Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, is among the most prominent sustainability activists in the world and a key figure in the movement to promote divestment from fossil fuels. He is also someone who speaks with commendable candor about the movement and his own larger goals. Recently he agreed to answer in writing some questions that I posed to him on behalf of the National Association of Scholars. He agreed—despite expressing some doubts about our “good faith.” We are demonstrating our good faith by publishing his answers unedited and without comment.
By way of context: The fossil fuel divestment campaign is one of the fastest growing movements on college campuses. Thirty-six colleges and universities have announced plans to withdraw endowment investments from coal, oil, and gas companies. Twenty-nine of those are in the United States—and ten of those made their decision since January.
The National Association of Scholars has been following the movement since its inception nearly three years ago, when McKibben launched his “Do the Math” speaking tour. McKibben held that to keep global warming beneath 2 degrees Celsius, it was necessary to leave 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
NAS is interviewing students, professors, and administrators on both sides of the issue to better understand the campus movement.
From: Bill McKibben
To: Rachelle Peterson
Sent: July 12, 2015
Here are answers to the questions you posed. Between us, I have my doubts that your request for 'dialogue between those who disagree' is entirely in good faith; I wonder if you don't hope to somehow damage the work we're engaged in. But be that as it may, some replies:
If you could recommend three books to divestment activists to read, what would they be?
I'm not the leader of 'divestment activists,' and I wouldn't want to assign them all reading as if I were a teacher and they my students. But I think for me, right now, those books might be Francis' new encyclical Laudato Si, Wendell Berry's novel Jayber Crow, and Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
This spring held a lot of action, from Global Divestment Day in February to eleven sit-ins at American college campuses. What does the fall hold?
I imagine the fall will be filled with the lead-up to the Paris climate conference, and the follow up to the papal encyclical. There will be a meeting of European divestment activists in early September to build on the work there.
How do you measure the success of the divestment campaign? If every university divested from fossil fuels, and no climate regulations were passed, would that be a success? If it were legislated that 80% of all fossil fuels must stay in the ground, and yet no more institutions divested, would that be a success, or would the divestment campaign still be necessary?
I’m pretty sure everyone would be happy with a global decision to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground.
What is the main obstacle to colleges divesting? What would it take for institutions that have declined to divest to change their mind?
Colleges move slowly. It took a decade or so when the question was apartheid in South Africa, so I suppose this is ahead of schedule in some ways. What’s good to see is not just how many colleges are divesting, but also how many other institutions. This week we heard that the Episcopal Church in the US is divesting from all fossil fuels, just one more piece of news in a fascinating spring and summer. To watch everyone from Oxford University to the biggest French insurance company to the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund start down this path has been fairly remarkable.
In Eaarth you wrote that a 95% ban on fossil fuels is needed. Is this still your position?
I fear I’ve been surpassed by, say, the G-7, whose leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron this spring called for a 100% end to fossil fuel use by the end of the century. In truth, I’ve become somewhat more sanguine about the potential for rapid change, because in the years since Eaarth the price of a solar panel has fallen something like 90%. To me, as I explained in an article in the New Yorker earlier this year, that holds out great possibilities for more rapid and seamless change than we’d imagined.
Is the earth overpopulated?
Well, something’s clearly amiss when the temperature of the earth is rising sharply, and the oceans on an ocean planet have become 30% more acidic. We have perhaps come closer to fulfilling the Genesis charge to multiply and fill the earth than any of the other suggestions in the Bible. But usually when people go on about 'overpopulation' they're worrying about high fertility rates in poor parts of the world. Not only have those rates come dramatically down (mostly as a result of education of girls and women), but per capita consumption in places where the population continues to grow is so low that it's not the main driver of, say, climate change.
In Oil and Honey you praise the simple, ruggedly independent, non-technology-centered lifestyle of a beekeeper. You also praise solar panels and other inventions that are making us less reliant on fossil fuels. If you described your ideal society, would it include the vast and vastly complicated economic infrastructure that makes high technology possible?
