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Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben speaks at NAU Tuesday night. (Eric Betz/Arizona Daily Sun)

The world’s fossil fuel companies have five times as much oil in their reserves as is needed to cause catastrophic and irreversible harm to the planet’s atmosphere.

That was perhaps the most troubling factoid of the Earth Day speech given by famed environmental author and activist Bill McKibben at Northern Arizona University on Tuesday. 

His talk was titled “Oil & Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.” It touched on his recent years of transition from renowned writer to leader of a worldwide environmental movement. 

The message was grim — mass starvation, resource wars, climate refugees, biodiversity loss — but presented with scientific pragmatism instead of hyperbole and garnished with humor. He called climate change the greatest challenge that humans have ever faced. 

The message delivered was also a familiar one. Change is necessary but unlikely while one industry reaps large profits from one particular resource and makes massive donations to political leaders. 

He spoke to a near-capacity crowd at the High Country Conference Center. The audience was a mix of college students and a cross-section of Flagstaff locals, including elected officials. 

At the top of his talk, he pointed out that on certain summer days, Germany generates half of its energy from solar panels. In the winter, as much as half comes from wind. But Phoenix, where rooftop solar seems most obvious, generates less than his home state of Vermont, he said. 

“They don’t have much sun — what they have is political will to do something,” he said of Vermont. 

“Why?” McKibben asked of the discrepancy. “Because the richest industry in the history of the world doesn’t want to. I’m merely a Methodist Sunday school teacher and not a theologian, but my view is that they have more money than God.” 

He asserted that money has drowned out reason. 

* * *

McKibben made a name for himself when he wrote “The End of Nature” in 1988, which is considered the first book about global warming for a general audience.

“When I wrote the first book about this 25 years ago, climate change was a theoretical idea,” he told the excited Earth Day audience. “If someone had said ... that we would have lost the majority of sea ice in the summer Arctic, they would have been met with disbelief.”

McKibben has written a dozen other books since then, becoming one of the world’s best-known and important environmentalists. And he still writes for outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, Outside, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone and Orion.

Currently, he’s most associated with his grassroots environmental group,, which lobbies for reducing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, considered to be the safe amount. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is currently around 400 ppm, which has already brought about a 1 degree increase in temperature. 

In recent years, has generated some of the largest demonstrations for any cause in the world. That includes the largest mass American arrest in 30 years, which jailed some 1,200 people. McKibben himself spent time in jail over his protests against the Keystone XL pipeline.

* * *

He told the Flagstaff audience on Tuesday that it was the pervasive lack of political will that finally pushed him away from writing another book and to start an environmental movement alongside seven undergraduate students. Each of the students took a continent and set to organizing existing groups for a day of action.

The organizers talked to all manner of humanitarian, environmental and political rights groups. “All the things you cannot have on a planet that’s going to hell,” he said.  

Over the course of several days, tens of thousands of groups rallied around the number “350” in 181 countries. They form the number with groups of people and hold signs with it printed out. In the five years since McKibben started, the group has had more than 20,000 demonstrations covering every country except North Korea. 

“I’d spent my whole life hearing that environmentalism is something that rich, white people do,” he said.

 Instead, the turnout included all the people most likely to be harmed by a problem they are not causing. The photos that hit social media included Christian and Muslim leaders marching, a student council underwater in the Maldives, Haitian hurricane victims and Yemeni women in black burkas.

He said the number “350” ended up being one thing that could cross cultural and linguistic barriers. 

That number had been presented by a group of National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists as the most important number in the world. McKibben compared it to getting a cholesterol test done by a doctor. Everyone can understand that it’s bad if you have a reading 50 points higher than what your doctor says is healthy, he said. 

“Only idiots go home and search the Internet until they find a website that says cholesterol doesn’t exist,” he said. 

McKibben later added, “There is nothing radical about what we’re talking about. Radicals work at oil companies. Trying to keep the world the way it’s been for the last 10,000 years is basically a conservative prospect.”

* * *

He concluded by telling the audience that the current movement wasn’t enough because it consists of playing defense to stop new projects from going forward, while old projects continue with enough CO2 to destroy the planet. 

“I’m not at all certain we’re going to win this fight,” McKibben said. “Unlike other fights, this one is limited by time. I do know that we’re going to fight.”

And while Earth Day was the reason for the event, the environmentalist told Flagstaff residents that small actions, like those often championed on Earth Day, won’t be enough to turn the tide. Asked by a student about riding a bicycle instead of driving, McKibben replied that he had solar panels on his roof in Vermont and one of the first electric cars in the state. 

“I try not to fool myself in the end that that’s actually going to make a difference,” he said. 

* * *

The event was sponsored by the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Northern Arizona University Center for Ecosystem Science and Society. President of the Museum of Northern Arizona Robert Breunig said his organization was sponsoring the event because it wasn’t only concerned with things past, it is concerned for the future. 

He said that while the geologic processes of the region have been ongoing for ages, the human complications into those factors are new. 

“The evidence is clear. Climate change is already affecting us here in northern Arizona. What do we want to leave for our children?” Breunig asked. “Do we want them to witness the death of our ponderosa pine forests?” 

Bruce Hungate, director of the Center for Ecological Science and Society, said his group was also sponsoring the event because of the need for action. The biologist is an expert in carbon dioxide and its impact on  ecosystems. 

“One often hears about uncertainties around climate predictions,” he said. “But the major unknowns are not about uncertainties around climate science; the major uncertainty boils down to what will people do.” 


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