrot against the marauding urban hordes. It’s a vision everybody is likely to have who thinks about it for very long because it’s how we’re programmed to think. We’re used to thinking of community in a warm and fuzzy sentimental way, but it’s actually more like a useful tool such as a bow-saw or plow, something our species evolved over a long time to allow us to cope with the many dangers we face, and having evolved that way it’s no wonder we like it. It feels good and right to us, and so it’s gratifying to see community starting to rebuild, because we’re very near the nadir in this country. While the last big housing boom, the one that ruined our economy, was still going strong, there was a story in the real estate section of The New York Times that asked the interesting question, What’s actually in these houses that are the size of junior high schools? The answer turned out to be that apparently not just the highest end but also many of the starter castles for entry-level monarchs that were appearing across the landscape were being built with dual master bedrooms because the husband snores and the wife pulls off the blankets. The American solution is 900 square feet of extra house. This obviously causes an environmental problem: you have to heat and cool all that space, but it’s also an indication that something has reached a low point when you’re hunkered down in your own cave staring out across the hall at your mate. That’s why it’s encouraging to see promising signs of a different attitude beginning to emerge, the surge in farmers’ markets, for example.

Here’s what’s interesting about a farmers’ market. It’s not just that the food is better and that it comes from close to home. A couple of years ago a pair of sociologists followed shoppers, first around a supermarket, then around a farmers’ market. You know how it is in a supermarket. You walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance, you visit the stations of the cross around the market. That’s it. When they followed people around the farmers’ market, they had on average ten times more conversations per visit. That’s what is most interesting and useful about farmers’ markets; it’s not just the distribution of kohlrabi, it’s the reassertion of social interaction. Being Americans, we think farmers’ markets are something new and chic, but don’t forget that this is how everybody in the world shopped for food for 10,000 years, and 80 percent of the population still does. Of course we like it, it’s what we’re designed to like, and that is the kind of community we very much need. It’s why we organize the way we do with 350. As we expand globally, we want to do it in a way that also strengthens local communities, and it’s where we’re heading if we ever get past this hurdle of cheap fossil fuel.

Q: I’m interested in economics and energy, but for me it really comes down to the great human need for a spiritual healing. And that is what I think is happening, with people from Nigeria talking to people from China and from China talking to people in Iraq and Iran.

A: Let’s hope you’re right. As far as spiritual healing, I’m a Methodist, you know, so we don’t go very far down that path. Our big thing is church suppers, which do have their own healing elements, community elements.

Q: But I don’t think spiritual healing is something esoteric, I think it’s walking through a farmers’ market. I think it’s talking to people at lunch here.

A: Absolutely right. Has anybody else become incredibly hungry as a result of all this talking?


Publication By

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is an environmentalist and author who frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. Awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the Alternative Nobel, in 2014, he is the founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate-change movement, and is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute. As a … Continued

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