I don’t really have an ideal society, and I’m not sure we think about technology in the same ways. What attracts me most to Kirk Webster is that his system of beekeeping works—i.e., he’s avoiding the colony collapse disorders haunting the world’s apiaries, and doing it in ways that don't seem to be creating new problems. What attracts me to solar panels is that they work: with a minimum of waste, they take freely available solar power and turn it into useful energy. Solar panels, bicycles, clever new methods of keeping bees: these seem to me as technological as anything else. So do wind turbines, bus rapid transit systems—all the other things I’ve written about over the years. They’re just technologies that work without creating huge ancillary problems. And, as Pope Francis pointed out, they tend to work at least as well for the poor as for the rich.
What I worry about is that the physical and economic damage from rapid climate change will seriously degrade our ability to carry on with civilizations like the ones we know, and dramatically constrain our choices.
350.org is a network of activists. How much support do individual campaigns (for instance, at a college campus) receive from 350.org? Do they receive funding, oversight or mentorship by staff, supplies, etc.?
Since I’m not in the management team at 350.org, I don’t know all the details—but I do know there’s good mentorship from recent college graduates who work with 350 and other groups. Students are pretty capable of doing this stuff on their own as well—the breadth of the divestment movement means that most of what happens, happens spontaneously.
The Rockefeller Family Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund are major donors to 350.org. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced last September its decision to divest. Were you involved in this decision?
I can’t claim much credit here, though I was very moved by the decision. The Rockefellers, I think, worked it out largely on their own—when they made the announcement, they credited Archbishop Desmond Tutu with having played a significant role.
You were appointed Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in 2010, though you had been teaching there since 2001. Had the Schumann Media Center (or as also known, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy) financially supported your work there previously?
Schumann asked me to start, and then provided the main support, for a five-year fellowship program in environmental journalism that trained about 50 students who came from a wide variety of institutions and was housed for its one-week fall residency at Middlebury's Breadloaf campus. I was one of the two main teachers in the program.
As a Schumann Center trustee, you received $25,000 a year from 2001 to 2009. What was this for?
All non-family trustees were provided this compensation in exchange for the time they devoted to the work of the center. Of all the projects that I worked on, I think I was proudest of helping to start Transom.org, which has become a key site for teaching radio/podcast technique to early-career journalists and helping distribute that work.
In spring 2011 you taught a course on “Social Movements, Theory, and Practice” at Middlebury. Would you share the syllabus for this course? Did any students in this course work on divestment campaigns?
I can’t find the syllabus, probably because it was somewhat incidental: as it happened, the course coincided almost exactly with the onset of the Arab spring, so I ripped up many of my plans and that uprising became a significant text. (We watched a lot of video). The main book in the course was Taylor Branch’s epic three-volume history of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, especially the first volume detailing how King rose out of the context of the black church. The books are very long—there may have been more reading than there should have been… As to divestment, no, that campaign sprung up 18 months later.
You now oversee “Senior Work” and “Independent Study” at Middlebury. What kinds of projects are students working on?
I don't oversee anything at Middlebury—it's a place filled with talented academic administrators! The most recent course I’ve taught was on Stories from the Bible, during Middlebury’s so-called ‘January term’ this past year, when students take one course for a month. We got through some of the classic Hebrew Bible stories: Babel, Jacob wrestling the angel, Cain and Abel, and so forth. Each of the students took a story—a smaller one, usually, something like Balaam and the donkey—and did their own work on it, drawing on everything from midrash to medieval art. It was remarkably interesting (to me, anyway) because few of the students had much background in things Biblical, but they seemed to grasp that these were stories deeply embedded in our culture and hence worth knowing and considering.
Some environmentalists have criticized the fossil fuel divestment campaign for making impossibly high demands of the fossil fuel industry. They credit the Apartheid divestment campaign’s success to its more achievable demands. Companies that pulled out of South Africa were rewarded with reinvestments, creating incentives to comply with activists’ requests. What do you think of lowering the campaign’s demands on the fossil fuel industry?
Well, the demands are made less by campaigners than by physics. It’s fairly straightforward math that says we need to keep something like 80% of current reserves underground. One wishes that the science said something else, because these will obviously be hard targets to meet.
Schumann Distinguished Scholar