In 1989, young scientist Bill McKibben published the seminal climate change book, The End of Nature. It made him an instant star in the environmental sciences, and in the literary world as well.
Like it did with so many of my generation, the book had a profound effect on me. Among other things, I never forgot the analogy that if the earth was the size of a basketball, the depth of our atmosphere would be the equivalent of a coat of paint. The air we breath, the sky we see … it is not nearly so infinite as it seems.
Though the debate about climate change has always had a partisan aspect, it has in recent years been fully politicized. Right and Left now have their firm stances. Many right of center people like myself, who were onboard with climate change initially, now have doubts. It’s not that we don’t think it’s happening, it’s just hard to believe anything the Left says about it.
And so I recently went to see Bill McKibben do a bookstore appearance to promote his new book. As nice a guy as he is, and as earnest and “aw shucks” as he comes across, he is now in the middle of a bitter culture war. I was curious how he was handling that.
The bookstore was full to capacity. The audience was mostly older, with a sprinkling of young activist types. Bill himself looked like the kindly professor he has become: L. L. Bean sweater, wire-rim glasses, balding philosopher’s skull. He teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, which is one of the whitest, preppiest campuses in America.
At this event, he was “in conversation” with a local environmentalist who was somewhat overwhelmed to be in his presence. She asked him questions about his life and his new book. He was friendly, warm, humorous. Naturally, he remained committed to environmentalism in all its forms. He was quite enthusiastic about the New Green Deal, which seemed a little radical for a reasonable older guy like himself. But what else was he going to do? He has to support the people in his camp.
About half way through the talk came a key moment. The interviewer asked a question which led McKibben to say something to the effect of: “Climate change and inequality go hand in hand.” This seemed to be the moment the crowd was waiting for. They stirred with anticipation. Climate change and inequality! Finally we were getting to the good stuff.
I leaned forward and carefully listened to his explanation of how inequality and climate change went together. He didn’t really give one. Yes, if you’re uneducated you are less likely to be environmentally conscious. And if you’re rich you can avoid ugly polluted places. But what difference does that make if we’re all going to die?
He then threw in some statistics about the wealthy United States using far more than their fair share of resources. That related to inequality. He said: “An American family uses more energy on January 1, from midnight to midnight, than some African families use in a year.” The crowd gasped at the injustice.
At this point I went into a little reverie imagining what it would be like to be Bill McKibben. It was clear he was fully wedded to his role as the kindly environmentalist. Why mess with a good thing? His peaceful message, first brought to the world in the illustrious pages of The New Yorker —where sections of The End of Nature first appeared—was so sound, so reasonable, so right. He’d been embraced as an American hero from that point onward.
But of course humility is always the best look for a man of science, hero or not. And so he’s spent the last three decades riding his bicycle around Middlebury College, lecturing, writing articles, presenting his message of alarm (but also hope) to a fresh batch of idealistic college kids each year. When not doing that, he travels, attends conferences, and occasionally ventures into the harsher worlds of business or politics where he no doubt must sharpen his message and put a little extra spice into his words of warning. All of these activities he pursues from within the safe boundaries of liberal academic science. He remains a rock star within these parameters. Why would he ever leave?
Near the end of the event, Bill McKibben took questions. Most of these were from blushing acolytes overcome by their moment with the great man.
But then a young activist woman appeared. Her question was simple: what could the climate change movement do to better promote diversity and people of color in their ranks?
Bill McKibben didn’t blink. He’d heard this question before. He started off by making a little joke about being an old white guy himself, which got the crowd chuckling. Then he assured her that he was always eager to step aside and let other people come forward and lead the movement. However, he added, the important thing was for people to work together, that everyone had their part to play, and that unity was the best strategy for protecting our fragile earth.
He then transitioned into the seemingly unrelated subject of population. Back in the 1970s, when he was growing up, population growth had seemed destined to destroy the world. It was environmental science’s most pressing concern. But now in 2019, population had actually stabilized in many regions and in some places was shrinking. Why? The empowerment of women.
McKibben explained further: the more a society encouraged women to educate themselves, to work and pursue careers, the lower the fertility rate became. This had been proven already in developed countries and in the third world would likely be the same, over time. He said: “It turns out women would rather have a job than six kids!” Everyone laughed, the young activist woman among them. A sense of deep satisfaction came over the crowd. Sensing this was the perfect ending, the Q & A was concluded.
Afterward, a crush of people surrounded Bill. He really is a rock star. Even now, thirty years after the book that made him famous. Part of his success is a result of his demeanor, his attitude. He was the perfect man to deliver this message.
As I walked out of the venue, I spotted the young activist woman. She too was surrounded by a gushing group of four or five friends. Though smaller, this group was equally excited. To them, this woman who had bravely spoken truth to power was the real hero of the night. She had made Bill McKibben acknowledge his white privilege and proclaim the importance of female empowerment! To them, that was the real victory of the night.